Operation Backlog Completion 2024
Sep 162013

This week we’ll take a look at “Rawhead Rex,” a short story by Clive Barker. I’d never read anything by him before, despite a friend telling me I should. I filed the recommendation away and more or less forgot about it. The closest I got was when I watched the first few videos of a Let’s Play of Clive Barker’s Undying. So I didn’t really know what to expect from this story, but as long as the monster didn’t have eight legs, I wasn’t too worried.

I should mention that I’m not a big fan of visceral horror, and “Rawhead Rex” was filled with blood, people being eaten, and similar gory moments. But I’m not going to complain about that. It worked for the story and made Rawhead a gruesome, serious threat. If Rawhead comes after you, it’s probably over. What can you do against a force like that? (My suggestion: count to zero, then scream and run away.)

Once again, to give fair warning to anyone who reads this before reading the story, there will be spoilers in this post.

When characters in fiction come across a door that’s been welded shut, a box that won’t open, an insanely strong prison, or in this case, a boulder that doesn’t want to budge, you can usually count on two things. First, they’ll find a way to force their way in. Second, bad things will result. As soon as Thomas Garrow came across a massive boulder in a field his family never used, and decided to get rid of it no matter how ridiculously hard it was to remove, his fate was sealed.

This story worked for me, especially since it had several of the elements that make demons my favorite monsters. If Rawhead wasn’t exactly a demon, he was still a demon-like monster, sealed away years ago and accidentally released by humanity, and ultimately defeated by a force of good. He even shows signs of being able to possess people, or at least exert considerable influence over them. I’ll resist the urge to veer off-topic and babble like a lunatic about Ray Bradbury, but I consider Rawhead to be demon-like in the same way that Mr. Dark and Mr. Cooger from Something Wicked This Ways Comes are demon-like–forces of evil with undeniable similarities to traditional devil portrayals, but who don’t necessarily fit the role in a Christian sense [Mr. Dark mocks the idea that the Bible could harm him, and Rawhead is delighted to realize that “the true power, the only power that could defeat him, was apparently gone: lost beyond recall, its place usurped by a virgin shepherd” (Barker 390).]

You could say “Rawhead Rex” subverts religious ideas because of that, but Rawhead was terrified of and repelled by a statue of (arguably) a goddess, which had been hidden in the church.

When I first read it, I thought Rawhead was an invention of Barker’s, but apparently he’s a variation on a mythological bogeyman-like figure that eats children who misbehave. (I looked it up because  Rawhead reminded me of a bloodier, more violent version of the troll in Ernest Scared StupidThe troll was sealed away years previously, goes on a rampage when it’s released, and targets children. The similarities end there.)

While Rawhead’s actions–murdering people, eating children, etc.–and appearance make him a brute force sort of monster, he gets point of view sections. His thoughts mainly revolve around eating people and claiming his position as King (hence the “Rex” in the title), but there was something disturbingly childlike about his confusion over technology such as cars. Rather than make his less monstrous, his fears made him even creepier. He knows what can harm him and what can’t. He is capable of learning, as seen when the crashed car teaches him “a new and lethal lesson” (383) and he later uses petrol as a weapon.

Rawhead's downfall

Rawhead’s downfall

Rawhead’s downfall is female fertility, or the creation of life, which is an unusual weakness…but we’re dealing with a demon here, so it works. I liked the way Barker handled it. It didn’t come out of nowhere, but was foreshadowed quite early on, when Rawhead was afraid to touch a woman having her period. In the end, one of the characters finds a Venus statue hidden in the church, and the sight of it paralyzes Rawhead with fear. From the description, the statue is not the Roman goddess Venus, but a prehistoric figurine similar to Venus of Willendorf (pictured).

All in all, I enjoyed “Rawhead Rex” (and look at all the things it gave me excuses to reference). With so many characters, many of whom die partway through the story, it’s hard to pull out one as the protagonist. I like to think it’s Reverend Coot. Sure, Ron got the statue and delivered the killing blow to Rawhead, but he only found it because Coot clung onto life long enough to tell him the altar was the key. But of course I’d choose a good-hearted Reverend as the protagonist in a demon story. Don’t tell me you didn’t see that one coming.

Works Cited

Barker, Clive. “Rawhead Rex.” 1984. Books of Blood: Vols 1-3. New York: Berkley, 1998. 362-407. Print.

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  8 Responses to “Rawhead Rex and several strange connections”

  1. I really like your assessment that Rawhead’s fears actually make him MORE scary. What’s more intimidating than a demon? A demon who is AGITATED.

  2. I think it is pretty fair to say Rawhead is a demon. He might as well be, if he isn’t. I may have to break down and read Something Wicked This Way Comes one of these days. I tried to read it once before and never got very far into it.

  3. I love that you read Rex as a demon. I did too, especially with the carving in the church showing how the villagers originally contained him in the earth. A church is a perfect place to keep a demon-slaying weapon and how-to guide.

  4. Thank you for including that clip of Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark. Yet another one of my childhood crushes. Yeah, I loved villains from way back. The darker the better. But, there’s nothing attractive about Rawhead, which makes him a true monster in my book. Some monsters are sexy, but they usually appear to be human at first glance. There isn’t a shred of humanity in Rawhead. He breeds not only fear, but repulsion and contempt.

    • I think sometimes it’s scarier to have a monster that appears human, because they can blend in and deceive people into trusting them. Of course, Rawhead is super powerful and has some mind control powers, so he doesn’t need to worry about things like that.

  5. Rawhead’s moment of possessive mind powers was an unexpectedly vile twist for me. I think that more than anything else supports his demonic traits. He’s not just destructive (which we associate with all kinds of monsters) he’s corruptive (which is largely dominated by demons) true evil doesn’t just destroy, it corrupts.

  6. I think it’s Rawhead’s intelligence of his fears that really make him scary. He’s a monster that learns. And can therefore get smarter, and more cunning. Adaptability is damn scary, and makes them that much harder to kill.

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