For most of us old codgers, the 1980’s were a vibrant part of the Era of Stephen King… Then – as now – he absolutely ruled the genre. But there was another writer – one frequently considered King’s “heir apparent” and who King himself once called the future of Horror – who in the midst of everything, in the heat of battle and a growing publishing crises – vanished from the genre, only to surface in Dark Fantasy. Horror had let one of its best authors slip through its fingers.
That author was Clive Barker.
Our Lost Icon
Most Horror fans know the name from the Books of Blood and Hellraiser films (and once seen who could ever completely forget Pinhead?) … But Barker is also the author of The Damnation Game, The Hellbound Heart, The Great and Secret Show, Weaveworld, Cabal, Imajica and Abarat, Lost Souls, Nightbreed, Cold Heart Canyon, Galilee, Sacrament, Everville, The Thief of Always and Mister B. Gone to name just the better-known of his novels… He is an established artist and playwright, a poet and graphic artist-and-novelist. Barker is from that deep pool which stews Literary greats and genre-founding writers. All that, in one writer and he started in our genre.
(Those interested in taking a closer look, information and interviews can be found at http://www.clivebarker.info/booksindex.html.)
The thing is, despite any wayward Literary Critics’ comments or peripheral personal or economic pushes and shoves, the one duty a writer has to him- or herself is to keep pushing the boundaries, to challenge oneself and seek out deeper and deeper questions that seed amazing stories. That exploratory expedition did indeed take Barker away from Horror and more deeply into Dark Fantasy, but dark elements in his creations have kept him mercifully on the fringes of Horror long enough for the occasional novel, story, poem, or artwork to grace our fanbase with amazing works. We are about to be treated again…
On May 19th of this year, St. Martin’s Press will bless us with The Scarlet Gospels…a book with the sales pitch of “Welcome back to the road to Hell…” the final chapter in the Hellraiser mythos.
Nonfans have no idea how long this has been anticipated…
For those of the younger persuasion who are just starting their adventures into old Horror classics and canon-worthy authors, this is your chance to experience one of Horror’s greats. Because if there is one truth here to be noted, it is this: you are not an expert on the Horror genre without reading Clive Barker.
For writers of the genre he should be required reading…not because adoration is automatic – many are not particularly fond of his tendency toward the sexual and the graphic, of his animosity toward religion – but because his stories are deeper than that. His prose is lush and loaded. I am fairly certain that Critics who found fault were likely trapped in some old expectations with a handful of old Theories. And perhaps that older generation feels offended by a gratuitous use of profanity when earlier, established Literary writers managed to refrain from such indulgences.
One could spend considerable time arguing the necessity or the salaciousness of such word choices; one could criticize an editorial choice or leniency. But one should also spend less time preening ones credentials and more time dissecting both parts and the whole before bolting for shelves of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens… Until we can professionally and emotionally separate ourselves from the feelings of disgust Barker so clearly intentionally meant to inflict, who is to say how Literary he may in fact be?
But there is another reason Horror genre writers should read Clive Barker.
Genre-Busting and When It is Good
Reading the entirety of Barker’s works may also help a writer decide whether what he or she is writing or tending toward is really Horror or really Fantasy…because it is important that a writer knows who he or she is and what he or she writes.
The line between the Fantasy and Horror genres has always been a bit opaque. Writers constantly borrow from one genre to the next, be it Fantasy, Mystery, Thriller, Suspense and even Romance. But for a writer seeking a market to sell stories to, it is important to be able to recognize where the weight of a story lies (because all too often a rejection notice and/or its editor will not tell you).
Because Clive Barker has been through the same artistic journey, by reading him a writer can discover where exactly the paths diverge. Should a writer desire to remain in Horror or move to Fantasy, that writer needs to know what gets excised and what stays in (Barker is ever a lesson in and about genre conventions). It may also teach a writer what he or she is ultimately willing to sacrifice for the integrity of a story – even if that sacrifice is ultimately publication.
Believe it or not, publication – while a real goal and passionate desire of writers in general – is not something all writers are willing to destroy a story in exchange for. And sometimes, that stubbornness is what creates new trends in a genre. Through Barker’s own artistic history, there is a lesson for many of us.
Barker’s works have always been “out-of-the-box” and been phenomenally creative. As such he can teach both readers and writers to expect better things from our respective genres, to push the envelope of credibility and belief, to challenge morals and mores, to crack open the sacred and really look at what is held in the hand.
But he can also teach us to stick to our guns, to follow our Muse where-ever she takes us, and to have faith in that journey, to discount the naysayers, and yes – even the Critics… because at the end of the day, a writer needs to be answerable to him- or herself. If one perpetually “writes to spec” in hopes of pleasing all editors, all Critics, all Hollywood in the pursuit of money… you will lose yourself in the mix; your work will become a carbon copy of substandard literature… writing will become just another job one resents waking up to. And writing should never be that for the writer.
It is said by Critics that Literary writing is a record of the author’s journey of self-discovery. There should be evidence of a writer’s growth and exploration of his or her world. Clive Barker has shown that by consistently sorting and sifting his ideas about the battle between good and evil and mankind’s place in it throughout his body of work. That some people don’t like the questions he is asking is another matter. That he tends to disturb and sometimes disgust us is still another.
But one does not walk away from Clive Barker without having been touched by something dark and profound and hidden beneath words we may or may not like the texture of. That makes him still a Horror writer, even if his writing is more constantly catalogued as Dark Fantasy.
That also makes him relevant to the genre. And if one wants to drift to the other side of the mirror that Stephen King has so aptly held in his hands for some forty years… it’s time to read Clive Barker.
Get thee to a bookstore. (And buy a nightlight; you will probably need one.)