Clive Barker Essay - Critical Essays

Barker, Clive (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Clive Barker 1952-

English short story writer, novelist, playwright, and screenwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Barker's career through 2002. For additional information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 52.

Barker has gained distinction within the horror genre for his sensual, often erotic prose and is highly regarded by fans, critics, and other writers within the field. Called “the future of horror” by novelist Stephen King, Barker's works address a variety of themes, including sexuality, repression, and the homogenization of society. Many reviewers have interpreted these three themes as being closely interlinked, maintaining that sexual imagery contributes to Barker's overall social and political message. Barker's fictional oeuvre does not rely completely on dark and gruesome horror, however, and includes elements from other genres as well; he has also geared several works at a young adult audience. Whether his emphasis is on horror or fantasy, Barker remains a vital creative force within the contemporary horror, science fiction, and fantasy genres.

Biographical Information

Barker was born in Liverpool on October 5, 1952. As a child, Barker was influenced by such fantastical and often macabre literature as J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. While in elementary school, Barker began writing stories and producing plays for his friends. While taking courses in English and philosophy at the University of Liverpool, Barker spent his time drawing, painting, and absorbing literary inspiration from such sources as film director Jean Cocteau, author William Blake, and others. During this time Barker made two short films, Salomé (1973) and The Forbidden (1978), which were distributed during the 1990s. After earning a B.A. degree, Barker moved to London and formed a theatrical troupe called The Dog Company, which produced many of his plays, including The History of the Devil (1981). This play, along with two other early dramas, Frankenstein in Love (1982), and Colossus (1983), were later collected and published as Incarnations (1995). In 1984 and 1985 Barker released six volumes of short stories titled Books of Blood. Upon publication, these stories helped launch a career displaying a unique vision of the horror genre. Barker's interest in horror extended to film, prompting him to move to Los Angeles in 1991. Soon afterward, he made his directorial debut with Hellraiser (1987), a screenplay adapted from his novella The Hellbound Heart (1986). Since then, Barker has served as screenwriter, director, or executive producer for numerous horror films. Breaking away from conventional horror cinema, he served as executive producer of the film Gods and Monsters in 1998. Barker has continued to focus on the fantasy/horror genre, as evidenced by such novels as Coldheart Canyon (2001) and Abarat (2002).

Major Works

Barker first gained recognition with the publication of Books of Blood in 1984. Written while he was known only locally as an obscure dramatist, this collection of stories represented a strong new voice in the horror genre. The graphic imagery and gore featured within these volumes provides an element of sensuousness and a focus upon the human body. One story from Books of Blood, titled “In the Hills, the Cities,” relates the history of two warring towns whose populations merge into two giant bodies and enact an endless battle. Another story, “Rawhead Rex,” depicts a flesh-eating monster that savors the taste of children. The Damnation Game (1985), Barker's first novel, quickly made the New York Times best-seller list. The book's theme of opposing mythical figures engaging in an epic struggle is one Barker has continued to develop throughout his career. Weaveworld, published in 1987, incorporates more elaborate elements of fantasy than his previous works. The plot revolves around an alternate universe contained within the interwoven strands of a magical carpet. Created by a race of ancient magicians, the carpet is the last refuge from impending forces of darkness. Barker combines the horror of his early stories with the nearly romantic fantasy of Weaveworld for The Great and Secret Show (1989). Subtitled The First Book of the Art, this work is the first volume of a planned trilogy. The novel details the quest for a lost form of magic known as the Art. Utilizing more than forty characters and a narrative that shifts between various dimensions of reality, Barker crafts an epic tale of cosmic forces barely concealed beneath a veneer of mundane, American modern life. In 1992 Barker surprised many of his fans by releasing a novel ostensibly for children. The Thief of Always uses familiar aspects of the fairy tale or fable, but features a protagonist in the form of a child who has been turned into a vampire. Everville (1994) is the second part of Barker's Art trilogy. Sacrament (1996) and Galilee (1998) are smaller works, containing naturalistic themes and settings: in Sacrament, a wildlife photographer suffers a polar bear attack and is stranded in northern Canada, and Galilee comprises a steamy romance set in the American South. Barker compiled and published the anthology The Essential Clive Barker in 1999. In 2001 Barker released Coldheart Canyon, fusing his trademark elements of horror with a tale of Hollywood glamour and dissolution. The beginning of his most ambitious project, called Abarat—projected as a series of four books—was published in 2002. Abarat features a group of islands, with each representing an aspect of time. The work is loosely based on C. S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia. Barker's other cinematic work includes directorial and screenwriting credits for Hellraiser, Nightbreed (1990), and Lord of Illusions (1995).

Critical Reception

Barker has garnered generally positive reviews from critics for his ability to transcend the niche of popular horror fiction. His penchant for mixing genres in order to create surprising new worlds has also kept him in a favorable position with critics. Though his style is sometimes seen as overly gruesome, he is praised for his attention to detail, and for “the symphonic grace of [his] prose, his loping, muscular imagination, [and] his sharp eye on the human dilemma …,” according to Armistead Maupin in his foreword to The Essential Clive Barker. Critics also admire Barker's ability to transform frightening motifs into a childlike world of fantasy. Robert Ziegler, in his essay on Barker's The Thief of Always, explains this aspect of his work as illustrating the point that “transgression or insanity … are properties of the magic world of literary fantasy.” Although his darker prose may not suit all readers' tastes, the depth of Barker's imaginary world continues to draw attention from both critics and the public.

Principal Works

Salomé [adaptor; from the play by Oscar Wilde] (screenplay) 1973

Poe (play) 1974

The Forbidden (screenplay) 1978

Dog (play) 1979

Dangerous World (play) 1981

The History of the Devil (play) 1981

Frankenstein in Love (play) 1982

The Secret Life of Cartoons (play) 1982

Colossus (play) 1983

Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume One (short stories) 1984

Clive Barker's Books of Blood, Volume Two (short stories) 1984

Clive Barker's Books of Blood,...

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Criticism

Kim Newman (essay date autumn 1987)

SOURCE: Newman, Kim. “Hellraiser: From Horror Fiction to Horror Movies.” Sight and Sound 56, no. 4 (autumn 1987): 233-34.

[In the following essay, Newman surveys the film Hellraiser and Barker's horror writing.]

In a gutted North London mansion that, conveniently for the publicity people, is supposed to be haunted, Clive Barker was—with apparent ease—making his directorial debut. Best known as a groundbreaking author of short (the Books of Blood) and long (The Damnation Game) horror fiction, Barker turned to direction after a disappointing foray into screenwriting.

Hellraiser resulted from a team-up between...

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Colin Greenland (review date 12-18 February 1988)

SOURCE: Greenland, Colin. “The Figures in the Carpet.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4428 (12-18 February 1988): 172.

[In the following review, Greenland compares Weaveworld to Ramsey Campbell's The Doll Who Ate His Mother, finding Barker's novel lacking in substance.]

These two novels [Weaveworld and The Doll Who Ate His Mother] by horror writers from Liverpool both take that city for background. Each selects a derelict house on the edge of a demolition site as the portal for that intrusion of chaos into the mundane that is the principle of the genre. Ramsey Campbell's chaotic agency is the influence of John Strong, a necromancer...

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Maitland McDonagh (essay date January-February 1990)

SOURCE: McDonagh, Maitland. “Darklands Here We Come: Future Shockers.” Film Comment 26, no. 1 (January-February 1990): 60-3.

[In the following essay, McDonagh discusses Barker's foray into filmmaking, drawing parallels between Barker's career and that of cyberpunk writer William Gibson.]

The Greenhouse Effect, computer viruses, nuclear winter, bioethics, tabloid television, space debris, AIDS, dying oceans, serial murderers, the Survivalist Right, crack wars, the population bomb, televangelist scandals, biological warfare, the Rapture, genetic patents. … How did real life get to sound like a scary movie, and what are we going to do about it? Well, maybe we aren't...

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Lisa Tuttle (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Tuttle, Lisa. “Every Fear Is a Desire.” In Clive Barker's Shadows in Eden, edited by Stephen Jones, pp. 215-25. Lancaster, Penn.: Underwood-Miller, 1991.

[In the following essay, Tuttle examines the connection between horror and fantasy in Barker's work, relating a conversation she had with the author just prior to the publication of Cabal.]

Common sense tells us that nightmares and pleasant dreams are poles apart. One comes roaring out of the subconscious, a terrifying monster; the other floats tantalizingly above the surface of daily life, a beautiful castle in the air.

Freud rejected this division, arguing that all dreams enacted...

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Naomi Epel (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Epel, Naomi. “Clive Barker.” In Writers Dreaming, pp. 31-42. New York: Carol Southern Books, 1993.

[In the following essay, Epel presents Barker's thoughts on dreams and their importance to the artistic process.]

When I asked a friend to characterize the work of Clive Barker he replied, “Sympathy for the devil.” He went on to explain that in Barker's works of “imaginative fiction” it is the monsters who are the good guys and the protagonists who are often dead.

Born in Liverpool, England, in 1952, Clive Barker grew up loving monsters. His initial ambition to be a painter was superseded by an attraction to the theater, where he...

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Robert Zeigler (essay date November 1994)

SOURCE: Zeigler, Robert. “Fantasy's Timeless Humor in Clive Barker's The Thief of Always.Notes on Contemporary Literature 24, no. 5 (November 1994): 7-9.

[In the following essay, Zeigler contends that The Thief of Always invokes a sense of fantasy and conveys a moral message.]

What to grown-up readers may be evidence of transgression or insanity—the timelessness, indistinction, and auto-eroticism of childhood—are properties of the magic world of literary fantasy. Clive Barker opens to question the intended audience of his The Thief of Always (1992) by calling it a “fable” and thus implying a moral. Appealing to a child with an...

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Clive Barker (essay date December 1995)

SOURCE: Barker, Clive. “Trance of Innocence.” Sight and Sound n.s. 5, no. 12 (December 1995): 59.

[In the following essay, Barker recalls the feelings of purity with which he created two short films—Salomé and The Forbidden—early in his career.]

Like a psychic's production of automatic writing, the work we create when we are young can be a powerful clue to what obsesses us. In a trance of innocence, without the demands of commerce or self-consciousness, we speak with a purity that is difficult to achieve in later work. Not that purity is necessarily a great artistic virtue—some of the most boring art I know values that quality far too...

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Clive Barker (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Barker, Clive. “The Painter, the Creature, and the Father of Lies: An Introduction.” In Incarnations: Three Plays, pp. ix-xvi. New York: HarperPrism, 1995.

[In the following essay, Barker outlines the three plays—Colossus, Frankenstein in Love, and The History of the Devil—which comprise Incarnations.]

The dictionary defines incarnation variously as the action of being made flesh, the assumption of a bodily form (particularly of Christ, or of God in Christ) and as the creation of new flesh upon or in a wound or sore: thus, a healing. I cannot imagine an apter title for this collection of plays. Story-telling has always been for me a...

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Kevin Harley (review date 22 March 1996)

SOURCE: Harley, Kevin. “Carry On Screaming.” New Statesman and Society 9, no. 395 (22 March 1996): 38.

[In the following review, Harley characterizes Incarnations as “hasty sketches … for completists only.”]

Clive Barker is an erratic talent. He has produced work that has redefined the horror genre (Books of Blood, Hellraiser) but also some of fantasy's most ponderous turkeys. For the most part, Incarnations veers towards the latter. These three plays were written before the Books of Blood: the earliest, History of the Devil, puts an unrepentant Lucifer on trial. This Devil is a construction, with no substance other...

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Linda Badley (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Badley, Linda. “Clive Barker Writing (from) the Body.” In Writing Horror and the Body: The Fiction of Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Anne Rice, pp. 73-104. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Badley analyzes Barker's Books of Blood, his films, and his other literary work.]

With Books of Blood, an obscure playwright and illustrator named Clive Barker launched the “post-King era of horror fiction,” as William Gibson has called it (“Introduction” xv). “You read him with book in one hand and an airsick bag in the other,” King joked in 1986, adding “That man is not fooling around” (qtd. in Kanfer 83)....

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Stefan Dziemianowicz (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Dziemianowicz, Stefan. “Contemporary Horror Fiction, 1950-1998.” In Fantasy and Horror: A Critical and Historical Guide to Literature, Illustration, Film, TV, Radio, and the Internet, edited by Neil Barron, pp. 199-344. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1999.

[In the following excerpt, Dziemianowicz treats Barker's Books of Blood as a forerunner of the splatterpunk horror fiction movement in the late 1980s.]

CLIVE BARKER, SPLATTERPUNK, AND THE NEW DECADENCE

What's going to come out of those people who think that Night of the Living Dead isn't enough?

—Robert...

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Clive Barker and Christopher Landon (interview date 18 January 2000)

SOURCE: Barker, Clive, and Christopher Landon. “The Many Lives of Clive.” Advocate, nos. 802-803 (18 January 2000): 105-07.

[In the following interview, Barker discusses The Book of Hours (which was published as Abarat), his prior work, and his private life.]

Winding up the sinuous streets of Beverly Hills, one wonders what awaits at the lair of Clive Barker. Severed heads impaled on iron stakes? Disemboweled corpses rotting before the massive doors of a gothic Tudor mansion?

Well, not exactly.

However, the gardens look lovely. Apparently the man who gave us Hellraiser loves flowers. In fact, Barker's...

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Rob Gates (review date March 2000)

SOURCE: Gates, Rob. “A Bloody Sham.” Lambda Book Report 8, no. 8 (March 2000): 14-15.

[In the following review, Gates praises The Essential Clive Barker and details the history of Barker's novels and short fiction.]

Clive Barker is a sham, a charlatan, and a thief. There, I've said it. What do I mean by this? How can I say such things? I sit here surrounded by the works of Clive Barker, books strewn around me on the floor. In my hands is a copy of the author's own guided tour of his work, The Essential Clive Barker. I've read over two thousand pages of Barker in preparation for this, and there's no other way to start.

Sham: a...

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Clive Barker and Michael Rowe (interview date 4 December 2001)

SOURCE: Barker, Clive, and Michael Rowe. “Horrors, It's Hollywood!” Advocate, no. 852 (4 December 2001): 69-72.

[In the following interview, Barker discusses Coldheart Canyon, Hollywood, and his personal life.]

Clive Barker, ruggedly handsome at 49 and looking vaguely piratical in a black shirt and gold earring, sits at a wooden refectory table in one of the three houses that form his residential compound high in the canyon country above Beverly Hills.

In front of Barker sits his most recent novel, Coldheart Canyon, the story of a narcissistic, washed-up action star named Todd Pickett in flight from the media while he recovers from...

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Douglas E. Winter (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Winter, Douglas E. “Nowhere Land: The Damnation Game (1985).” In Clive Barker: The Dark Fantastic. 2001. Reprint, pp. 172-87. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002.

[In the following essay, Winter analyzes the Faustian influence in Barker's first novel, The Damnation Game.]

Now Faustus must thou needs be damned,
And canst thou not be saved.
What boots it then to think on God or heaven?

—Christopher Marlowe, The Tragicall Historie of Doctor Faustus

Soon after his first meeting with Barbara Boote and Nan du Sautoy, Clive Barker realized how ‘inappropriate it was to write short stories’. Given commercial...

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S. T. Joshi (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Joshi, S. T. “The Persistence of Supernaturalism.” In The Modern Weird Tale, pp. 50-132. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, 2001.

[In the following excerpt, Joshi contends there are conceptual flaws in Barker's short stories and novels.]

CLIVE BARKER: SEX, DEATH, AND FANTASY

When Clive Barker's Books of Blood were published by Sphere Books in London in 1984-85, the world took notice. Hitherto known only as a dramatist whose plays had been performed but not published, Barker (b. 1952) accomplished a feat almost unheard of in publishing by having not one but six paperback volumes of his short stories issued by a major...

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Clive Barker and Paul Wells (interview date 2002)

SOURCE: Barker, Clive, and Paul Wells. “On the Side of the Demons: Clive Barker's Pleasures and Pains.” In British Horror Cinema, edited by Steve Chibnall and Julian Petley, pp. 172-82. London: Routledge, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Wells presents highlights from his conversations with Barker in which the author summarizes his literary preoccupations.]

Clive Barker, novelist, artist, writer and director, has already achieved considerable success in two major aspects of the horror genre. First, he has resurrected a notion of ‘British horror’; previously mainly understood as a phenomenon of Hammer Films (see Hutchings 1993), the maverick talent Michael...

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Jay McRoy (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: McRoy, Jay. “There Are No Limits: Splatterpunk, Clive Barker, and the Body in-extremis.Paradoxa, no. 17 (2002): 130-50.

[In the following essay, McRoy categorizes Barker's The Hellbound Heart, Hellraiser, and Nightbreed as examples of the splatterpunk sub-genre.]

I. INTRODUCTION

In his introduction to the 1990 horror anthology, Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror, Paul M. Sammon locates the authors that comprise his collection as “outlaws” in the tradition of the Marquis de Sade and William S. Burroughs. They are writers, he states, that know “no restraints” and recognize “no boundaries” (xv -...

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