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  • Writer's picturePete Mesling

Swells and Doldrums: Sailing the Imagined Seas of Clive Barker

I recently had the immense pleasure of proofreading Clive Barker’s Everville for Gauntlet Press’s limited edition. It being the second book of his planned Art trilogy, this presented me with a golden excuse to go back and reread The Great and Secret Show before plunging into a reunion with its epic sequel. I was left with precious little time to devour both books, which made the experience all the more immersive. I have not emerged unchanged.

These are large-scale books, first of all. Even taken individually, they are densely populated and, at times, difficult works of fiction that rival Tolkien for breadth of scope. They are also—taken with their sister, Imajica—something wholly new in the realm of fantastic fiction, as far I as I can tell. Barker had already reinvented the tale of terror with Books of Blood. In the first books of The Art—as well as in Imajica—he turned what is generally thought of as fantasy fiction on its head. (Set it on its ass, truth be told.)

But The Great and Secret Show and Everville are not just novels of ideas. They are not experiments. In them you will find many answers, and even more questions, about our shared journey as human beings. But perhaps just as importantly, you will follow a narrative journey with all the crests and troughs of the great dream-sea that figures so prominently in the books.

Ah, Quiddity. You’ve already been to the dream-sea at least once, you know: when you were born. We all manage that dip into Quiddity’s waters, as well as the one that awaits us near the end of our journey. Those of us lucky enough to find true love will visit a third time in between. For most, that’s it. For many of the characters in these novels, however, it’s a very different story. For them there is much traveling back and forth between our world (the Cosm) and the world of Quiddity (the Metacosm), especially in Everville.

I wonder if Richard Matheson ever read much Barker. It would be interesting to know his thoughts, but he’s made his three pilgrimages to the dream-sea now, and we may never know. The reason it occurs to me is that they both have a rather specific gift in common, Matheson and Barker: the knack for bringing the impossible to our doorstep and presenting it as something strange, yes, but also oddly familiar.

The similarities end there, largely. There’s a hard edge to Clive Barker’s most cherished fiction, a moral ambiguity that I think still troubles us a little. His work hasn’t gotten safer over the years, the way so much groundbreaking art does. I suspect that a reader coming to Barker’s Weaveworld or The Damnation Game for the first time today will get much the same kind of jolt I received as a teenager discovering the mad visions they contain. By the time you get to The Great and Secret Show, Imajica, Sacrament, and Coldheart Canyon, you’ve ceded a good portion of your will to the sure hand of Clive Barker. Either you are under his spell, or you have long since fled the scene.

All of this, paradoxically, makes it easy to forget, or downplay, the humanity in Barker’s work. He’s never maudlin. The violins of Dickens, beautifully played as they were, have no place in Barker’s orchestra. There’s little patience to be found for the complacency of the middle class, little hesitation to dole out punishments to the deserving and the undeserving in more or less equal measure.

And yet, if Barker is a little unlike Charles Dickens in this respect, perhaps he’s a little bit like George Gissing. He knows that to feel for a character isn’t to wrap that character in a shroud of invincibility, even if he does sometimes bestow on his heroes and heroines a certain air of inevitability. The feeling itself is what counts. His treatment of little Maeve O’Connell, in Everville, is a fine example of Barker’s brand of compassion and humanity—tied as it is to a cruel arc that carries her into old age, and beyond. It is remarkable, in light of all the metaphysical heavy lifting that Barker concerns himself with in his fiction, how human the tales are at their core. True of Everville, certainly, and true of its predecessor.

In my view the books are where Barker has left his most indelible mark so far, but no discussion of his work, no matter how narrow a window it opens onto such a vast landscape, can, in good conscience, leave off without touching on the enduring impact of his work in other media.

There are the films, of course, especially those adapted by Barker himself: Hellraiser, Nightbreed, and Lord of Illusions. What a unique opportunity we have in these three feature films to examine the process of an artist re-imagining his own literary work for the big screen. The cinematic output of Jean Cocteau is the only analogy for this sort of thing that even springs to mind, especially if you want an example with any similarity to Barker thematically. Besides, now that we have the director’s cut of Nightbreed, this triumvirate of dark cinema stands as an unimpeachable triumph of late 20th-century horror filmmaking. The films of Clive Barker would be a worthwhile topic for a separate discussion, in fact, but perhaps now is not the time.

And so we move on to the paintings and drawings, though they’re harder for me to write about. I have almost no formal background in art history, just an abiding interest in art.

So why not start where worlds collide: Barker’s fiction for young audiences. Not satisfied with reinventing the genres of horror and fantasy, he set his sights on redefining the borders of fiction for young readers. The Abarat books aren’t the first of Barker’s fiction to boast his own illustrations, but they are certainly the grandest example of the phenomenon. Hundreds of oil paintings—some of them massive—have had to be created in order for Barker to tell this story the way he set out to tell it. The paintings then find their way into the books.

These are not, by the way, books aimed at quite the same reading level as The Thief of Always, and there is at least one fairly obvious clue to this fact: the illustrations themselves. Thief, extraordinary as the author’s accompanying illustrations are, is illustrated in a somewhat conventional manner. The black-and-white artwork throughout the book depicts very recognizable action from the narrative, in other words. Not so with the Abarat books. Here we have art that gives a deeper kind of life and sense of history to the landscapes, artifacts, and—most importantly—characters of Barker’s mythical archipelago. Nor is the style as highly realistic as what you’ll find in Thief. It’s as if the paintings for the Abarat books might be found hanging in some strange gallery on one of the Abaratian islands.

Especially the portraits, for that’s what virtually every character painting is in the three books we have so far of the Abarat cycle. We read of the characters’ outrageous exploits, but we see the characters at rest. It’s a powerful and challenging juxtaposition, and one that readers who were just the right age for The Thief of Always when it came out should have been able to appreciate by the time the first Abarat book hit stores.

And let’s not fail to point out that this is another series of books in which a sea plays an extraordinary role. Here we encounter the Sea of Izabella, which holds wonders of its own, in addition to providing a home to the twenty-five mysterious islands of the Abarat. Water is an important image, and player, in other works of fiction by Barker, but in The Art and in the Abarat books, it is specifically seas that are of great importance. (Perhaps the fact that Barker was born and raised in Liverpool goes some way toward demystifying the relevance of his fictional seas, but probably not the whole way.)

To take the next leap into Barker’s role as an artist there are a number of books worth consulting. The two Illustrator volumes from the 1990s are essential, though for anyone familiar with Barker’s large-scale oil paintings in more recent years, the Illustrator books may seem like a preface. If he has been prolific as a writer, Barker has been nothing short of obsessive as an artist. Such books as Visions of Heaven and Hell and the current Imaginer series from the Clive Barker Archive project are invaluable windows into his work in various image-making media.

To bring us back around to the Gauntlet editions of the Art novels, it may be worth noting that Gauntlet’s limited editions of both The Great and Secret Show and Everville are illustrated, by Barker, in a way that is unique among his works. Minimalism is the word that comes to mind to describe the artwork throughout these books, but not everything falls into that broad category. There is a character portrait of Raul in the early pages of the first book, for instance, that is highly realistic, and deeply haunting. Few other illustrations in either of the books, however, are so clearly representational. In fact, many bear the economy—and power—of some of Picasso’s drawings. All enrich these volumes in their own peculiar way.

I shouldn’t have to tell anyone who’s read this far that it would be difficult to exaggerate the scope and magnitude of Clive Barker’s imaginative contributions to the world of dark make-believe. Even to focus on one or two of his works is to leave out such a wealth of thoughtfulness and creativity that it’s barely worth tackling him in brief. And we haven’t even touched on his work in comic books and graphic novels, not to mention the early stage plays. But maybe our model here is Nathan Grillo’s Reef, from Everville. In that book Grillo, moribund former tabloid journalist, has taken it upon himself to monitor the countless reports of unexplained phenomena that are daily uploaded to one server or another across America. It’s not unlike Randolph Jaffe’s unearthing of a cult-like undercurrent in America’s lost pieces of mail, which sets the entire narrative of The Art in motion in the opening pages of The Great and Secret Show. In fact, Grillo has set up shop in the very same town where the Jaff made his initial discoveries: Omaha, Nebraska.

Just as Grillo has little hope of finding a common thread running through all of the bizarre accounts that flit across his multiple computer screens, we may never be able to put our finger on the battery that drives all of Clive Barker’s themes and obsessions of choice. But if we can add a little coral to the reef from time to time, maybe that’s better than nothing. And just as Grillo is eventually relieved of his task as watcher over the weird, perhaps my job here is primarily to pass the baton to the next observer.

If so, godspeed.

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