A few years ago, I picked up a copy of PANDEMONIUM, a softcover overview of Clive Barker's works. While I found most of the material interesting, what blew me away was the first ever printing of Barker's THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL. Quite simply, it is one of the best plays I have ever read. It is demanding, thought-provoking, funny, obscene, and brilliant.
HISTORY is centred around the trial of the Devil. It is not so much a criminal proceeding, than it is an evaluation of his works on Earth. If he wins, he may re-enter Heaven. And as his history is re-enacted on stage, lawyers both for and against his case struggle to find a legal way to keep him where he belongs.
As in most of Barker's works, a simple description doesn't do it justice. HISTORY is an amazingly theatrical experience, all rooted in one of the most intriguing views of the Devil that I have read. While not being familiar with the more classical works of Dante and Milton, I can say that Barker's Devil is a far more satisfying and frightening figure than the demon presented in Anne Rice's MEMNOCH THE DEVIL. The play also presents one of the most original and shocking endings I have ever read, in a play or a novel.
The other two plays presented in INCANTATIONS are a mixed bag. FRANKENSTEIN IN LOVE is the more satisfying of the two. In a re-imagining of Mary Shelley's work, FRANKENSTEIN occurs in third world dictatorship, full of chaos and mystery. If I am not as enthusiastic as I am about HISTORY, it is that Barker's ideas in FRANKENSTEIN don't wholly combine. It has humour, horror, an astonishing amount of gore (I don't know HOW this would ever be staged), but by the end, the horror has taken over the story. It leaves you wishing for more of a coherent ending. Still, some scenes do remain in the mind, especially the scenes involving the dead, but still animated narrator.
Barker's third play, COLOSSUS, is the least of the three. Ostensibly, it surrounds the Spanish painter Goya, as he stumbles around after a tremendous bombing has destroyed a large portion of an estate. As I don't know anything of Goya, I can't speak as to the effectiveness of the sets in bringing out the mood of his paintings, as Barker suggests. But the play doesn't hold water. It is a amalgamation of confusing characters and odd dialogue. It has an unfinished feel to it. As this was one of Barker's earlier works, perhaps he can be forgiven it biting off more than he can figuratively chew. But as a published work, it functions as a curiosity, not a fully-formed play.
Still, Barker is one of the more interesting writers around. He's always willing to try and push the envelope, instead of resting on his laurels (anyone read Dean Koontz lately?). Read FRANKENSTEIN IN LOVE and COLOSSUS for the ideas. Read THE HISTORY OF THE DEVIL for the experience. It really is that good.