What I've been reading
I just learned that this book is out of print. The link at the title takes you to Powell's, where they have one copy. You know, in a world where a lot of shit stays in print forever, it's kind of weird that this is no longer in print. At least I think it's weird.
Anyway, prior to this, I had only read two Clive Barker books: Imajica, which I loved, and a collection of short stories, which weren't bad. What I like about a lot of Barker creations is that he's good at pure horror, but I'm not a huge fan of horror, so the fact that he's good at blending horror into more fantastical and even real-life scenarios is neat. Sacrament is more a fantasy book than a horror book, but Barker does bring in some elements of horror, even though they're more disturbing than truly horrific. It's a pretty good mix.
The book centers on Will Rabjohns, a nature photographer whose specialty is capturing endangered animals on film. At the beginning of the novel, he visits a strange recluse in Canada (on his way to photographing polar bears) who once knew two people Will knew, Jacob Steep and Rosa McGee. We get a sense that Steep and McGee are somehow very strange, but before we learn anything more, Will is attacked by a wounded bear and lapses into a deep coma. While he's out, he revisits a time thirty years earlier in Yorkshire, where he grew up, and his first and only meeting with Steep and McGee. They are obviously mystical beings in some way, and Steep, especially, leaves a lasting impression on Will. His centuries-old mission is to kill the last of any species, and he tries to indoctrinate Will into this quest. Before he can, though, many horrible things occur, and Will is left alone without Steep. He spends the next three decades looking for him.
The theme of extinction is present throughout the book. Will is gay, and Barker takes him to San Francisco, where he experiences the AIDS epidemic first hand. He's haunted by the plague and by Steep's desire to slaughter species, and when he has to return to England, it all comes back to him. Steep is drawn to him just as he is drawn to Steep, and as he learns more about Steep and McGee's true nature, he has to enter a magnificent and dangerous place, the Domus Mundi, to understand everything. Barker does a nice job, for the most part, with these themes: Will's anxiety about his friends becoming "extinct," the reason Steep feels driven to do what he does, and why Steep and McGee are so tied to each other but can't really stand each other. It's a disturbing book in many ways, mostly because Barker shows how wonderful yet painful raw emotions can be. Steep and McGee's relationship is bad for both of them, but they can't get away from each other. Will has similar - if less intense - relationships, and one in particular puts him beyond even a marginalized culture like that of the homosexuals among whom he lives.
Will's quest to find Steep and find out why the man has such a hold over him is intense reading. When he and another victim of Steep and McGee's violence find the Domus Mundi, the book becomes even more fantastical, but Barker does a nice job keeping the story grounded. However, the ending is a bit weak. Barker wants to have it both ways with regard to Will's fate, and it somewhat cheapens his experience. I won't give it away, but Barker explicitly sets up some ground rules and then breaks them. It makes a strangely unsatisfying ending, especially because he did the same thing with regard to Will's relationship with Steep, introducing an element late in the book that seemed to be important, but isn't really, in the final analysis. It's disappointing because Barker has done such a good job building to the climax. Even though what actually happens at the end of the book is fine in terms of exciting reading, the fact that Barker appears to cop out is vaguely annoying.
Despite this, Sacrament is an impressive book about extinction, emotion, obsession, and what it means to worship. If the ending falters, much of what Barker brings up before that is powerful and devastatingly honest. It's not quite as good as a novel like Imajica, but it's still quite a good book. If, you know, you can find a copy.