Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, The Cities” (1984) is from his breakout collection Books of Blood, consisting of a series of stories he wrote over eighteen months while working in theatre. Known for later directing Hellraiser, a horror movie which has recently been re-adapted, Barker’s Books of Blood “permanently changed the landscape of weird fiction” by being “visceral,” “modern,” and going “beyond the scare into richer, deeper territory” (The Weird). The publishing industry was willing to take risks on unknown authors at that time, and without those conditions, Books of Blood may not have seen the success it did (Clive Barker, foreword to the 1998 edition).
Ramsay Campbell, in his original introduction to the collection, states that “In the Hills, the Cities” “gives lie to the notion, agreed to by too many horror writers, that there are no original horror stories.” Even given the startling originality of many of the stories contained in The Weird, this story stands out as original. For one, it’s the first overtly queer work in The Weird. Also, it is the only one that includes a fight between two Yugoslavian cities formed of the bodies of thousands of its citizens shackled together by leather straps. That said, Barker’s story can also be viewed as a continuation of the “weird ritual” theme developed over several stories in the VanderMeer anthology, beginning with Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.”
The story begins with two lovers, Judd and Mick, on a road trip into the Yugoslavian hills. Judd is a politically engaged journalist who talks Mick’s ear off with his criticism of the communist regime, while Mick bores Judd on his insistance on visiting every church they come across. After taking a wrong turn, they wind up in a reclusive part of the hills near the cities of Popolac and Podujevo.
Meanwhile in Popolac, Vaslav Jelovsek has been overseeing the creation of what is referred to at first only as “a head in the clouds.” The town is busy turning itself into a series of limbs that together will form a greater whole to do battle against their rival town, Podujevo. At first, the language was ambiguous enough that I thought it conceivable the town was creating a human figure out of a freestanding crowd marching in unison. However, as is gradually revealed, the reality is far more sublime: the cities are constructing a giant formed of the coordinated bodies of thousands of men, women, and children the likes of which has never been seen on this earth (outside Renaissance paintings of hell and the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan).
The two cities, formed by the engineering and collective will of its citizens into squat, towering behemoths, fight each other in the hills in an act of ritual combat that has been happening since time immemorial. While the fight is happening, Judd and Mick hear only the booming of Popolac and Podujevo’s legs as they advance. Judd wonders if the communists are conducting military exercises with tanks and so leaves the car to get the scoop.
A tragedy that ranks with the worst disasters of World War II then strikes as a weakness in Podujevo’s flank triggers the sudden collapse of the entire city: “with a graceful sloth that made the agonies of its citizens all the more horrible, it bowed towards the earth, all of its limbs dissembling as it fell.” The bodies crush each other as the structure collapses, and the blood, which flows in “unendurable abundance,” reaches as far as the lovers’ car.
The two men behold the pile of bodies and are immediately overwhelmed by the sheer scale and speed of the deaths, bodies laid out one upon the other in the valley. A man tasked with executing mercy killings to those still struggling eventually turns his revolver on himself. The men have no idea what can be done apart from finding a priest or calling an ambulance—anything to sanitize this unsanitized catastrophe.
Meanwhile, Popolac walks off mournfully, grieving its twin, as the colossus begins to collapse and decay. Vaslav steals the lovers’ car in an attempt to follow Popolac to wherever it is headed. However, he crashes and dies before the men can gain clarity. “It is the body of the state,” he says, “it is the shape of our lives.” Vaslav’s words call to mind the aforementioned Leviathan frontispiece while also suggesting that Popolac and its fate can be read as an allegory for human destiny.
Seeking refuge on the open road in the home of an old man, the lovers see Popolac up close: it is “a man made entirely of men,” “the backs like turtles packed together to offer the sweep of the pectorals,” the “mouth, lined with the teeth of bald children.” All the love, sex, and politics in the world do not matter in the slightest before the sublime figure; Judd is killed—lights out—by a flying rock and Mick grabs onto the heel of the mighty being as it leaves, achieving a triumph of sorts as he unites with the massive flesh-golem. Mick’s identity and the identity of his dead liver no longer matter as he becomes lost in the multitude.
This story shocked me in how it was able to make me imagine what defies comprehension. Just as Borges and Lovecraft reveal the incomprehensible through details that when correlated add up to a whole, Barker depicts Podujevo through glimpses of engineering and devastation. Academics have no doubt approached this story from queer theory perspectives, which I know less about than I would like to know, but it seems this story would be generative for such an approach. There is also the possibility of reading the catastrophe of Podujevo’s fall as an allegory for the human condition. If even our greatest collective achievements can come crashing down in catastrophe, what does any of it matter?
A reading of the downfall of Podujevo as a critique of collectivism or communism seems to me latent (the fall of the Berlin wall was only six or seven years away in 1984) but probably too limited: Podujevo may also represent the consequences of the failure of all states.
Furthermore, there is something transcendent about Judd’s transformation at the very end: Barker describes him as moving and even giving “birth” as vixens fight over his meat and maggots spawn in his corpse. Grim perhaps, but there is a suggestion Judd has rejoined the cycle of life, that he lives on, though not under his name, as he deteriorates and decomposes, returning to the environment. Though human collectivity deteriorates, humans are destined to rejoin the collectivity of the natural world in death.
Next week I will be reading Tainaron: Mail from Another City (1985) a short novel by Leena Krohn, a highly respected Finnish writer.