Clive Barker’s short story, Rawhead Rex, is about a monster that is unearthed near an English countryside village. The monster then proceeds to kill a significant number of people in the town: men, women, and children. That’s about it. And despite the simplicity of the narrative I found myself glued to the page. The language is enchanting and I kept waiting for the next horrific description of death like a child waiting for Thundercats to start... I didn’t know what would happen but I knew it would be amazing!
The story takes an interesting narrative approach with an omniscient viewpoint that only focuses on people long enough to kill them. Really, it’s a classic example of a monster story and focusing the audience’s attention on Rawhead works. But the effect of focusing more on the monster than any single character was twofold: it felt like I was reading about a disaster and I fully expected everyone to die. This added to the tension but kept me at an emotional distance from the characters because I was always a few paragraphs away from their deaths. George R. R. Martin has the same dynamics working in The Song of Ice and Fire series: lots of tension but at the price of emotional connections. It’s almost impossible to create a strong emotional connection with a character we know is doomed because as humans, we try to shield ourselves from such pain.
I’m sort of torn by this approach. On one hand it kept me glued to the page with a macabre sort of fascination, waiting to see how the next victim would be dismembered, but on the other it violates what I’ve been taught about storytelling. I can’t empathize with the characters in this story because I don’t get enough page time with them, and I can’t connect with Rawhead beyond the general it-would-be-terrible-to-be-buried-alive-for-six-centuries. Other than that his emotions and experiences are alien to me. But overall, I think this works fine in the short story format. I don’t think the lack of an empathetic character could hold the reader’s attention for an entire novel.
I also found it Interesting that Rawhead caused so much terror and then in the end was killed by his own fear. If anything, this seemed like a last effort by Barker to impart some sort of humanity (connection?) toward Rawhead. Humans, more than anything else, can relate to fear, and to have this people-eater suddenly afraid of the feminine, the symbol of reproduction, clicked with me. I may not share his terror but by the end I have a glimpse of what drives him. This, more than anything else, really brought Rawhead into focus and does a wonderful job of implying an undeniable truth: we are all defined by our fears.