Clive Barker might just be our most versatile contemporary artist, not to mention among the most prolific. Sure, others have had their art reconstituted in forms they haven’t themselves mastered, but I can’t think of anyone who has worked so directly and successfully in as many media. He’s a respected novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter, movie director, painter, photographer, and hands-on mastermind behind products ranging from video games to action figures, to theme-park attractions, to a forthcoming DVD created in collaboration with Jonathan Davis of the band Korn. Through it all, he has remained an amazingly consistent auteur whose explorations of the metaphysical and erotic have had a profound influence on popular culture. His effect on the contemporary horror novel and film is self-evident. But when you consider that such artists and entities as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Marilyn Manson, Chris Carter, goth culture, the “edgy” rock video, and virtually all original programming on the Sci-Fi Channel would not exist in their current forms without Barker’s groundbreaking work, his impact becomes astonishing.
At the center of it all are Barker’s books. His dozen novels and short-story collections include best-selling cult classics like Books of Blood, Cabal, Weaveworld, The Damnation Game and Imajica. Fiction remains Barker’s primary medium and the springboard for much of his work in other fields. His new novel, Coldheart Canyon, a 700-page epic that pits a group of thinly disguised Hollywood figures against the ghosts of their silent-film-era counterparts, will be published by HarperCollins in early October. The “Abarat Quartet,” a cycle of four interrelated novels, will begin to appear next year, and the rights have already been purchased by Disney, which plans to develop the cycle into a major motion-picture franchise and theme-park attraction. Next year will also see the release of The Dark Fantastic, an official biography of Barker by writer Douglas Winter, and, possibly, films based on his novels The Damnation Game and Weaveworld.
Barker is no stranger to media coverage, to be sure, but he has rarely been given the opportunity to speak in an extended and serious way about his writing and art. Knowing Barker lives in Los Angeles, it seemed like a great opportunity to right this wrong. I should also say that Barker and I have been admirers of one another’s not-unlikeminded work for many years, but had never met before. Unexpectedly, the interview took on the character of a conversation at times. While Barker’s tendency to make comparisons between his work and mine creates a discomfiting situation for me as an interviewer, he seemed genuinely interested in defining the similarities and dissimilarities between our respective books as a way to define his own process. So I’ve let the least embarrassing of these exchanges stand.
At 48, Barker is no longer the ethereal-looking, shag-haircut-sporting waif so familiar from his early publicity photos. He’s a muscular, youthful, crop-haired, cigar-smoking, almost tough-looking man, but without the slightest quality of menace or aloofness. Raised in Liverpool, he retains a strong, mellifluous English accent only slightly coarsened by his recent decades in the company of slang-spouting Angelenos. The interview took place in one of his several homes, this one in the eastern heights of Beverly Hills, where Barker lives, works and supervises the activities of his production company, Seraphim Films. We sat at a long, medieval-looking wooden table in an otherwise deserted and unfurnished house whose every wall was covered from floor to ceiling with eerie, wildly colorful paintings destined for the pages of the “Abarat Quartet.”
L.A. WEEKLY: In your novels, you use the taut, conventional, domino-effect-like structure that thriller fiction requires, but improvise a lot within it. In Coldheart Canyon, for instance, the story will suddenly slow down and obsess on something that seems very personal to you, but not particularly important to the storyline itself, on the surface at least. It makes the work feel very alive.
CLIVE BARKER: I think that’s true. I have two completely different kinds of models for what I do. One is a populist model, and I think it’s very important that we make our work available and accessible. But then there’s got to be room for associative storytelling. You of all people know what I’m talking about, although you break down the narrative much further than I do.
In some ways, your work is almost traditional, and your sentences almost utilitarian, yet in all the work of yours that I’ve read, I don’t think I’ve ever come across a detail that was clichéd or lazy or lacked some kind of poetry. That’s an amazing feat.
Maybe the best way to talk about that is by talking about Coldheart Canyon, because in some ways it’s my most dangerous book for that. Hollywood has been written about so much. There’s so much capacity for cliché. That’s, of course, what drew me to add my two cents to it. What was new for me was to write about a world I live and work in, and know through friendships with people in the movie business, and through my experiences as a producer and director of films. So it was very interesting for me to write about my own despair about the movie industry, but it took me much longer to do — twice as long as usual. I should also say the novel owes a lot to Roddy McDowall. Did you know Roddy?