A demon stares up at you from behind a veil of paper and ink, pleading you to burn the book in your hands. He’s a spiteful, murderous bastard who threatens bloody violence if you don’t comply with his wishes. But you don’t – you just keep turning the pages toward (as he says) your inevitable death at his hands.
Such is the conceit for Clive Barker’s 2007 novel, Mister B. Gone. This piece of metafiction follows the book’s narrator, Jackabok Botch (“Mister B”), a lesser runt-of-the- litter demon, as he travels from the fires of Hell to the world of the living in search of meaning. After years of physical abuse at the hands of his father, including being burned from head to toe, Botch decides to flee his home. While being chased by his father, Botch comes across a steak and a beer that appear to be floating in midair. Just as his father closes in on him, Botch grabs the steak and triggers a trap set by some unknown force above, hurling the two demons upward in a net. As the two travel through the circles of Hell, Botch’s father (in a fit of fear) pleads for his son’s forgiveness. Botch turns a deaf ear to his father, cuts the net and sends his father to fall to his death.
We learn that Botch has been literally fished out of Hell by a corrupt priest and his two lackeys who are in the business of selling demon parts during the 14th century in Europe. After escaping, Botch finds himself struggling to be the wicked demon he wants to be and eventually befriends Quitoon, a powerful demon who is on a quest to investigate rumors of a world-changing machine being developed in Mainz, Germany.
The book follows a pretty rigid formula, with Botch berating you to burn the book for your own good and then obliging you by telling more of his tale. This idea seemed interesting at first, as I’ve never read anything quite like it, but after a while it gets stale. Barker is obviously a gifted author with the ability to conjure up spectacularly gruesome and demonic images, but even he can’t write himself out of the predictable pace he establishes in this novel.
Botch’s tale, which comprises the bulk of Mister B. Gone‘s 248 pages, offers a unique premise that fails to go anywhere intriguing. I was drawn into the novel immediately as I’m innately fascinated by the architecture of Hell, its various Circles and classes of demons. However, once Botch enters the world of the living, Barker lost my attention. I will say that Botch is a well-developed character. He’s adverse to what you think when you hear the word “demon” – diminutive, insecure, confused, and possibly homosexual. Beyond this development, the story isn’t the least bit scary, suspenseful, or exciting. All the way up to the book’s underwhelming climax, I kept hoping Pinhead or Nix would step in and unleash some classic Barker carnage.
Don’t get me wrong, though. There are some terrific passages throughout Mister B. Gone and I can appreciate it for that. There’s probably even a good short story in there too. I just wish Barker’s editors had felt the same way. It took me an inordinate amount of time to finish this book (8 weeks) and I’m normally a very fast reader. It just felt like a chore to pick this up because I had the suspicion it wasn’t going to pay off.
Still, I’m far beyond giving up on Barker. I’m a big fan of his work, especially The Hellbound Heart, The Inhuman Condition, and In the Flesh. He’s a less “accessible” writer than say, Steven King, but his material tends to provide depth that isn’t present in contemporary horror fiction. Mister B. Gone must have been a misstep.