- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 18, 2002

On Books

CLIVE BARKER: THE DARK FANTASTIC
By Douglas E. Winter
HarperCollins, $34.95, 671 pages, illus.

In an age of catastrophic terrorism, what do we make of the kissing cousins of genre fiction horror and fantasy? Since the ghastly events of last fall the old pleasures of being spooked or transported have simply changed. What kind of invented terrors could scare us now?
Douglas E. Winter offers many answers to these questions and more in "Clive Barker: The Dark Fantastic," the absorbing and meticulous authorized biography of one of terror fiction's brightest stars. In it Mr. Winter explores the life of the popular artist and illuminates the way his creations engage and terrify. In so doing Mr. Winter reminds us in the words of Mr. Barker "that the monster and creature, the dark side … are part of ourselves."
But there is more to reading Mr. Barker's fiction or this account of it than getting in touch with our inner ghoul. Although one could argue that horror fiction in general and Mr. Barker's in particular have more to do with thrill and diversion than anything else, especially in these times, there is more life and nuance and subtlety to his work than that. Mr. Winter is an able guide in this regard, taking pains to flesh out the angles of a supercharged protean career.
Mr. Barker has written over two dozen novels, numerous short story collections, plays, film scripts and children's fiction. Of these the most recognizable volumes are part of the "Clive Barker's Books of Blood" series. And his monster creations, notably Pinhead, are more ubiquitous than one realizes. As the illustrations in the book affirm, Mr. Barker's pinned terror is now nearly as iconic as the Frankenstein monster.
Mr. Winter is a seasoned observer of horror and fantasy. A Washington lawyer and novelist his critically acclaimed novel "Run" appeared a few years back he has become something of a spokesperson for the darker fictive impulses. His books include the anthologies "Prime Evil" and "Revelations" and the authorized biography of Stephen King. In this book he applies his skill to following the personal and professional trajectory of one who can share the spotlight with Mr. King or Anne Rice or Dean Koontz but is constitutionally unfit to stay put in the horror genre. For this reason Mr. Barker must have been a terrifically challenging subject, and for the same reason, as interesting.
Mr. Winter opens his book somewhat mysteriously and suggestively. He begins: "Early in the twentieth century, one of our great thinkers, wounded by depression, found healing in a dream. His 'black and opaque' emotions took physical form as he walked the streets of a foreign city, grey with soot and dirt … At the centre of the square, waited revelation: 'a round pool, and in the middle of it a small island. While everything round about was obscured by rain, fog, smoke and dimply lit darkness, the little island blazed with sunlight…'"
The city in question is Liverpool, the birthplace of Clive Barker and the thinker none other than Carl Jung. Much will be made in the 500 pages that follow of the pools, the dreams and islands of light and revelation. Mr. Winter is a strong and often poetic writer and this serves him well in characterizing a man who, if not easily pinned down, is at his essence a seeker moved by the transcendent.
From what we gather from the book, Mr. Barker's childhood was not the lonely and neglected dungeon of misery one might suspect would precede an inclination to write about dark forces violently, these being Hell, voodoo, end of the world, etc. In fact, to the contrary, Mr. Barker's was a tightly knit family of hardworking parents who were conscientious in nurturing the achievements of their two sons. Clive's mother Joan was a wonderful storyteller, and his father Len, a hardworking and dashing man. The family vacationed on the deserted island of Tiree in the Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland, and it was there that Mr. Barker nurtured his love of a certain kind of desolate natural beauty.
And far from looking askance at their son's penchant for violent, bloody and terrifying tales, they celebrated it. At a book party for one of the "Books of Blood," "Joan baked two large fruitcakes in the shape of a coffin, with a head and two hands made of marzipan topped with red icing for blood."
Clive was schooled conventionally and took an early liking to the traditional horror stories of Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Shelley. William Blake was a favorite. He went to the University of Liverpool over the objections of a teacher who believed his gifted student was more Oxford material. While he was there he wrote many plays that contained the horrific, erotic, fantasy elements that would mark his later work. He formed a theater troupe with a group of friends who would remain together for several years exploring the outer limits of the imagination. The plays which form an essential part of his oeuvre include: "The History of the Devil," "Frankenstein in Love," "Subtle Bodies," "The Secret Life of Cartoons" and "Colossus."
In his late twenties, Mr. Barker began writing short fiction. He garnered modest success in Britain but by the time the stories reached the United states, published as "The Inhuman Condition," "In the Flesh " and "Cabal," he was on the fast track to success. Mr. Winter attributes his success to "talent and timing." Two of the early stories were adapted for film but unhappy with the products, Mr. Barker began directing some of his own movies. There followed the publication of "Weaverworld," and "The Great and Secret Show." He was literary. He was box office. His epic fantasy "Imajica" followed. Mr. Barker now lives in Southern California.
While Mr. Barker is best known for his work in the horror genre it is not his only talent and Mr. Winter has taken great care to consider the complete range of a man who, in addition to his writing, paints in vivid colors and designs. Much of the writing and the art may not be to everyone's taste. Still, it is fascinating to read about someone as industrious as Mr. Barker still seeking ever-new ways of expressing himself in a market that is not always hospitable to those wishng to switch gears. Mr. Winter writes, "His illustrated novel for young adults, 'The Thief of Always' was licensed by HarperCollins for a single dollar because of the perceived potential in a marketplace that might not accept a children's book written by a horror maven."
In the end, it is the writer's own words that hold the day. 'The Wood on the Hill,' a short story Mr. Barker wrote for children in 1966, a work that is an appendix to this book, concludes with an evil Duchess vanquished in a land she unsuccessfully tried to dominate. It wraps up this way: "And the woods will never be dark again, for each day is a joy greater than the last, and the world is at peace."
Douglas Winter's thorough accounting of Clive Barker as a man of boundless imagination is a work of solid scholarship and a complete portrait of a still-young, still-evolving artist who has accomplished much.

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