The Hellbound Web
"Mister B. Gone"
Review by Scarecrow

"Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers."

- Charles W. Eliot

It is clear that Charles Eliot has never read Mister B. Gone as, had he, he may have been forced to alter his point of view. You may ask he could possibly have read the latest novel by Clive Barker, having died over half a century a go and the answer is simple. Despite what the cover may tell you, this was not written by Clive Barker but one Jakabok Botch, a demon from the Ninth Circle of Hell who, through his own misfortune, has ended up bound into the pages of this book for several centuries. And now, as the reader lifts the cover for the first time, his words are unleashed and what begins is a game of manipulation between the reader and the book itself as Jakabok, also known as Mister B., attempts to persuade them to burn the book before it's too late.

Above all else, "Mister B. Gone" is about words, wordplay, the power of the text and how we got about reading books. The story comes in various sections, describing key events in the titular demon's life, bookended by Jakabok's latest attempts to try and get the reader to burn the book. It's a loose format that makes it a tale of two halves, Jakabok's life and his conversation aimed directly at the reader and this both the novels strength and weakness.

Unlike many of Barker's early Books of Blood this doesn't feel like a short tale; rather it reads like many of his epic novels but with much cut out. We don't get his century long journey with a fellow demon, or get to follow many of his misdeeds we're told about but rather we are thrown into the pivotal events of his life with Jakabok glossing over the rest and always leaving us wanting more. That said, the eventual conclusion and revelation of the great Secret at the end echoes many of his original short stories, placing the novella into a curious position of both being perhaps too long for it's eventual conclusion and too short to satisfy our desire to learn more about Jakabok.

This perhaps sounds somewhat critical but by no means am I suggesting this book fails in its central conceit as ultimately we learn far more about Jakabok from his direct narration towards us between these snippets of his life than during them. The strength of the book comes from here where Barker invokes the experiences of book readers everywhere, making the spaces between words the place where Jakabok lurks, having the demon question his own voice and how the reader will interpret it their own way. There's some brilliant observations here, the best of which is the smile a reader may put on simply for the benefit of a particular line of text in any book. Jakabok sees all of these things, comment son them and ultimately uses them to try and manipulate the reader into burning the book. This is by far the novella's most successful aspect which is somewhat surprising as, starting the book, they do feel somewhat distraction. But as the story unfolds and more is revealed we come to realise that this is a book about reading a book, a wonderfully inventive idea that is Barker at his best.

So what of Jakabok, the character? He's difficult to pin down, due to his tendency to lie or at least manipulate the truth, something he admits to time and again. He's clearly a wretched creature, his entire life has seen misery and has been marked by consuming fires that continuously seem to alter his form for the worse. It's hard to have sympathy at times due to the atrocities he commits but Barker manages to include a sense of humour that keeps us from giving up on him completely. His constant changes of heart, motivation and attitudes reveals him to be someone who is unsure of his place in life and is something we can all relate to although this opens the book up to accusations of being directionless. At one stage Jakabok confesses to have lost all feeling for a fellow demon only to be warmed by a smile shortly after; whether this is poor character consistency or a clever, subtle example of his unpredictability is down to the reader. I would prefer to believe the latter.

Taking everything into account, overall "Mister B. Gone" is by no means Barker's best work but it is certainly one of his one fascinating. G. K. Chesterton said "a good novel tells us the truth about its hero but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author" but in the case of this book we perhaps learn far more about Barker himself and his attitudes to writing than we do about Jakabok whose constant lies and manipulation leave him an enigma to the end. "Mister B. Gone" presents a somewhat average Barker tale (if such a thing could be said to exist) told in an extraordinary and fascinating way, the format and almost postmodern self-referential nature of the book make it a successful, enjoyable and ultimately rewarding read.

SCORE: 4 out of 5 Hooks

- Scarecrow