Clive Barker gained his initial reputation (well-deserved) for his very imaginative horror stories. From that beginning he has since moved away from the horror genre and become an imaginative writer of "other words," a fabulist, as he has called himself, a writer of modern fables. Books such as Weaveworld, Imajica and Everville all speak of the existence of another world that exists (unseen to most) beside this one. That other world is often filled with wonders, raptures and yes, horrors.
Coldheart Canyon also introduces us to such a second invented world, a place called "The Devil's Country," and it is indeed that, a land filled primarily with evil horrors, more so than the mystical lands of his previous novels. But in this book, Mr. Barker also takes us into an additional world that most of us never truly enter, yet is not "invented" (at least not totally) by his imagination. That is the world of Hollywood. It's safe to say, I think, that Clive Barker is neither enamored of the place nor many of the people who populate it. In its own way Mr. Barker's Hollywood (based upon his experiences?) is as horrific as is the magical Devil's Country (which may very well be a metaphoric Hollywood, but that is a separate discussion).
William Zeffer is the manager of Katya Lupi, a movie star in the era of Chaplin, of silent movies. While visiting a fortress in Romania, a place inhabited by a group of monks, he is shown a special room that sits beneath the fortress -- a large room in which the walls, ceiling and floor are covered with tiles, tiles which in total represent a pictorial representation of another strange appearing world. Zeffer is oddly beguiled by the room and, being a man used to buying what he wants, makes the monks an offer to purchase it, so as to give it as a gift to Katya. The offer is accepted and the entire structure (sans fortress) is moved to California, where it is reconstructed exactly as it was in Romania. It is put back together in a canyon just outside of Hollywood, a canyon that comes to be known over the next few decades as "Coldheart Canyon" given the nature of the movie star who now owns the room, and lives in the mansion subsequently built above it. Katya Lupi becomes known as a cruel and vicious woman, hence the nickname for the place in which she lives.
The novel moves forward to current time and we are introduced to Todd Pickett, movie superstar and the hunk of the moment. He is an actor who has built his career on his looks, and his looks are now getting wrinkled as he wanders through his thirties. Todd decides to get a facelift, and, while recovering from the rather botched results, finds an old mansion to hide away in, the house formerly owned by a now forgotten silent-film star, Katya Lupi. Rather his agent, Maxine, finds it for him, an at-times nasty woman who is growing weary of catering to the whims of the superstar.
We can sympathize with Todd. He is much like a child wandering in a world he doesn't quite understand but which he wants desperately to remain a part of, even when it starts to cruelly destroy him. Hollywood is ready (he senses) to discard him like an empty beer can and he is absolutely terrified of that prospect:
"You get addicted. And the studio knows you're addicted. You need your hit of fame every couple of years or you start to feel worthless. Isn't that right? So as long as they can keep giving you a little time in the spotlight, they've got you in their pocket."
Todd is a man in someone else's pocket, living a lonely existence for all his fame. The death of Todd's dog, a heartbreaking loss for the actor, is a series of scenes based upon the author's own loss of his dog (one of five). This Mr. Barker tells us in the acknowledgements portion of the book. Todd is a superstar so devoid of people around him who truly care about him that the loss of the dog is extremely upsetting. No one else, man, woman, or animal, it seems, truly loves him. His fans love an image, and that image is now gone, taken away by the poorly done facelift.
Todd and his bodyguard, Marco, go to the mansion in Coldheart Canyon. There, alone and in the middle of the night days after arriving, he meets an "intruder" who is, he soon finds out, not an intruder at all, but rather the true owner of the house, a dramatically still-youthful Katya Lupi. Todd at first, quite rightly, believes the woman to be delusional and not Katya Lupi at all. Katya promises him love, but instead what Todd receives are the horrors of both the canyon itself and the terrors of the special room in which the pictorial Devil's Country resides. Outside the special room the ghosts of former movie stars still wander, seeking another entrance into The Devil's Country, desirous of the special life-giving forces it bathes them in, but they are denied entry by Katya who wants the room for her own. These ghosts of former beloved stars have over the years, while walking the canyon, mated with the animals there and, amazingly, those animals have produced horrific offspring, part human and part beast, creatures reminiscent of H. G. Wells' famous island except they are half-ghost and half-animal rather than half-human. Zeffer, still alive as well, having also visited the "Devil's Room," has seen them:
"Vile marriages between ghost women and coyotes; ghost men and deer, or dogs, even once, a woman and a bird. Somehow such consummations were often fruitful, though the birthings were not anything he could have imagined until he laid eyes on them."
Horrors outside roam the canyon and more within the mansion, within the Devil's Country. There the very child of Satan is free to run in the strange countryside offered by the magical tiles, and there, as punishment for once harming that child, a Duke and his men must forever hunt the devil's offspring, trapped forever in unchanging time, continuing to hunt until they again capture him the forever elusive creature.
Once modern-day people step inside the room, the pictorial quality of the tiles softly dissolves into its own reality. Once inside you've entered another world, The Devil's Country. And Clive Barker excels at describing other realities, doing so in words and sentences as rich and lush as the strange worlds he wants us to believe in (if only while we read the novel). Here he again succeeds wonderfully in doing so. His writer's imagination's ability to dream fantastic scenes to support his unique blend of fantasy and horror fiction remains in full force.
As always, Mr. Barker is not fearful of being sexually explicit and, for readers who would find such scenes distasteful, I must say that this book is not for you. But his many fans, and hopefully many new readers discovering him for the first time, will leap upon the opportunity to purchase and read this amazing book for, in so doing, they will, like Barker's characters, enter into another world, that of Clive Barker's wonderfully imaginative mind. The book is an amazing, eye-opening (and terrible) world that is built upon, and ultimately made real, by Mr. Barker's always startling writing talent.