Clive Barker’s “Haeckel’s Tale”

A few years ago, I saw an episode of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series that featured an adaptation by director John McNaughton (whose lone previous Horror credit seems to be the infamous “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”) of a rare Clive Barker tale entitled “Haeckel’s Tale”. I confess I was initially a little squeamish about watching it because I had a vague idea that it involved some sort of zombies (of the George A Romero ilk, not the traditional voodoo kind) and I knew that any film based on a Clive Barker story is most likely going to be explicitly graphic, but the period setting and online reviews referencing Frankenstein eventually won me over in the end and I took the plunge. Expecting something like “Re-animator” (a la Clive Barker), I sat down and braced myself for whatever was to come. In the end, it wasn’t so bad and I enjoyed a truly fun mélange of Gothic Horror, Grand Guignol, and the current flesh-eating zombie trope.
In fact, so taken was I with this admixture of Horror styles that I wanted to seek out the original source material; unfortunately, this proved to be a bit problematic. Apparently, the tale had just been officially published in September 2005 in “Dark Delicacies: Original Stories of the Macabre from Today’s Greatest Horror Writers”, so at the time of the Masters of Horror episode debut (January of 2006, according to Wikipedia) none of the subsequent reviews contained any information on where to find it.

Dark Delicacies (2005) which first featured the original Barker story.

It has taken me a few years of hunting, but just the other day I noticed a collection at work entitled “The Mammoth Book of the Best of the Best New Horror” (2010), which featured the original tale in all its gory glory!

The Mammoth Book of the Best of the Best New Horror (2010), where I finally found the tale.

Although I hadn’t seen the Masters of Horror episode in some time, I knew it well enough to notice the differences, which were minor: some were understandable, like the combining of characters to streamline the narrative for the 1 hour allotment of the show’s running time; some were not, like the allusion to Frankenstein, which was seemingly thrown into the mix for no apparent reason, since it does not appear in the tale.

Ernst Haeckel’s Frankensteinian aspirations come to naught…perhaps because they were never mentioned in the original tale.

The main disparity for me, however, was the atmosphere and general tone of the tale, which was noticeably different. The TV episode was treated like a campy Tales from the Crypt episode mixing Frankenstein and zombies, culminating in a grotesque orgy replete with graphic (for television) depictions of every sort of depraved necrophilic act one can imagine.

Elise has conjugal relations with her zombie husband…among other things.

The story, although similar in its climax and dénouement, starts off very differently and even though the main plot points can be checked off as the show progresses, there is a vibe which is inherent in the story that does not translate to the screen. To me, I believe that in this tale Barker was giving a tip of the hat to the Gothic Tales and Ghost stories of yore, albeit with his own idiomatic stamp on it. The initial set up seems like something out of a Victorian ghost story by MR James or JS Le Fanu.
The Masters of Horror episode is transplanted to somewhere in the American South during the mid-to-late 19th century—there seems to be a trend in stateside adaptations of period tales to transplant them to the American South, as in the case of 1990’s “Carmilla” with Meg Tilly as the Sapphic vampire; maybe it’s so they don’t have to deal with foreign accents or exotic locales, but a feigned Southern drawl can be just as distracting as a bad English accent—and a young gentleman, John Ralston, is looking for the necromancer Miz Carnation, to implore her to help raise his recently deceased bride from the grave. Before accepting his offer, she tells him the cautionary tale of Doctor Haeckel’s misadventure.

John Ralston consults Miz Carnation in the Masters of Horror adaptation.

In contrast, Barker’s story begins in Hamburg Germany, 1822, with a club room full of aspirant young scientists conversing about a local soothsayer named Montesquino, who was holding séances in the parlors of the local ladies and claiming to possess the necromantic powers of communicating and even raising the dead. The young men scoff at the claims and denounce him as a “contemptuous cheat and a sham”. Soon their attentions turn to the only silent voice in the room, Ernst Haeckel. When asked for his opinion, he simply says, “You don’t want to know.”This does not have the intended effect on his colleagues whom, intrigued, press him further, whereupon he replies, “Very well then, (…) I’ll tell you.” And so begins “Haeckel’s Tale”.
In the TV episode, Montesquino is presented as a sort of traveling necromancer who uses the carcass of a dog in a show to demonstrate his necromantic abilities, much like a 19th century snake oil hawker. He later pops up at the house of Wolfram, the aged gentleman who gives Haeckel shelter for the night, and is paid by him to perform a ritual for his wife, Elise, who craves the cadaverous touch of her previous paramour. In the story, Montesquino is only mentioned at the opening scene and it is an Englishman, a Doctor Skal, who proves to be the necromancer who sets off the blasphemous in the tale’s climax (no pun intended…well maybe just a bit).

Montesquino shoots a resurrected pooch in the Masters of Horror adaptation.

The rest of the show follows the story, more or less, and the cemetery scene pretty much as Barker describes it while still keeping things within the allowed parameters of what is acceptable on television. Even the ending is similar with the bookend narratives being the only differences. If you’re looking for more detail, or the ultimate reveal of the story, I recommend you either read the tale or watch the Masters of Horror episode.

Artwork for an Eastern European (?) DVD cover of the Masters of Horror episode.

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