Sunday, November 25, 2001

Review: "Coldheart Canyon" by Clive Barker

Clive Barker's latest novel is a departure for the modern-day master of the grotesque, and it takes no more than a glance at the book to realize it.

The cover of "Coldheart Canyon" (HarperCollins), which features the author dressed as a 1920s socialite, seems odd to someone who is familiar with Barker's previous works. I did a double take when I saw it, wondering if perhaps he'd written an autobiography. Not quite. While some parts of the book could possibly be autobiographical, it's still filled with the fantastic elements his fans have come to expect.

Barker has built a reputation as the writer who picked up where H.P. Lovecraft left off, bringing all of the slimy things that lurked in the shadows of Lovecraft's world into the light. It could be argued that in "Coldheart Canyon," Barker brings the slimy things of our own world out of the shadows.

Just outside of Los Angeles, hidden from the world, there is a canyon that hides a secret. In its heyday in the 1920s, Coldheart Canyon - so named for its owner, silent film actress Katya Lupi - was the site of the most perverse and decadent parties in Hollywood history. But those days are long forgotten by most.

Todd Pickett is an action star who, at the age of 34, has passed his prime in the eyes of most of Hollywood's elite. When a producer hints that he might green-light one of Todd's projects if he'll get a facelift, the actor undergoes the surgery - with disastrous results. An allergic reaction to one of the chemicals leaves Todd disfigured and in need of a hiding place while he heals. An associate of his agent recommends Coldheart Canyon. It seems ideal, but Todd soon finds those parties of the '20s are still roaring at the mansion.

Long-dead Hollywood stars haunt the valley committing various acts of depravity, while the still very much alive Katya Lupi roams the house, keeping the spirits out and claiming its secret as her own - until Todd arrives.

Enamored of Todd, Katya leads him to a room in the bottom of the house that opens on another world - a world where a Romanian duke and his party have been doomed to hunt forever by Lilith, the Queen of Hell. It's up to Todd and Tammy Lauper - an obsessed fan who is discovering that her prince isn't so charming - to close the door and set the cursed spirits of Coldheart Canyon free.

While the story is essentially a horror tale, the real focus is on Hollywood. Barker skewers the superficiality, vanity and avarice of the place with a book that could well ruffle some feathers in Tinseltown. Famous faces - both dead and alive - make appearances throughout the book, many in compromising positions.

While the book focuses on Todd, it's Tammy who is the real hero. At the beginning, she seems pretty pathetic in her hero worship of the actor. By the end, she's seen the fantasyland of Hollywood up close and the golden sheen has been tarnished. She's transformed into a practical, no-nonsense character who is much more likeable than the obsessed fan club president we encounter at the beginning of the book.

As a warning to the squeamish or easily offended, there are some very graphic scenes in the book, some of which are probably unnecessary to the plot. But it is a Clive Barker novel - and that's to be expected.

In all honesty, "Coldheart Canyon" is not likely to be ranked with Barker's best. It seems like more of a personal book - something he just wanted to write. Still, it succeeds as both a horror story and a satirical look at some of Hollywood's "dirty secrets."

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