The Yattering and Jack
Clive Barker’s Books of Blood Volume I
I read this story at least three times before I fully decided how I felt about it. At first I was amused but unimpressed. I liked the O’Henry twist when we switched point of view from the Yattering to Jack but the problem for me was my inability to really give a shit about either character. I read it a second time, and focused more on the implied backstory—the “why is this happening in the first place?” question and began to think perhaps Jack needed a little more credit. Perhaps he was a clever, likable fellow after all. Then, still not convinced, I read it a third time and that’s when I realized who (at least from my humble perspective) the story was really about and that’s when I fell to my knees and in a moment of pure 90’s nostalgia cried out to Barker: “We’re not worthy, We’re not worthy!” Because there is a story here, completely untold where the mastermind behind the curtain is in plain sight all along.
Now, I may be way off course and reading too much into this, but if I’m right, then Barker is a genius. This is one of those stories where, when I start to think of the construction of it, my brain hurts. How does one come up with a horror story hidden within a dark comedy? I don’t know, so let me take it apart like I did my Rubik’s Cube when I couldn’t figure that out. Taking things apart is easy, putting them together the way Clive Barker has done in this short story, that’s something best left to the higher level demons.
We begin our story with an introduction to Jack Polo, a gherkin importer. Polo is nonplussed by anything the point of view character, The Yattering, does. The Yattering is a low level demon sent to torment Polo, break him, claim him in the name of the old one. The thing is, his inability to do so is driving the Yattering insane. He is losing his cool, while Polo stands by nonchalantly as his wife cheats, confesses, leaves him and kills herself. He is not bothered by the loss of pet after pet in more gruesome ways. The Yattering hangs in there, adding to the daily frustrations with simple annoyances like locking the doors over and over.
The reader who can only watch from the demon’s POV, assumes that the gherkin importer is a simpleton, too thick-headed to even realize there is paranormal mischief afoot. What we know, is The Yattering is just the lowly laborer sent to stalk Polo because the man’s mother had promised her soul as well as her son’s soul to Satan and she backed out, begged forgiveness and died in the arms of a priest. Poor jack, it’s not his fault and poor Yattering (who at this point is fearing psychosomatic leprosy—my favorite demonic disease!). What can he possibly do to break this guy and get out of the house he is imprisoned in.
But then we get Jack’s POV and are shocked (I was at least) to discover that Jack is aware and for years has been practicing patience and calm while his life crumbled around him. He knows about the lower demon sent to torment him, he knows it was there when his wife cheated, waiting for him to lose his cool, he knows it’s killed his pets, he knows his daughters are at risk coming for Christmas and yet in his need to win, to beat his destiny as his mother did before him, he accepts the terrible possibilities all with the reticence of a monk. When we find out he has known this all along, we’re impressed with his ability to remain so stoic. We wonder just how much wisdom his mother imparted to him before she beat the system. He is certainly well versed in the rules of soul selling and demonic entities. But then, you have to take a step back and say, wait a minute….just how much is Jack willing to sacrifice to beat the system, and in that sacrifice, has he beat the system? Well, he beats The Yattering, we know that. But what has he lost in order to win? His wife, his pets, his belongings, his daughter’s sanity and what does The Yattering warn him about at the end? “It’s only fair that I inform you that it’s considered ungodly to have any contact with the likes of me. Heretical even.” Yet, even at this, Jack approaches the information with his usual nonchalance; “Che sera, sera.” (Whatever will be, will be)
Does anyone win in this story? Yeah, Hell wins. Satan will have his soul and Beelzebub gets rid of his less than effective and whiney subordinate, the Yattering. And that is the genius of this tale. Jack, in all his smug stoicism, basically gives up his humanity in order to beat his fate. He doesn’t care or show compassion for any other beings suffering. He didn’t sell his soul to Satan, he handed it over in his smug attempt to outwit the un-outwitable. Even in the end, when he is told he will likely never get into Heaven, he doesn’t care. It’s all about the win.
The Yattering, poor lowly, inept demon that he is, couldn’t get the job done. He tried to quit, asked to die. Beelzebub ain’t got time for this. He’s a busy boss-man; “Lord of the Flies”. What he doesn’t need is some low-level, blue collar lineman calling him up whining about how hard it is to torment a human. But the thing is, I think Beelzebub sees the big picture here. He knows that Jack is slowly but surely giving up his morality so Hell’s going to get that soul in the end. But for a stubborn fool like Jack, it’s going to take years of hard work and effort—neither of which is appealing to the upper crust Demons like himself. Why not use up a worthless, low-level? So what if the Yattering ends up with ulcers or psychosomatic leprosy? He’s replaceable. And after a while, I would guess Beelzebub is about ready to sacrifice him anyways. The Yattering is too weak to be worth anything and probably has no shot at climbing (descending?) the ladder into greatness.
This whole story is really just the transcript to some horrible reality show in Hell where the higher level Demons throw the losers into the coliseum of mortals and watch with delight as they battle it out. And that’s the horror of it. The Demons don’t care about the loss of their own in the same way Jack doesn’t care about the loss of his. It’s about what you’re willing to give up to be right/to win at all costs. And it’s all wrapped up in a charming little tale of The Yattering and Jack.