In The Yattering and Jack, Clive Barker presents a wonderful tale of a minor demon (The Yattering) who is tasked with harvesting the soul of Jack Polo, a nondescript gherkin importer. The question as to why the crown princes of Hell would want the soul of a pickle monger is both answered and asked: Jack’s mother’s sins.
In the world presented by Barker in this short story, demons such as the Yattering are bound by certain rules. The laws that govern demons are pretty strict, and the laws that govern humans are equally strict. Yet for humans, there’s a certain amount of wiggle room, as is evident by the fact that the demons are after Jack. Jack’s mother, who had once practiced some form of diabolism as a member of the Church of Lost Salvation, dies in the arms of a priest (i.e. converts and receives Extreme Unction at her death) and so avoids her fate in Hell. But her sins are to be visited upon her son and her grandchildren, and the Yattering is the agent sent to deliver that punishment.
The Yattering murders three of Jack’s cats (all named “Freddy” so their initials are F, F, and F or 666–nice, Clive.) It drives Jack’s wife into the arms of another man. It spends months trying to drive Jack Polo insane but all Jack can say about it is, “Che sera, sera” understood to mean, “Whatever will be, will be.” In short, Jack ignores the Yattering’s efforts to ruin his life and goes about his daily business, seemingly unphased by the demon’s antics.
When Jack’s daughters arrive for Christmas, the Demon is forced to up his game and ultimately animates a dead turkey and then the Christmas tree itself. One daughter loses her mind; the other trusts her father in his mission.
Eventually, Jack tricks the demon into breaking two big rules: He gets the demon to cross the threshold of the home where Jack lives, and Jack coaxes the demon into touching him. Once these two things are done, the Yattering belongs to Jack and becomes visible.
At the root of this story lies the concept of worldbuilding. People talk about worldbuilding for fantasy and science fiction novels, but seldom in horror. Yet Barker incorporates worldbuilding into his tale on levels both obvious and subtle.
Worlds are collections of rules. In Barker’s story, the normal rules of our day-to-day life are present, as are the discernible yet normally unknown rules of the unseen, demonic world. The Yattering is part of a hierarchy of demons, suggesting an order to Hell. The Yattering may not touch Jack nor cross the threshold of his house. The Yattering knows that Beelzebub will be more generous in autumn. Rules govern the Yattering’s behavior; rules serve to wreck Jack Polo’s life. But the Yattering assumes that Jack is ignorant of these rules, of the existence of the demonic sphere, and so miscalculates and loses in the end.
The most interesting rule, one that is not explicitly mentioned, is the notion that a mother can bargain away the soul of her son. This is why Jack is being tormented by demons: Not through anything he has done, but because of the evil of his mother. This suggests still deeper rules, deeper levels of interconnectedness in Barker’s world, contractual connections bound to bloodlines.
In the book of Numbers it is said that the sins of the father will be visited upon the children for three to four generations. Here, the sins of the mother are being visited upon the son but claim the sanity of the granddaughter. The curse effectively skips a generation and falls on Jack’s child. She is an innocent, but so is Jack. The guilty parties in this are Hell and Jack’s Satanic mother.
I enjoyed the story. “Che sera, sera” (alternately “Que sera, sera”) is a term used by gay men to this day. During the 1970s, the song was used to allude to the fact that you can’t change your sexual orientation. This little fact reveals that Jack is hiding something, he is in the closet. At first, I thought that Jack was hiding his true sexual orientation (he’s a gherkin importer, for the love of…,) but in truth he’s hiding his knowledge of the occult world, of the demon’s reality. Jack knows something about the world that other people do not, so his catch-phrase is appropriate: there are simply some things in the world he knows he can not change and his parentage is one of them.
I am partial to Clive Barker. The man is a genius and one we will soon be losing, I fear. One day I’ll have to break out the gay analytics on his stuff and point to every hidden reference, every hanky code correspondence, every innuendo, every inversion of straight tropes to fit Barker’s uniquely gay vision of horror.