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
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
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
that film spawned.) As such, I'm going to focus primarily on the
by Barker that I've read/seen and what I've always liked about them.
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.
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
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
(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.
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.
(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
(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.
(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.
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.
on how you divide it, there are maybe three bodies of work to chose
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.