The Monster in the Labyrinth: Clive Barker’s “The Madonna.”

Posted by Jessica Folio on May 18, 2014 in Dr Jessica Folio, Guest Blog tagged with

At the image of a labyrinth, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood (1984-85) unveil a set of intricate and disruptive short    stories weaved with the red threads of corporeal materiality and the monstrosisation of the body. A labyrinth is “a structure consisting of a number of intercommunicative passages arranged in bewildering complexity, through which it is difficult or impossible to find one’s way without guidance” (Simpson 564). Being one element of initiation in Greek mythology, the labyrinth is associated with its creator, Daedalus, with the monstrous Minotaur hiding at its centre and Theseus’s victory over the half man, half bull creature with the help of Ariadne’s ball of thread. In Clive Barker’s short story, the mythological labyrinth retains its inherent complexity but it is transposed into an abandoned swimming pool complex and becomes a place of rupture between dream and reality, rationality and irrationality, femininity and masculinity.
The protagonist, Jerry Coloqhoun has a challenging project of rebuilding the Leopold Road Swimming Pools complex into a Pleasure Dome. A shady businessman, Ezra Garvey, sees the potentialities of the project when he visits the Pools with Jerry. Garvey is for instance amazed by a mosaic representing fish, nymphs and sea-gods or by the design of a fish-eye in the tiles of one of the pools.
The emphasis is laid, right from the early stage of the narrative on the deserted, darkened corridors and the warren of passageways composing the Pools. The sauna rooms, the Turkish baths and the thermal baths are rapidly mentioned and the focus is set on the corridors and the two pools, a small one and a larger one situated at the very centre of the complex.
The corridors of the Pools follow the pattern of a spiral (a cyclical return but with a slight deviation from the original axis) and this spiralling shape also applies to the narrative itself. The latter is marked by a repetitive movement in the point of view technique. Indeed, the third person, omniscient narrative oscillates between the depiction of Jerry’s experience and Garvey’s. Both characters are united in a same narratorial space during the visit of the complex at the beginning and in the middle of the narration when Jerry is trapped in the Pools and beaten by Garvey’s henchmen. At the very end, Jerry unknowingly hears Garvey commit suicide as his body fall into the waters of the Thames from the Blackfriars Bridge. Apart from this ternary reunion of both characters, the narrative repeatedly goes from Jerry to Garvey and this repetitive pattern is highlighted by lexical recurrences: the term “labyrinth” is mentioned six times, the term “spiral” six times or the term “corridor” twenty-eight times. Repetitive structures are used such as: “silence in the corridors; silence in the sweating anterooms and the Turkish baths; silence in every tiled enclave from one end of the building to the other” (47), or “to the sewers maybe […] To death by drowning; to the extinction of magic” (74).
girlGIL._SL1500_ In the “maze of identical corridors” (41), Garvey is the first one to see a naked girl of about 15 years of age; her sensuality and beauty lead him to come back and explore on his own the labyrinthine corridors to confirm that what he saw was not a mere sexual delusion. As the narrative progresses, the character finds out that the Pools conceal teenage girls whose unearthed beauty deludes men. Garvey returns to the Pools and his chase through the passageways builds up both the sexual tension and the discovery of the ultimate horror. Garvey ends up catching with a different girl who breastfeeds a monstrous baby. This is the moment the character and the readers are introduced to the alien, monstrous reality of the Pools: the nymph-like girls are surrogate mothers for deformed, inhuman babies.

The mothers are defined by what they are not: “these women were not what they seemed. Their quietness wasn’t docility, but a drug-trance; their nakedness wasn’t sensuality, but a horrid indifference which offended him. Even their youth […] was somewhat corrupt” (51). Femininity is redefined as cold, soiled, reptilian fleshiness. The baby seen by Garvey is described as “a thing, such an outcast of any tribe, human or animal, was almost more than his stomach could stand. Hell itself had offspring more embraceable” (49). It is a complete unknown which opens the path to our darkest fantasies. Repelled by the baby’s disproportionate features, Garvey kills “the abomination” (49) by throwing it on the floor, causing the glistening, squirmish body to split open: “its apparent boneless body split open by the impact. One of its limbs, of which it possessed at least half a dozen” (49) tries to touch the surrogate mother’s face. Even the depiction of this apparent bonding creates no empathy in Garvey. The baby’s body is as fragmented as Garvey’s shattered rationality.
The incomprehensible, ungraspable Other leads Garvey to totter on the brink of insanity; the events in the Pools are repressed by Garvey’s mind as a defence mechanism: “what had followed his arrival there moved in his memory like those forms in the filth of the pool: obscure, but horribly distressing” (56). The ultimate Other remains outside the Logos and this is enlightened by the fact that the text itself is permeated with gaps, with moments of in-betweeness in the descriptions. The readers have to imagine the humiliation and horrors Garvey goes through: “there had been humiliation and horrors, hadn’t there?” The question tag leaves the door of possibilities and interpretations opened. Likewise, the baby Jerry sees is only depicted as “something between a squid and a shorn lamb” (66) with one eye and squirming on the tiles. The description compels the readers to complete the blanks left in the narrative.
Garvey is terrified and his spiralling panic becomes the mirror image of the endless corridors in which he loses direction: “the corridors all looked alike: the same tiles, the same half-light, each fresh corner he turned either led him into a chamber he had not passed through or complete cul-de-sacs” (49). Appearing to be in a drug-trance, Garvey is then lulled by three girls first described as “three graces” (51) before the mask of sensuality reveals decay, corruption and the crushing of masculine sexuality. The women are mere fleshy creatures, devoted to a monstrous, deformed female shape, called “the Madonna, the Virgin Mother” (66). When glanced at by Garvey, this creature is outlined as “a dark, anonymous shape sliding beneath the skin of the water” (50); it is then depicted with more details when Jerry is trapped in the Pools after Garvey is convinced Jerry is responsible for the presence of the medusean teenage girls.
The narration insists then on the disproportionate dimensions of the fertile Madonna -“a shape too vast by far to be human”- and on the inmonsters146termingling of repulsion and fascination felt by Jerry: “he felt his skin creep with gooseflesh, but he couldn’t take his eyes off it” (65). The monstrous female shape is headless, limbless and full of evil luminescence. The hypermonstration of colours, fleshy substances, noises or putrescent liquids only reinforces the indeterminacy and the nightmarish physical presence of this female monster: “the thing that lived behind the water wall, a creature that was worse than any nightmare of womanhood his grieving mind had dredged up” (69). Barker monstrosises the feminine, blasphemises the biblical Madonna and pushes the grotesque even further when he has it give birth to a tentacled one-eyed baby. Incomprehensibly, Jerry is not repelled by the baby, by its surrogate mother or by the act of love making with one of the mothers.
Jerry and Garvey react differently to the monstrous creatures and their reaction also differs when seeing the transformation of their own bodies induced by the sexual intercourses with the parodic nymphs. Foucault pointed out that “the labyrinth is linked to the metamorphosis” (Foucault 87); nevertheless, in Barker’s narrative, it is not only linked to physical transformation but also to the destruction of the masculine. Garvey perceives his body as being “traumatized” (68) before noticing the feminisation of his hands, then of his whole body. “He touched a body which was no longer his. […] the substance of his body had been teased (was being teased still, even as he watched) into shapes that shamed him. He clawed at the forms that disfigured his torso, as if they might dissolve beneath his assault, but they merely bled” (68-9). The total refusal of his metamorphosis is enhanced by the absence of the word “breasts” in the description. The feminisation of the male body equals an act of emasculation: “[he] peered at his groin. Seeing what deformities were in progress there, he roared until the windows rattled” (69). The distanciation felt between the body and the self echoes the fall into insanity and the annihilation of boundaries in the text: “he was not himself! His body had been taken from his while he slept and this changeling left in its place.” (69)The only way out considered is death: Garvey slashes his body as the latest resort to keep some control over it and try and remove the marks of his transformation or to reassert the liminality of masculinity.
Therefore, the mythological Minotaur at the heart of the Cretan labyrinth is replaced by a parodic, castrative Madonna, literally a new representation of the concept of the toothed vagina, dispossessing Garvey and Jerry of their masculinity. Usurping God’s role, the monstrous hermaphrodite creature engenders new beings and creates new beings out of existing male individuals.
In Jerry’s case, the metamorphosis of his body is entirely accepted, normalised and even assimilated to a “miracle” (73). His final surrendering to the figure of the Other appears for him as the only viable option: on his last visit to the Pools -that are planned to be demolished- he understands that the Madonna, the substitute mothers and the children are gone. What is left is a whirlpool in the large pool, “the door to another world” (74) in which he decides to leap.
Thus, the heart of the labyrinth is analysed as a point of rupture. Contrary to Theseus who came out of Daedalus’s labyrinth symbolically reborned after killing the half-man, half-bull creature thus reasserting the victory of the Symbolic order, Barker magnifies the annihilation of the frontier between dream and reality, rationality and irrationality, femininity and masculinity. His characters willingly move forward in the corridors, either lured by the treacherous beauty of the substitute mothers or to be united with the Madonna in order to escape from profane life.
The Pools are a parodic “temple” (74) for an omnipotent femininity: there exist a monstrous Madonna, the mothers, the ungendered children, the feminised male bodies. There is a mosaic representing nymphs; the water element is ubiquitous along with images of breastfeeding and child delivery. Even the increasing heat indissociable with the journey to the large pool can be perceived as both comforting and stifling, as a magnifying agent for the girls’ beauty but also as a source of discomfort and even faintness for men. The heat itself blurs any sense of reality. Men are even deprived of any memory of their sexual intercourses with the girls.
The labyrinth is a place of paradoxes: a place where Jerry’s only hope of fleeing from his persecutors is precisely to lose himself in its corridors. The pools are a womb subversively creating new beings and disfiguring existing bodies; the opulent scent and the inner decay are signals of a corrupted matrimony and femininity. The images of purity (Garvey’s immaculate suit, the fact that he possesses a crucifix, the immaculate border of his garden) are unmasked as signals of his hypocrisy and hubris.
It is important to keep in mind the sacred dimension associated with the pattern of the labyrinth and the journey to its centre: “the essential mission of the maze was to defend the ‘Centre,’ it is in fact an initiation into sanctity, immortality and absolute reality and, as such, equivalent to other ‘trials’ such as the fight with the dragon” (Cirlot 173). Reaching its centre equals reaching the supreme knowledge of the secret which lies there and for which the hero risks his life. In Barker’s narrative, there is no victory over the monster in the labyrinth for the characters but a devouration by it, an incorporation into it. The labyrinth is compared to a “mausoleum” (40), proleptic of the doom awaiting those who trespass its entrance.
Perceived as the biblical chaos monster, “the behemoth” (69), the Madonna is not benevolent or immaculate but rather the affirmation of the monstrosised, otherised feminine. The labyrinth is still a place of secrets and a locus of “a praise of paradox[es]” (75). Barker reveals that the certainty of masculinity is a mere delusion; the disempowerment of the male figures is hammered out and their doom is sealed by their sexual urges for the opposite stronger sex. Gender may not be definite but the changes occurring within the labyrinth seem infinite.

Barker, Clive. ‘The Madonna’. Books of Blood. Vol. 5. London: Warner Books, 1988.
Cirlot, Juan Eduardo. A Dictionary of Symbols. Translated by Jack Sage. 2nd ed. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971.
Foucault, Michel. Death and the Labyrinth. Translated by Charles Ruas. London: The Athlone Press, 1987.
Simpson, J. A., and E. S. C. Weiner. The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Vol. 10-12. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

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