Written by: Brent R. Oliver
In the 1980s, horror was booming. You couldn’t swing the undead cat from Pet Sematary without smacking into a pile of movies destined to become classics: A Nightmare on Elm Street; The Re-Animator; The Evil Dead; An American Werewolf in London; The Shining; The Howling; The Thing; Poltergeist. And that’s just a fraction of the list.
We were similarly blessed by a crop of authors revitalizing the genre with amazing work: Dan Simmons; F. Paul Wilson; Richard Laymon; Ramsey Cambell; Robert McCammon; Joe R. Lansdale; Peter Straub; Jack Ketchum; John Saul. And, you know…Stephen King was doing stuff, too.
Horror was no longer hiding underground; it had become legit and was tainting the mainstream with blood and guts. Things were going like a house on fire.
Clive Barker dropped into that blazing house like a nuclear bomb. His talent was so prodigious, so ruthlessly creative that it blew everyone away. The force of his entry tilted the horror world on its axis.
As if his obvious skill wasn’t enough, Stephen King hailed him as the “future of horror.” That’s like water saying you’re the next wet. After that, Barker probably could have put out erotica featuring donkeys and weasels and people would have bought it as long as King’s blurb was on the cover.
He didn’t. After the Books of Blood dropped in the mid-eighties, he decided to just tear off and whip some ass. Barker never settled for the mundane, never rehashed old concepts or attitudes. It’s tempting to say he pushed the limits, but that doesn’t apply. He didn’t recognize limits, and that allowed him to keep innovating and redefining what we called scary.
I’ve put together a list of what I consider to be his best five books. Here they are in ascending order.
Cabal is a novella and not a full-length book, but it’s a tight story and boasts a breathtaking menagerie of freakshow critters.
Boone has been convinced by his therapist, Decker, that he’s a mentally disturbed murderer. Rather than turn himself in to the police, he flees to a place he’s heard whispered about: Midian, the city where monsters live.
He finds Midian and it’s indeed populated by a monstrous race called the Nightbreed. However, Boone learns he may not be the vicious creature he was led to believe. At least, not yet.
Pursued by his creepy therapist and his confused girlfriend, Boone doesn’t know which world he belongs to: the one full of daylight or the one full of Nightbreed.
Cabal is a jarring ride through monsterdom. There are honest fangs tearing flesh in this book, but there’s a lot more than that. Barker treats his creatures affectionately, whether they’re gentle beasts or ravaging killers. He explores how they came to be what they are, their capacity for love, the lonely shadow life they endure, and whether salvation exists for things with claws and scales.
The Nightbreed are more achingly human than most of the people in the story. Barker loves his monsters, and he’ll make you love them, too.
Cabal was made into a movie called Nightbreed in 1990 which was directed by Clive Barker. The limited edition Blu-ray comes out October 28th. Get it.
- The Hellbound Heart
Technically, this is also a novella but it pretty much sums up everything Clive Barker’s fiction is about: obsession, sexuality, pleasure, pain, seduction. No one twists these blades deeper and The Hellbound Heart will make you feel like you’re trapped in a place where damnation may be enlightenment.
Frank Cotton thinks he’s seen everything the world has to offer, tasted all its delights and perversities. He needs a new level of sensation, one that’s locked inside a mysterious puzzle box. Frank solves the box and cracks it open, which was the worst thing to happen to him all day. A cadre of mutilated beings drags him away to inflict agonies that transcend suffering and edge into ecstasy.
Frank disappears from Earth but leaves a stain. Fresh-spilled blood turns the stain into a smear and the smear into a crazed, skinless Frank who’s escaped his tormentors and is back looking for love. And skin.
The object of his pus-covered affection, and the only person who can help, is a former lover. Turns out she’s married to Frank’s brother, who happens to already have skin, which is nice. But that might not be enough to keep a crazy bitch happy. She might have to aid and abet a felon from hell.
This story is sick and only Barker could have done it so well. The twisted picture he paints is so real you can almost feel the hooks digging into your skin. It’s a great piece of horror literature and was turned into one of the classic horror films of the 80s: Hellraiser. Soon followed by Hellbound: Hellraiser II, which is also awesome. More sequels came later but I’d stay away from those.
- The Books of Blood
These short stories are what launched Barker to the forefront of the genre. The sheer vision exhibited in The Books of Blood was two levels above what anyone else was doing. They defied convention and expanded the parameters of what horror was capable of.
Even though the 80s were a Renaissance for the fright scene, nobody Renaissanced that shit harder than Clive Barker. His ideas were more original, his execution was cleaner, and the man just did not give a fuck. No topic was off-limits, no taboo was too loathsome, and there was no end to the gut-wrenching sex, violence, and madness he could sling.
We’ve all heard the names of these stories. The Midnight Meat Train. The Yattering and Jack. Rawhead Rex. In the Hills, the Cities. The Skins of the Fathers. Son of Celluloid. The Body Politic. Barker’s nightmares were deep, beautiful things with rich textures no one else could match. These were more than just short stories. They were bullets in a gun used to murder typical horror and start a one-man revolution.
The Books of Blood are full of psychotically novel ideas. If you manage to get through them without constantly asking yourself “How did he do that?” then you’re a zombie and I’ll shoot you in the head.
I think a lot of fans would call Imajica Clive Barker’s masterwork. Barker himself says it’s his favorite. Or favourite, rather.
There’s no denying the majesty of this massive book. Its scope is certainly much bigger than anything else Barker has done; its bravery and genius are fettered only slightly by the author’s indulgence.
The Imajica are the five realms of existence, of which Earth is one. The other four are united and all cuddly but Earth has been exiled. It’s been sent to its room alone to think about what it did. But once every 200 years, an attempt at reconciliation can be made. The last one went badly. Like, death and destruction and madness badly. But a fresh try approaches.
The protagonist, Gentle doesn’t know any of this. But he’s drawn into the galaxy-spanning intrigue as the story progresses. He leaps from world to world and meets a mind-boggling array of characters and creatures, gods and goddesses, lovers and enemies.
Seriously, any attempt to summarize this book is like trying to explain jazz to a ferret. This is a gargantuan, sprawling, ridiculous work of staggering imagination. Barker spares no detail and creates a luxurious multiverse populated with incredible beings and fantastic settings. Every step in this story is a completely new experience.
This book crackles with all kinds of magic and is supported by an intricate fantasy that can sometimes get in the way of experiencing the story. Barker’s imagination runs absolutely hog-shit wild and, while it usually generates stupendous results, it occasionally gets tangled. There were moments when I wished he would tone down the incredible elements just a wee bit and get on with it. But for the most part I was caught up, totally enmeshed in what was happening.
Imajica isn’t a journey for everyone. It’s outlandish and involved and very complex. It’s also an amazing display of talent that his die-hard fans adore.
- The Great and Secret Show
“Succinctly put, it’s about Hollywood, sex, and Armageddon.” So says Clive Barker of my favorite book he’s ever written. It’s a touch less ambitious than Imajica but quite a bit more cohesive and pointed.
Fletcher and Jaffe have been battling each other for years. First as humans and then as more supernatural beings. Jaffe wants to use an ancient magic called the Art to tear through reality and control what’s on the other side. Fletcher wants to stop him. That’s the core of the plot. Everything surrounding that core is the real Art, however, and Barker is an unparalleled Artist.
He weaves together dozens of storylines, characters, locales, and possibilities into one ultimately unsettling, ultimately sublime vision. The Great and Secret Show is a shining gem of a novel, each facet leading perfectly to the next, illuminating more of the whole, captivating the eye. There are also monsters made out of poop and semen. Keep an eye out for those.
Clive Barker is really in a different place from the rest of us. This book brings us across and lets us stretch out in his living room. It makes us at home in his home. Which, granted, is a forbidding, ludicrous place made from batshit and waffles. Nonetheless, you’ll be glad you went. And, years from now, you’ll read it again and wish it could be for the first time.