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.
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).
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).
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.