Recommended Reading: Clive Barker

Though he's usually labeled as strickly a horror author, his work is often as much urban fantasy as anything else.  He's best known for creating the Hellraiser series which has gone on to have a life of its own (not always to the best effects).  In fact, he's worked in so many different media that you can have your pick of which Barker projects you want to tackle first: short stories, novellas, full-length novels, children's books, plays, films, and plenty of comic books, both based on existing works and even titles he originated.  Additionally, his works have been adapted as audiobooks, films (which he directed in a couple cases), and tv shows (e.g., an episode of Tales from the Darkside).

I haven't sought out most of the adaptations of Barker's work, although Hellraiser is a long-time favorite and encouraged me to try him out for the first time many years ago.  (I also enjoyed the comic book series that film spawned.)  As such, I'm going to focus primarily on the works by Barker that I've read/seen and what I've always liked about them.

The Language

The first thing I always recommend Clive Barker's writing on is his use of language.  Unlike Stephen King's infamously limited vocabulary, Barker's prose is much more colorful without feeling archaic or overly ornamental.  He always sought the right word for what he was trying to convey, and that's what he used.  That made reading him much more enjoyable during lulls in the action or exposition.

I once read that Barker has always written longhand, and I suspect that is indirectly responsible for his word choice.  Given that it takes a few moments longer to jot down a thought, I imagine the author is always composing and editing the next few lines ahead of his pen.  By the time he's gotten the words on the page, they're very much the right words and in exactly the order they should be.

The films

If you find it easier to read the book after you've seen the movie (not that I'm with you on that, mind you), there are plenty of film adaptations of Barker's works to chose from.  However, the better of these are arguably the ones he himself directed.

First among these is Hellraiser (1987) based on his novella The Hellbound Heart.  That film and its sequel (which Barker produced and was involved in, though he didn't direct) are classics unto themselves.  Later films in the series increasingly depart from anything to do with the original story.

Nightbreed (1990) was an adaptation of Barker's novella Cabal, but the film is chaotic owing to alledged studio mishandling of the editing.  Rumors of an extended Directors Cut have circulated for years.  There is a workprint that may be better than the theatrical release.  I haven't seen it to judge.

Lord of Illusions (1995) an adaptation of the story of the same name.  It was directed by Barker as well, but is not generally well-liked.  Read the story instead (it's also in Cabal) as the central character becomes important in other, later novels.

Short stories

Even though they date from his earliest writing, and therefore are less sophisticated in their plotting or delivery, I think his best works are his short stories.  They tended to have a point to make, and they made that fairly well.  Not that they were subtle.  (But horror isn't really a genre suited to subtlety, is it?)  I think his short stories are a good introduction to his style and fixations, and they're bite-sized so that new readers don't have to undertake as serious a committment in order to sample a complete work.

Note that his short stories are collectively known as the Books of Blood, but collections may only contain the first three volumes, and the later volumes go by alternate names (and sometimes content too) in any case, so it can be a bit confusing if you're a completist.  Specificially, the later volumes acquired new names in the US instead of the original numbering they were given in Barker's native England.  Originally there were six numbered volumes.  However, in the States, Volume 4 was released as The Inhuman Condition, Volume 5 became In the Flesh, and Volume 6 had the novella Cabal added to it in place of another story, and the entire volume was given the title of that story.

There are plenty of stand-out stories that I still remember from having read them only once (and upwards of twenty years ago now), but I will let you discover them for yourself.

The Novels (and Novellas)

The Damnation Game (1985) - I never really understood the whole Faustian angle (i.e., just what was Mamoulian anyway?), but it's a good novel with very good characters.  It's an average-length novel, so it's not that difficult to get through, and you get a taste for his writing style and fixations (e.g., it's very sexual in spots), although many of his larger themes hadn't yet manifested as of this piece.

The Hellbound Heart (1986) - I never had a printed copy of this, just the audiobook read by Barker himself.  It was impossible to get the printed version until it was re-released as a stand-alone novella many years later.  It's a decent story, but I have to admit that it has a hard time competing with the visuals in the film adaptation.  I had trouble reconciling Barker's reading of the Cenobites (delivered as nasally robots) with the chillingly aloof performances by the actors on film.

Weaveworld (1987) - This is the first of his urban fantasy novels, and it's actually very enjoyable as such.  There are certainly horror elements (i.e., grotesque monsters and magic), but it doesn't really read as a horror novel, and I happen to think that's a good thing because there's nothing wrong with a good adventure story.  I like that Barker didn't feel compelled to continue restricting himself to a style simply because that was where he found success early on.  In fact, I am of the opinion that his career floundered when he returned to more familiar territory after this experimental phase.

The Great and Secret Show (1989) - This was the first "Book of the Art" (of a planned three), and it managed to go into greater and more interesting directions than Weaveworld.  The other dimensions we visit in this one seemed much more imaginative and fun this time around, and I felt like Barker was moving into great new realms beyond his more grounded beginnings in horror.

Imajica (1991) - I was right too.  This novel was truly epic.  My biggest criticism of it is that publishers have subsequently split it and printed it as two separate volumes.  While I suppose there is a valley in the action of the story where a break could be made, it gives the false impression that one is the original novel and the other a sequel.  Actually, I remember spending a couple days reading the latter half of the novel almost non-stop over a slow summer weekend when my dorm was mostly unoccupied, and it took me a few hours (and a long walk by myself) to come back to Earth after spending so long in this otherverse.  Were it not for the daunting length of the full story (upwards of a thousand pages), I would recommend this first to anyone interested in trying Barker for the first time.

The Thief of Always (1992) - I remember my ex (who taught/was obsessed with children's literature) especially enjoying this one, but it never really held great appeal for me.  Barker illustrated it, but it's just sketches that border on impressionism (You've probably seen his work) whereas those might have better served as conceptual designs for a more polished artist to develop for publication.  I may revisit the book in years to come, but it just didn't appeal to me at the time.

Everville (second "Book of the Art") (1994) - This is where he started to lose me as a reader.  First and most galling was the fact that, though this was ostensibly a sequel, very few of the original characters feature in this novel.  In fact, he kills off several right away!  Add to that his penchant (present in nearly all the novels beginning with this one and nearly all that follow) for building up to a weak climax, and you just can't bring yourself to make the investment.

Sacrament (1996) - I started this one several times before I made it all the way through, and I found little that drew me in even when I hunkered down and forced myself to finish it.  This was supposed to mark a change in style for Barker, but it seemed that he was just focusing more on the mundane.  Eventually the story did, in fact, get going good, but it wasn't so compelling that I can recommend it.

Galilee (1998) - I'm sure this felt to Barker like he was creating an epic, but it's more like an extended character study of a pantheon of god-like characters.  Unfortunately, they don't ever really get good and started with anything, and it's another of those anti-climaxes.

Coldheart Canyon: A Hollywood Ghost Story (2001) - I felt like this story was forced.  Maybe it sounded good to Barker, but it just didn't read very well for me on the page.  I actually remember very little of it.

The Bottom line

Depending on how you divide it, there are maybe three bodies of work to chose from.
The original horror short stories and novel(la)s: The Books of Blood, The Damnation Game, and The Hellbound Heart
The urban fantasy novels:  Weaveworld, The Great and Secret Show, Imajica, The Thief of Always, and Everville
The later horror novels: Sacrament, Galilee, and Coldheart Canyon

I think the first group is the best place for a new reader to begin.  There is no pre-tense or attempt to alter the genre, just well-written horror.  If you enjoy those, continue on with the urban fantasy novels.  As far as I'm concerned, this second group is where Barker really his his stride (with the exception of Everville).  Unfortunately, after that I start to lose interest.

My biggest problem with Barker, the reason why we ultimately parted ways, was that his later novels always seemed to be building toward something that never happened.  I'll find myself fifty pages from the end of a more than five hundred page novel (usually much longer) and think, "Okay, so when does the climax begin?"  Twenty pages from the end I'd still be wondering if I was missing something.  They simply never ramped up enough for me to justify plowing through all that character development, however beautifully written it might have been.  The later novels aren't bad, but they offer only mood and character without a lot of plotting.  I need some constant motion or I feel like I'm reading a script about a still-life.

Further reading

About the author:

His film and game credits via the IMDb:


Copyright 2012 the Ale[x]orcist.