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Book Review

Ghost-Ridden Tale Brings Horror to Hollywood's Venal Ways

COLDHEART CANYON: A Hollywood Ghost Story, \o7 By Clive Barker\f7 . HarperCollins: $27.95, 676 pages


How often have we seen a new movie and marveled at its special effects but deplored the cheesiness of the script? Too often. So it's ironic that in a novel that attacks Hollywood for its greed and egotism and the "mindless dreck" it produces, a novel that goes so far as to identify the movie capital with Hell itself and its effects on American culture with the machinations of the Father of Lies, Clive Barker should have created such a typical Hollywood product.

Barker, author of numerous horror stories including "Weaveworld" and "The Damnation Game," asks us to believe that somewhere north of Sunset Boulevard a secret canyon exists in the Hollywood Hills, forgotten by time and unmapped on our Thomas Guides. Fictional silent film star Katya Lupi built a "dream palace" there in the 1920s and invited Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Douglas Fairbanks and others to orgiastic parties on its grounds. Their ghosts still circle the mansion, hoping to regain entry to a basement room, where occult powers keep Katya, a century old, looking 25.

The room is lined with painted tiles that Katya's manager bought from a monastery in her native Romania. They create a virtual reality, the Devil's Country, a Hieronymus Bosch landscape of wonders and horrors, where a medieval nobleman cursed by the devil's wife, Lilith, must ride in an eternal, hopeless quest to catch and return her goatish child, whom he has accidentally wounded. The monks believed that Lilith created the room, and indeed it acts on unwary visitors like a narcotic, satisfying their craving for eternal fame and beauty--though, as with a real drug, the side effects can be lethal.

Todd Pickett, an action-movie star whose 34-year-old face has begun to sag, dreads losing access to the secular equivalent of the Devil's Country: multimillion-dollar contracts and the adulation of fans worldwide. He opts for plastic surgery, but the operation goes wrong. Swathed in bandages like the Elephant Man, he needs a place to hide and heal. His agent finds him what looks like a perfect refuge: the mansion in Coldheart Canyon, which Katya, believed long dead, has vacated in favor of a remote guesthouse, hammering icons into the thresholds of the main house to deny the ghosts entry.

For unexplained reasons--Todd is a vacuous, self-centered hunk, alive for us only in an early scene when he mourns the death of his dog--Katya views him as the man she has waited seven decades to love, her future partner in a new, more sophisticated era of decadence. She sets about seducing him and is about to succeed when another woman ventures into the canyon--Tammy Lauper, president of his fan club, for whom Todd-worship has been an escape from life as an overweight, neglected wife in Sacramento.

Tammy, representing the witless legions who swallow Hollywood's lies and feed its power, is still the novel's most admirable character. Determined to find out why Todd has disappeared, she braves not only the canyon's ghosts but also their offspring by coyotes and other wild creatures--grotesque hybrids that snap and howl in the shadows. She helps force a showdown during which a 6.9-magnitude earthquake (oddly unfelt in the rest of Los Angeles) jars open the door of the Devil's Country, the dead storm the mansion and Todd, for the first time, must make meaningful choices.

The first two-thirds of "Coldheart Canyon" are entertaining, sometimes more. Barker's vision of Hell--as the intersection of the sexy and the sinister--is original in conception, painterly in detail.

But with about 250 pages to go, he loses control of the narrative. So many subplots converge that the characters, forced to react to one gruesome or miraculous event after another, lose coherence.

They cease to inhabit their own story and become more like the audience at one of Todd's action flicks, manipulated into shuddering and yelling and weeping on cue.

Barker has produced and directed films, and recently signed an $8-million contract with Disney to "create movies and theme attraction based on his new children's book series," according to his publicist.

In short, he must know a lot about how Hollywood works, but you can't tell from this novel: a put-down of venal agents and heartless studio chiefs and one-upmanship at parties that could have been written by any envious outsider.

Barker's real gift is for the spooky stuff, but even here, if we pause a moment, we wonder: Are the sins of Hollywood, old or new, really so great? Or is identifying it with the Devil's Country just a backhanded compliment?

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