Fuck the Canon
Photo by Debra DiPaolo
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?
He used to have these Friday dinner parties, and I got to be part of that and meet legends. I think the very beginning of this book was one of those dinner parties. Ray Bradbury, whom I adore, was there, and Gore Vidal, whom Ray did not like at all, and Dominick Dunne, and Maureen O’Sullivan and Dennis Hopper — I know this gets surreal, but I swear it’s true — and Elizabeth Taylor. Now, I may be 48, but I can still be a fan boy about that kind of stuff. I can still be totally fascinated by how this group of demigods operates on our collective consciousness, but also on our individual consciousnesses, and how we secretly try to match up to them. And what I wanted Coldheart Canyon to do, in part, was address what a crock of shit that was. By transferring our appetite for the transcendental to those tatty remnants from a freak show — which is what many of the people we attach our attention to are — we do two terrible things. We advance people who are just regular human beings and set them up for falls, and we take that sacred appetite and put it where it can be of absolutely no use whatsoever. One of the things I’m interested in all through my books is what we do with our appetite for God in a world that seems to have taken Him, or It, away. Over and over and over again, my characters attach themselves to unworthy divinities.
It’s curious that your feel for the powerfully erotic aspect of violence is so well-known, yet your interest in subverting contemporary notions of religion is rarely discussed, even though the two themes are indivisible in your work.
It is curious, isn’t it? To me, apart from Zen and certain â strains of Buddhism, religion is all about rigor. It’s about there being only one way. But the idea that we should be able to play with the relationship between what we worship and what we think worthy of worship is something I want to get at. You know, that the movie stars we worship are just fuckups like us. Obviously, sex lies underneath our appetites for all these people. We think what it would be like to go to bed with X or Y, yet mainstream American cinema remains remarkably sexless. Spielberg, who is the genius of that system, deals with sex not at all.
He dabbled in S&M with A.I.
Well, that was just weird. He had to deal with that because of Kubrick, but his discomfort is palpable. But take the new Antonio Banderas film, Original Sin. That’s remarkably sexy.
And it’s a big flop.
Is it really? I saw it last week, and I said to myself, “That is going to fall on its face.” It’s just too fucking sexy. But interestingly, horror movies have always been a place where you can get sex in. Coppola’s Dracula was an incredibly sexy movie. I mean, those creatures climbing over the wall and biting Keanu’s dick. That was pretty strong stuff. Sex is what always drew me to horror movies. I mean the horror, I didn’t care. But I loved the issues of the flesh and control in horror movies. To control and not to control the libido, or to be controlled or not by the libido, is a fascinating problem for me.
Is it a different problem for you depending on the form you’re working in? You work in so many media.
For me, painting is the ideal place to put eroticism. I think the eruption of eroticism in photography and pornography has not in any sense devalued the painted image. In fact, what pornography has done is reinvigorate it, because you can see what the photograph cannot do. If you want to jerk off, yeah, you pick up a video. But if you want something to investigate, paintings and short fiction are still the place to go. I don’t think long erotic novels work, with one or two exceptions. Frank Harris’ My Life is one exception.
But have either one of us ever sat down and read one of his novels from cover to cover?
Well, I have, but I’m a freak. But I admit there are parts I read more carefully and parts I sort of edit in my head. Do you rewrite and edit your work a lot?
I always do huge amounts of rewriting, but in Coldheart Canyon there was lots and lots and lots. For one thing, I lost my dad a week after I started the book. I’m a good Boy Scout in the sense of wanting to deliver a book when I’ve promised I will. But it was a stupid thing to do, because I was carrying, and am still carrying, a lot of completely unfelt-through feelings about my dad. So I kind of went and hid in the narrative, and you can’t hide from those feelings. They come and get you wherever you are. So what happened was the first draft was this clotted, stupid pass where I wasn’t dealing with anything about my dad. So I took a few weeks off and had some long conversations with myself and my husband, David, and then started the novel over using rather than avoiding my unresolved feelings.
Do you write novels in a linear way, from beginning to end?
Yeah. I think it’s an indulgence to do it the other way. I think it’s a kind of cowardice. There are places in anyone’s books that are going to be easier than other parts. And if when you come to a part that’s difficult and think, “Hm, I’ll skip that,” all you’re doing is lining up these problems that are going to wait for you and kick you in the ass. So I’m very rigorous with myself. I won’t allow myself to go on to a fun bit, like the sex. I think if you write big books like I do, and don’t write in a linear fashion, something inevitably gets screwed up in the emotional flow. In Coldheart Canyon there are many characters, and each character has its own arc. The arcs start at divergent points, but they converge at roughly the same point. So what you try to do is induce in the reader an incredible feeling of excitement, because everybody’s arcs are resolving because they’re encountering one another, right? It’s not that they’re resolving in an abstraction. They’re resolving because A meets B meets C and so on.
Which explains its length, I guess.
Yes. But this will amuse you. I proposed it as a short story. You’ve had this problem?
I have the opposite problem. I just finished a novel that I proposed would be 400 to 500 pages, and it wound up being 160 pages.
Maybe we can help one another. [Laughter.] Listen, I need to ask you something. I know it makes this more of a conversation, but . . . how are you able to make your novels so compact? It’s very foreign to me.
Well, in my work explanations are beside the point. That might be why. I’m interested in a suggestive approach. My work’s so internally chaotic that the surface has to be as impeccable and barren as possible to communicate at all.
Hm. Let me offer you this. Why do you take pleasure in books like mine, which, by your own self-directed aesthetic, are surely flabby books?
But that’s exactly why your books interest me. I know how to do tight, but I don’t know how to do what you do at all. And partly because your work and my work have so much in common, in terms of their horrificness and interest in psychosexual violence and so on, this fascinates me. I think to myself, “How the fuck does he do that?”
I had a conversation with Pete Atkins, who wrote Hellraiser II, III and IV, and several novels as well. I’ve known him since I was 18. When he started writing novels, he said, “I get bored with bits in between the action bits and the big set pieces.” And I told him that if you don’t have those, the big set pieces don’t have any foundation. Also — and this is absolutely the reader’s experience, though it might not be the writer’s experience — sometimes a sentence which might not be particularly interesting on the page says something completely vital. So I think a lot of what I do comes out of wanting to tell the story the best way I can. The lyricism comes out of a hunger to have prose aspire to the condition of poetry, as yours does. I think one of the reasons that you and I have a certain kind of fan who will love us to our dying day is because there’s a richness in what we both do. It’s layered. We both have the erotic and violent thing, and a poetic way of dealing with it, but you are in your work, whereas I am not in mine. I think that’s the major difference between your work and mine. The most populist thing I do is to not be in my work.
Well, your work and my work are about the imagination. So in that way, you are in your work. Certainly, I feel you there, and I imagine that personalized quality of your work is partly what inspires such devotion among your readers.
Yet I don’t think my readers feel the kind of intimacy with me that your readers feel with you. There’s much more of a sense that the world I create belongs to them.
Well, it’s that balance between what’s yours and what’s theirs that’s so remarkable. For instance, my favorite film of yours as a director is Lord of Illusions, partially because the eroticism in it is so scarily pure. I thought it was a very personal film, much more than Hellraiser or Nightbreed.
Right. It was also my least successful film. [Laughter.] In Lord of Illusions, I got to do all kinds of shit that I wanted to do. The bondage stuff in there, the girl and the ape, all kinds of shit. It’s very funny because Frank Mancuso was head of MGM/UA at that time, and he didn’t like the movie at all. There was one shot of a dead child on the floor, and he said, “This shot will never appear in an MGM/UA movie.” As it turns out, it did, because I took it out, and then when he wasn’t looking, I put it back in. I knew he’d never bother to see the film again.
My understanding is that writing and painting are the two media over which you exert total control, whereas the “Clive Barker” films you don’t direct — like the Hellraiser sequels and the Candyman movies, the video games, the action figures and so on that bear your brand name — are more a matter of delegating creativity under your general guidance. Is that true?
Well, that depends.
Okay, for example, I’m a great devotee of the “spooky houses” and “spooky mazes” that pop up around town every Halloween. The Clive Barker Maze at last year’s Universal Studio’s Halloween event was one of the two or three best I’ve ever seen. It managed to be innovative in a form whose strengths are generally about tradition. I wondered at the time how much you had to do with it?
I had lots to do with it. My husband, David, has really introduced me to this. In England, we don’t have a lot of this. When Universal asked me if I’d be interested in doing one, I said, “Sure, I’ll give it a crack.” I saw it as a four-minute piece of theater that loops. David and I went through it and talked to the actors, and gave them their motivations. So I took it very seriously. You know, the Halloween maze is a very American form. It’s interesting to me that you’re free enough to take them seriously. [Laughter.] That takes a certain amount of courage.
To me, they’re like sculptures in a way. In fact, the people I know who are most interested in them are visual artists and writers. We go around in gangs every year seeing as many as we can, and we study them.
When I started doing mine, people would say, “Why are you doing that?” They thought it was silly. But there are a lot of things you can do with them. To me, they’re like what you thought horror movies would be like before you saw a horror movie. You know, “They’re coming after you — they’re coming after you, and you won’t be able to stop them.” Their interactivity is interesting, too, and their density.
I wonder, then, if one of the more attractive things about Disney buying the rights to your forthcoming “Abarat Quartet” books â is the fact that they’re going to develop a theme-park attraction based on them?
That’s absolutely one of the most attractive aspects. When they offered me that, I just said, “Yes.” The fact that they’re planning to create a film franchise based on them didn’t hurt, of course.
They bought it before you’d written it, right?
Right. They bought it based on the word Abarat, on about 350 paintings I’d done as illustrations for the books, and on a rough idea I had for the narrative. They’ll get the first book in about four weeks.
Has the Disney aesthetic been on your mind while writing the books? Did you feel that you had to conform to their code?
[Laughs.] I don’t think that would even be possible. Even if it was, that would be a disaster. To be honest, it would have seemed preposterous to me. If someone had said to me, “You should do something for Disney,” I would have said, “Forget it.” It’s quite strange, really. No, I’m going to write a cycle of what I think will be four novels that will include about 500 to 700 paintings as illustrations, and then they will go do their thing. Their thing is brilliance. When Disney is on, nobody else can come anywhere near. The chance to play in their territory, using the imagineers, is awe-inspiring. I’m a very simple creator. I handwrite everything. I paint on canvases that I buy from the art store.
People are referring to the “Abarat Quartet” as your Harry Potter. Is that a lazy comparison?
It’s my Harry Potter in this sense: Harry Potter has been incredibly successful because adults read that stuff. The magnitude of its success is predicated on that fact. So I don’t think it’s a lazy comparison. The difference is me. [Laughter.] The fact that they could come in and look at the paintings, which are Boschian and dark and intense, and say they want it was an exciting surprise.
It’s not a stretch to guess that there will be a segment of the Disney audience who will freak out at the fact that they’re working with you.
I know. I’m the Hellraiser man. I’m the Candyman man. But I have to believe that at the upper echelon of Disney they know they need a guy with some edge. And while I’m not planning to make any more Hellraisers anytime soon, I am planning to make horror movies, and one of them is with Disney/Touchstone, and those will be tough movies.
I was also thinking about your last novel, Sacrament. I wonder what will happen if the Christian types get wind of that. It might be your least quote-unquote horrific novel, but the gay sex in there is pretty unflinching. I mean it didn’t shock me, but . . .
[Laughs.] Yes, I don’t imagine it would have. You know Sacrament sold about 50 percent of what my other books have sold.
Really? Because it was so gay?
Yeah. It’s interesting to me that the numbers haven’t been as strong on that book. You can go online and very easily find pods of very dedicated Clive Barker fans who really object to that novel. There’s almost an audible sigh from those pages. They say, “Well, I suppose he had to get it out of his system,” and that kind of thing. There are scenes in that book that are really strong sexually. It’s not a gentle introduction to gay sex. But I always need to write the most intense thing I’ve ever written, whatever the subject matter.
Does it frustrate you that your books tend to be marginalized or condescended to by the literary establishment? You’re not the only important writer to be denied a place in the canon, but you’re a glaring example. Your popularity and your influence on culture are undeniable, yet it’s hard to imagine that, say, The New York Times Book Review or the New York Review of Books et al. will ever acknowledge your work’s significance.
That used to bother me a whole heap, but now I figure that there’s an anti-canon falling into place. The likes of our work is in it. I think what we have to realize is that the scope of literature is changing again. I think the charge of my work is its saving grace, and it’s also the problem for mainstream literature. If you look at the Booker Prize and all that, there’s a lot of little old lady and Oprah’s Choice literature out there. My heroes, like Bosch and Goya and Poe, are to some extent still marginalized. I’m not sure I would like it if it were any other way. The alternative is that this stuff be embraced.
Which would make you cringe?
God, yes. I’d think, “What have I done wrong now?” Besides, being marginalized creates passion in my fans and makes me feel very loyal to them. I believe very strongly — for myself, and for you as well — that there will be a reassessment of what the old canon was. For example, you know there was this incredible hue and cry last year when the British public was polled and asked to name the most important book of the century, and the winner by a vast margin was The Lord of the Rings. That entertained the hell out of me. So you had all these literary types saying, “No, no, no, you can’t have this in my canon. I refuse.” The fact of the matter is that our books are being read by far more influential minds than the books of writers who are being properly positioned by their publishers and by the reviewers they sleep with. Fuck the canon.
You never worry, “What if they’re right and I’m wrong?”
One of the things I’ve learned as an artist, as my life has gone on, is to stop saying “right” or “wrong.” My behavior pattern has been to do whatever I wanted to do, and deal with the consequences afterwards. In fiscal terms, the consequences have been negative more than positive. There were a lot of decisions I could have made which my bank manager says I should have made. But I just couldn’t, because I felt like a prisoner.
A prisoner of Pinhead?
Yes. Of Hellraiser, for instance, and the phenomenon it inspired. But I’ve actually escaped quite well. And after “Abarat” comes out, I think the rest of that will go down in the dust. And I don’t think I’ll direct any more films. They’re too time-consuming. I’m 48. My dad was 73 when he died, and my granddad was 63. The Barker men don’t tend to last long, and there are all sorts of projects I want to do in what time I have. Like I have a huge metaphysical book in my head.
À la Weaveworld or . . . ?
It will make Weaveworld look like Nancy Drew. A huge, huge, huge metaphysical book. I want to investigate the erotic at its most profound, in forms that I think we possibly begin to see in Burroughs, but which haven’t been pursued as a consistent thesis. We’re talking my Bible. I want to write the Bible. [Laughter.] So there’s a lot to do.
Get the Arts Newsletter
Get the latest news and offers from the LA art scene sent directly to your email address. Exclusive events and art related sales you won't hear about anywhere else!