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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Clive Barker

Posting on behalf of Justin.

chi cosplayerWhen I first got seriously into reading, sometime around age thirteen, Clive Barker was one of the names that I delved into. I'd read some of his material earlier and been impressed, and ended up going through most of his entire output fairly quickly. Clive is one of the few authors with a large bibliography where I've made a point of reading most everything he's done: from the early story collections on through to the massive split-into-two-books Imajica. Why? Well, Clive has a very distinctive writing style: it developed from being spare and almost stabbing in its depiction of the grotesque to more flowing, poetic, and ironic (witness the little asides on culture in books like The Great and Secret Show). In all its phases, though, Clive's stuff has always been undercut by a subtle humor, sometimes quite vicious, even perverse, other times mildly satiric. He's also not afraid to depart from consensus reality - although, as Clive sees it, all the visions and manifestations and other-worlds in his novels aren't really separate from that reality, but a fundamental part of it. In other words, mystics might be able to tap into astral realms flooded with Lovecraftian monsters, but those same mystics have to shit, eat, and fuck, too. So, most likely, do the monsters. This democratic approach doesn't mean Clive is devoid of wonder: on the contrary, his works often end with some kind of transformation, the consequences of which aren't fully resolved or explained. Rather than return to the status quo, Clive likes to upset it for good and see what the consequences are. So, let's take a look at each of his books in more detail, and see where the goods lie.

The Books of Blood/The Inhuman Condition/In the Flesh: Clive's early work and short stories are sharp, sour, and dirty: real blood and guts, shit and semen horror. What keeps it from falling into pure pulp is that Clive can write a pretty sentence: even if his characters aren't always troublingly deep, there's a certain sick elegance to the prose that's missing in more forgettable fare. The advantage this stuff has over later novels is its concision: the characters may not be great, but the ‘stabbing' effect I mentioned earlier is in full force. There are signs of the later mysticism to come in stories like “The Madonna” and “In the Flesh.” But, this was about the time Stephen King put out his "I have seen the future of horror and its name is Clive Barker." quote. This statement now seems a little strange seeing as how Clive would radically shift his genre concerns; although it's easy to understand given how what he was writing at the time must have seemed light-years beyond its contemporaries, even in the 80's horror boom.

The Damnation Game: The Damnation Game is the culmination of Clive's horror period: filled with banal, grotesque reality, failed and venal characters, an exhaustive host of sickening concepts (necrophilia, pedophilic cannibalism, swallowed razors, animal cruelty, rotting zombies doused in cologne), and an impossibly bleak worldview, there really wasn't anything left for Clive to do in the horror genre. The novel is almost a cul-de-sac: you can't imagine it doing any more without descending into self-parody. That said, Clive deserves credit for maintaining a somber tone throughout: only a vestige of sick humor 'lightens' things. There are no ghosts or gods here: just humans confronted with death, and the changes its contemplation produces in them. The novel concerns an immortal man, Mamoulian, and the people he manipulates into sharing his secrets. The opening chapter, set in Poland devastated by World War 2, contains some of the best prose Clive has ever penned.
So, what was Clive to do next? Genre change! On to fantasy!

The Hellbound Heart ...or, not quite yet. The Hellbound Heart is actually a novella, but we'll include it anyway. It echoes the style and tone of his short stories of the time, in that it's a tight-ass piece of horrific nightmare-prose. I read this when I was around twelve and it destroyed my mind. The first chapter alone is possibly one of the most horrifying things the genre has ever produced. In case you're wondering, yes, this book was the inspiration for the Hellraiser film series. Those movies have had their edge dulled by time and sequels, but imagine how scary this shit was when no one had heard of Cenobites. Much of the really horrific, torturous shit is only implied, making it that much worse - not that Clive shirks on descriptions of skinned corpses and bodies dismembered by hooks. The plot and character development aren't really that great in hindsight, but the beginning and the end are ridiculously intense.

Weaveworld: Clive's first fantasy novel. Must have been something of a surprise at the time. Weaveworld is about the Seerkind, a magical race hiding from persecution inside a carpet. (yes, that sounds really fucking stupid, but they're not literally folded up in the carpet, but instead magically translated into its threads).
Something Clive pulled off with this book was the invention of Neil Gaiman. I don't mean that he literally sired Gaiman; just that he established the basic template for which Neil's novels would follow: a 'touchingly ordinary' man, going about his daily business, finds his life somehow intersecting with a magical reality adjacent to but not separate from the ordinary world; with the result being that he falls in love with a mysterious woman and has his worldview and outlook irrevocably changed. Cal Mooney, this book's protagonist, is essentially the exact same person as the protagonist of Gaiman's later Neverwhere.
Weaveworld falls prey to something that would affect later Barker books as well: villains so badass you want them to win. Clive stated in an interview that, even when writing about godlike or alien powers, he still wants them to have recognizable human traits and weaknesses. This often has the (unintentional?) effect of making his villains more sympathetic than the heroes. This time out, it's super-hot sorceress Immacolata (she has a magic power called 'The Menstruum' - this is very Barker) and her sidekick, the 'shabby salesman' Shadwell, with his magical wish-granting vest. Even though these characters torment the protagonists, I couldn't help but like them, and found myself anticipating any chapters featuring them. In contrast, I can't remember much about the main characters – although the structure here is quite tight; lots happens and there's a really solid and intriguing third act having to do with the angel Uriel and the creation of the Seerkind. Weaveworld has become something of a cult novel: it deserves to be better known, and is better than better-known books of its kind. A good starting point for readers wanting a shot of Clive.

Cabal: Clive actually detoured back to horror here, with this collection of novellas and stories. Everything's pretty tight, especially the title story and 'The Last Illusion', the inspiration for the 'Lord of Illusions' film (the title story inspired 'Nightbreed'). Clive's descriptions of sliced bodies, spilling guts and strange creatures are first-rate as ever. That said, this probably isn't good enough for someone who isn't a fan of horror: it's a cut above, definitely, but it's still about, you know, zombies and shit.

The Great and Secret Show: First book of the Art trilogy. With this, Clive tried to top the elaborate and epic Weaveworld by creating an even more in-depth mythological structure underpinning the ‘real' world (this sense of escalation would get ever-more epic with the later Imajica). Here it's the dream sea Quiddity, which humans visit three times: at birth, at death, and on the night you first sleep with your true love (the last one strikes me as an incredibly silly criterion for entrance to a metaphysical reality, but is, again, very Barker).
The Great and Secret Show is pulpy: we see, among other things, Clive trying to write American characters and depict Hollywood-style intrigue (something he'd return to with Coldheart Canyon). Some of the dialogue is quite bad (Clive really doesn't know how to write American teenagers) and the plot needlessly convoluted and tedious. The 'rooting for the villain' syndrome strikes again here: the sorcerer Randolph Jaffe begins as a 40-year old loser working a mail room in Nebraska, sorting through dead letters to find anything of interest (this is how he finds out about the secret magical world that's in every other Barker book). Although petty and stunted, Jaffe's ambition and sense of humor make him more interesting than any of the other characters. There's an attempt at star-crossed romance, but it's a joke compared to the romance between Judith and Gentle in Imajica, or even Cal and Susannah in Weaveworld. You get the usual Clive mainstays like strange creatures, metaphysical alter-realities, sex and violence, and flawed but interesting characters. This book isn't bad, but it hasn't aged as well as some of Clive's other stuff.

Imajica - Clive goes epic. Imajica is the book Clive had been moving towards since Weaveworld; a real fantasy trilogy in which, having created his own self-contained world, he could sit down to play with it in depth. The difference being that instead of creating one new world, Clive created five (The Dominions of the Imajica), and that instead of being an actual trilogy, Imajica is three books' worth of material crammed into 1000 pages. Briefly, it concerns the efforts of Gentle, a modern Christ figure (this isn't just symbolism: he's literally the son of God), to perform the Reconciliation: opening the Dominions up to each other. Toss in metaphysical crap, secret socities, strange creatures, and the usual Clive stuff. It's good.
Tifa Cosplayer 2The weird thing about Imajica is that it almost isn't long enough. Although the characters pass through all five Dominions, and although Clive makes an effort to distinguish them (the most interesting is the First Dominion, a vast and uninhabited city whose structures are literally made out of the flesh of God), you don't really get the sense of having lived in any of them, really soaked much up, because the characters seem to be in such a hurry to complete the plot. That being said, this is probably preferable to a slow-paced, padded-out set of books, but an extra hundred or so pages wouldn't have hurt. There just needs to be more distinctive detail in a few sections to create the necessary scope.
That said, this is probably the best thing Clive's written.

The Thief of Always: Young Adult book. Actually better than some of Clive's adult stuff, benefitted greatly by its concise prose style which manages to retain Barker's poetry. Lots of interesting ideas and creatures.

Everville: Second Book of the Art. It's like the pages of The Great and Secret Show shuffled together with Imajica, then cut in half. Make of that what you will. Much more metaphysical crap and strange creatures than the comparatively grounded (but still pretty out there) Great and Secret Show, which will make it better or worse depending on your opinion. We're still waiting for the third volume of this trilogy, by the way. (it's been over ten years)

Sacrament: The gay book. Clive was probably going to do this sooner or later; but, sadly, he didn't manage to pull it off. Sacrament is aimless, preachy, and slack, and filled with tons of graphic gay sex. The plot: can't really remember. Something to do with a spirit that goes around murdering endangered species. Doesn't even work as a piece of gay erotica, because there's lots of pretentious prose about 'living and dying, we feed the fire' and how this relates to environmental conservation and gay men. Or something. Highly not-recommended.

Galilee: Haven't read it, but it's a Romeo and Juliet-styled family saga. Seems atypical for Clive, and is in first-person to boot (Clive almost never does this). Will probably get around to it eventually, seeing as a sequel's in the works.

Coldheart Canyon: Haven't read it. Got some poor reviews from long-time fans, though. Having read as much Clive as I have, I can pretty much tell how everything will pan out just based on the back-cover description. Let's see: magical alter-world, lots of perverse sex and violence, one-note satires of Hollywood and America...wait, wasn't I trying to make Clive sound awesome? Sorry. It's just, in certain books, his stylistic tics have a way of taking over. I suspect this might be one of them.

Abarat: Haven't read it, but heard it sucks. The artwork sure looks nice, though. Seeing as this children's series will be taking up most of Clive's time for a good few years to come, we probably won't see that third Book of the Art for a while, sadly.

In conclusion, Clive Barker is an incredibly imaginative and distinctive writer, some of whose writing I will go so far as to call GENIUS. At his best, Clive really does try to 'push it' - that is, go beyond what similar writers had thought possible to pull off. Although his style and subject matter can become predictable if you get really into him, he's got at least three books that I would term pretty fucking masterful (roughly, The Damnation Game, Weaveworld, and Imajica), and a whole lot of others that are at least high-quality. Looking over my reviews, I see that his recent stuff hasn't been up to snuff, but we've still got 'The Scarlet Gospels' (read: Harry D'Amour vs Cenobites) and the third Art book to look forward to. And despite his numerous attempts to sell out, going as far as affiliating himself with Disney for Abarat, Clive HASN'T SUCCEEDED. This is good, but...it means less people are reading him. So get to it!

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