When a story’s first line is “Burn this book!”, it’s up to the writer to make sure the reader never actually wants to do that.
Those words are the first line of Clive Barker’s Mister B. Gone. It’s the story of a demon, one who’s trapped in the book itself. The book takes the interesting tack of having virtually no fourth wall, as the titular Mister B. addresses the reader on a regular basis, doing everything he can to convince the reader to stop reading the book and burn it. I started reading this because I thought the story’s unusual premise sounded interesting.
It wasn’t all I’d hoped it would be.
I don’t read many horror books, but I’m familiar with the common aspects of demons and their ilk; this book doesn’t go far from the classic demonic tropes. Corruption of the innocent and the church? Check. Lots of fire? Check. Bathing in infants’ blood? Check.
Yes, that last one actually happens in the book. Mister B. even complains about how difficult it is to keep the blood warm while he’s killing the babies. During that scene, I started to realize what was keeping the book from actually being scary.
For all his conceits, Mister B. is a very commonplace demon. Nothing he does seems horrific, nothing he does lives up to the bone-chilling wrongness the book’s back cover promises, because it’s what I expect from a demon. I’m sure there’s a literary term for evil becoming predictable, even banal, because it’s exactly what the character doing that evil is supposed to do.
We expect heroes to be heroic, to stand against impossible odds, to protect innocents, to take on life-threatening tasks and come out both alive and successful. That’s what heroes do, and heroes who do nothing but that risk becoming boring and predictable. It ends up working out the same way for Mister B. As a demon, I expected him to corrupt, to threaten, to manipulate. That’s exactly what he did, and it got old halfway through the book.
Why, then, did I keep reading? Because of Mister B.’s own threats. This is another part of the book that didn’t work at all for me. As I said, Mister B. steps into his own narrative from time to time as he tries to get the reader to burn the book. He threatens, he makes promises, he describes just how he’s going to kill the reader if they don’t stop reading and burn the book. Call me callous, but all it did was make me laugh, because it was too over the top to be scary.
Mister B.’s supposed reading of the reader ruined its own effect as well. He claims he can see the reader through the pages, claims he knows the reader’s reaction to his tale. This, of course, assumes a great deal about the reader. I know some people would find the book as scary and wrong as it’s supposed to be. But for Mister B. to say he can see my horrified expression when I’m really giving him a raised eyebrow of disbelief, well, it ruins the desired effect.
The concept of “the fourth wall will not protect you” isn’t a new one, but it depends on the audience feeling like it’s truly threatened. I didn’t feel that way once.
There is, however, one thing in this book that truly struck me as truly frightening. As fitting for a story starring a demon, it starts in Hell. There, Mister B talks about the other demons, and how some of them know they mean nothing in the greater scheme of Creation. Can you imagine that? Knowing the universe has a purpose and knowing you have no part in it – knowing that, ultimately, you do not matter.
It’s a shame that happens so early in the book, because it’s the scariest part of the entire story.