Clive Barker’s Sacrament is a puzzle box, a mystery that begs to be solved. This novel stands apart in Barker’s arsenal. It exudes a personal, contemplative aura. It cannot truly be considered horror or even fantasy. It might more accurately be regarded as something akin to magical realism. Those less-than-hardy readers who avoid books that contain blood and gore can read this book without fear of getting wet.
Sacrament is a thinking person’s novel. It is a novel that examines the past and foretells the future.
Every aspect of this book shivers in the light like reflections in a house of mirrors. Characters mirror each other to the point that one cannot be sure of who is real and who is the shadow- double of another. One cannot even come to a definitive analysis of the plot line. Is it a non-linear frame story, or is it a linear progression documenting the unconscious adventures of a man in a coma? One cannot even say whether the man ever wakes, or if he continues in a dream state.
Mr. Barker weaves a tale of a man on a quest initiated by a pivotal childhood meeting. The narrative opens in a frozen town called Balthazar. Snow and ice give rise to a sterile whiteout, a tabula rasa that insists on annotation. The borealis ripples across the night sky, its wavering image foreshadowing magical things to come. The protagonist, Will Rabjons, is a photographer. He filters his view of the world through the lens of a camera, effectively distancing himself from the truth. His passion is documenting extinctions. Why? He regularly risks his life to capture a picture that commemorates the passing of the last of a species, even if that animal is dangerous. It appears he is taunting death, daring the grim reaper to take him. The last animal he photographs is a giant polar bear that turns out to be blind—blind like a photographer who hides from the truth. Will survives this test, but later meets his match when an angry polar bear, another soon-to-be last thing, mauls him.
It is extremely interesting that, in the midst of this crucial photo shoot, Will is focused on arranging a meeting with a mysterious hermit. A reader would most likely predict that this meeting must have something to do with Will’s profession, but when he finally gets to meet Guthrie, the narrative reveals that it is knowledge Will seeks. All he wants is to ask about “Jacob and Rosa.” The true mystery begins. Soon thereafter, Will is so severely injured by a polar bear that that he falls into a coma. Here, the story appears to drop into a frame to return to Will’s past—or is Will simply dreaming?
The reader then meets Will as a boy, a boy unloved by his parents. Will believes that a “perfect” brother forced him into this position. After his brother’s death, Will’s parents become distant, preferring the memory of a perfect, dead child to the presence of a living, unique son. Since Will is gay, one might wonder if there ever really was a corporeal, perfect brother, or if the perfect, deceased brother was actually Will himself, the perfect Will who fell tragically from favor when his parents discovered his true nature and decided he no longer deserved their love. Will’s mother constantly mourns, and his father hovers in his library, judging the living and the dead in his philosophical writings.
Supposedly, to ease the grief of Will’s mother, the family moves away and settles in a country town, Burnt Yarly. Again, a reader might wonder if the move was truly spurred by a shameful attempt to escape a truth Will’s parents cannot accept. At the same time, Will is glad his brother is dead, just as he might be glad to have left a counterfeit persona behind in the past so he so he can honor his true self. As expected, Will suffers from an abject lack of love, a situation that sends many young people careening toward disaster.
Desperate to escape his pain, Will sneaks out of the house and becomes lost in overgrown fields. There he stumbles upon, or is perhaps lured to an abandoned building. It turns out to be the skeleton of a “court house” built by an eccentric man whose goal was to judge people based on the way they treated animals. Once inside, Will finds a starving sheep lost in the labyrinthine courthouse. He leads the sheep to freedom and unconsciously offers himself up for sacrifice in its place. There he meets Jacob, the killer of last things, who keeps a diary in which he documents all the last of things he annihilates, just as Will publishes photo collections that artistically document the deaths of last things. In addition, Will meets Jacob’s partner, Rosa, a defiler of young men. Jacob draws Will into his web by building a fire stoked with the dusty wings of fluttering moths. When Jacob convinces Will to add moths to the fire, he is hooked. He will never be the same. With the innocence of childhood, Will believes he has found the love and acceptance he craves.
Back in the present, Will supposedly wakes from his coma. He returns to his home in California, but he no longer feels at home. He feels strangely distanced from his old haunts, from old friends and lovers. It is as if he walks in a dream. When he is lured back to England to see about his seriously injured father, Will leaves his camera out of the picture; guided by his totem fox, he is ready to face a truth unaltered by the lens of a camera. He knows he must see through his own naked eyes and flayed soul. Thus begins Will’s quest.
So many mysteries beg to be dragged out into the light. Is Jacob a discrete individual, or is he actually Will’s Jungian shadow fighting to preserve its existence by refusing to join with its other half in order to avoid an individuation that would leave behind only one, new, complete individual? Why are Will’s mother and Rosa both portrayed as women haunted by the loss of children who have met violent ends? Even Frannie loses her brother/son to violence, forming a female triad. Why the triad of secluded, judgmental, controlling men? The father in his library, Jacob in his courthouse, and Rukenau in his kingdom built of excrement. Actually, it could be said that all three men live in kingdoms of excrement.
It could be said that the operative questions raised by this novel include us all. Are we all drawn to the flame of knowledge? Are we nothing more than moths, kindling for the fire? Since each human is unique, is each a last thing? Will anyone be there to document each individual passing? Are are we killers of last things when we support child labor in order to purchase a fine rug? Are we killers of last things when we wear real fur?
Given the title Sacrament, and the word’s association with inner grace and purification, perhaps this novel is actually a glorious metaphor for the coming to terms with pain and the finding of one’s self and the hunger for love and acceptance that can never truly be found in another?
Dear readers, if you decide to join Will on his journey through this extremely ambiguous text, take care, you just might solve the puzzle box and be forced to gaze upon your own wavering reflections in a house of mirrors. Keep your wings tightly tucked, and stay away from the flame.
As Jacob says, “Living and dying, we feed the fire.”