Rawhead Rex — A statement on modern society: Ain’t modern society awful!

Clive Barker’s short story, Rawhead Rex, looks at the problem of gentrification in a pastoral setting and then promptly explains to us that this isn’t a modern problem at all. In truth, it’s very old. Barker explains this to us by evoking a primitive monster, Rawhead Rex, who serves as the embodiment of chaos and death in the quiet little town of Zeal in Kent.

Rawhead’s emergence from his subterranean tomb is described in vivid detail. First, there’s a boulder carrying a warning. Then, there’s a cloud of putrid, yellow gas which escapes the ground as the boulder is being removed. Finally, the creature emerges, covered in worms and tiny, red spiders. His head is described as being amber (like a harvest moon,) round like the moon, with two luminous eyes, and an abnormally wide mouth. The image is clear: Rawhead Rex’s face resembles a modern, non-turnip-y, Jack-O-Lantern. He is the embodiment of the harvest, of death, of the force that must eventually claim us all.

“The King” — as Rawhead Rex is termed — is bound to the town of Zeal. He psychically encroaches upon and controls a few of the inhabitants of the town, starting with a farmer named Thomas Garrow.  It is Garrow who, desiring to make use of a fallow field, unleashes The King from his prison beneath the earth. As Garrow works to free the stone, The King manipulates the man into helping him escape.  This seems like a cheap trick, a psychic power that saves the day for the monster (akin to Pinborough’s “Widows,”) but it isn’t; Rawhead Rex is the avatar of the end of the cycle of the pagan year. He is the harvest, death, or at least he is such in the town of Zeal, and so he is already in all of our heads.

The King possesses the Verger of the local church. I had to look up this term for clarity and discovered that a Verger is a layperson within the Anglican church who has certain religious duties. Among the more notable of a Verger’s tasks is to carry the local bishop’s rod during processionals as a symbol of the bishop’s authority. The Verger turns on his boss, the Reverend Coot. This assault, the informed laity turning against the priests, is reminiscent of ancient Gnosticism which eschewed ecclesiastical authority and the Apostolic Succession in favor of personal revelation.

The method of defeating the King lies in an ancient amulet in the form of a pregnant woman in the process of giving birth. This image is familiar to most students of anthropology and is akin to the Venus of Willendorf. As Barker describes it, the King’s only enemy is the power of “endless fecundity.” It isn’t women that the King fears–he eats a little girl and kills her mother–but rather the continuum of human existence.

This same idea appears in Aleister Crowley’s Gnostic Mass. In the text of the mass, after much figurative foreplay and symbolic sex, the priest beats his breast, raises his hands into the air, and proclaims, “O Lion and O Serpent that destroy the Destroyer, be mighty among us!” A common, if esoteric, interpretation of these symbols that the Lion is the ovum, the Serpent is the sperm; their conjunction is the Lion-Serpent (Abraxas) that destroys the Destroyer–the union of male and female, producing life, defeats death. The act is symbolized in Crowley’s “Unicursal Hexagram,” being a six-pointed start that doesn’t resemble the Star of David. (The idea here being that the two triangles are entwined, as if caught “in the act.”)

Crowley's Unicursal Hexagram--A Naughtier Glyph there Never Was!

The issue of gentrification comes into play when we consider that it’s the economic development of Zeal that unleashes the King. It is life’s darker aspects which produce the monster and the monster comes from the very earth itself. With the wave of the future comes the horror from the past. Progress, and a desire to be part of that progress, to capitalize on that progress, motivates the return of the monster–the return of the repressed.

An aspect of quiet horror arises from the antiquity of the creature. The Crucifix is not this beast’s enemy. The King’s kryptonite is an equally pagan fertility symbol. The sublimation of primitive belief into theology, the jewel of Christian thought, is eschewed and the base-level, material nature of nature both initiates and terminates the horror. The transcendent, divine world is threatened by the reality of the King.

It would be cliche to say, “Those who forget the past….” Rather, let’s say those who long too eagerly for the future will be forcibly reminded of the reality of the past.

Shriek into the Void...

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