Friday 8 October 2010

AB-solutely FAB-ulist: The Heart & Soul Of Clive Barker

Clive Barker is no longer the foremost figure in British ‘horror’. He is the world’s foremost ‘fabulist’, a genre he created for himself that he says stems from folklore, fairy-tales and scripture. He has also fled these shores, having set up home just outside Los Angeles. 

The fame of Barker has grown and grown, from the first cult readership of The Books Of Blood short stories more than two decades ago, to the now world-wide audience that keep his novels in the international best selling charts for months on end. 

Clive Barker photo courtesy of HarperCollins

His more recent works have been epic tales that sweep the reader along from world to world and from one reality to another. Galilee was the novel to firmly establish Clive Barker as a literary presence outside of genre, it is a huge generation-spanning family saga set against the broad canvas of America’s bloodstained history - a little bit of a departure from what his vast audience may have come to expect. Although there is action occurring on supernatural planes, much of the drama is earthbound and human centred. 

So was Barker deliberately trying to come down to earth in order appeal to a yet wider audience? 

“I could not say that I woke up one morning and decided to do this - I don’t have a lot of control over the way my imagination works, it sort of decides by itself. I always had a passion to do a multi-generational family saga. I wanted to do something with a real sweep to it.” 

“I’ve made sure that supernatural stuff is going on in the book, but I can see by the numbers that we were widening the readership as I context these fantastical events in more realistic settings. As I’ve moved more in that direction, my readers have moved along with me…” 

He has turned four of his stories into major movies, Hellraiser, Nightbreed, Candyman and Lord Of Illusion, in addition to the numerous adaptations based on his huge repertoire of short stories. His epic saga, Weaveworld, has been adapted for television as a series, though this project has yet to reach fruition after ten years in development. It did see a transmedia manifestation when it was published back in 1991 as a three-part comic series, adapted by Erik Salzgaber, who has more recently written for the CSI franchise.

On its release, Hellraiser was hailed as heralding the resurgence of British horror cinema... So what happened? 

“The problem is that the Americans stole our thunder. They make these movies so much faster and so much cheaper than we do. I had to go to America for the money to make Hellraiser, I had to for Nightbreed. I went to America to make movies there... there’s nowhere to make my kind of movies here.” 

 Clive Barker made his presence felt in the USA, rapidly earning himself a degree of notoriety and infamy. Hellraiser and especially Nightbreed stirred up plenty of trouble with the MPAA, the American equivalent to the British Board of Film Censors. Are the States a suitable climate for making his kind of movies? 

“They gave us seventeen scenes they wanted cut from Nightbreed... I got four Xs on the movie and I only got one on Hellraiser. Which is bizarre to my mind because the movie is a much mellower and less aggressively horrible movie than Hellraiser. Well both movies are fairy tales.

“What can you say - they’re inconsistent. That is the nature of the censorship game: you never know where they’re going to come from. They’re always going to find something, that you don’t think twice about, bothers them in an incredibly weird way and then something that you think is really gonna cause trouble, they just pass over. There’s no logic or pattern to it and that’s very irritating. 

 “There are people who have suffered it far worse than I have, Cronenberg is obviously an example, but that’s the way it is, you’re dealing with irrational people.” 

What was it like dealing with David Cronenberg - one of Barker’s heroes and one of the horror genre’s most respected directors himself - who starred in Nightbreed

“Wonderful, a deeply rational man. He is someone who’s enthusiasm for the genre is not dissimilar to mine in the sense that we both feel that you can do things with the genre which are more than saying ‘Boo’ behind people’s backs. I’ve never been interested in ‘Boo’ pictures, and David isn’t either. You don’t go to one of David’s movies to be made to jump, you get something different, a kind of intelligence and poetry which is missing in most horror movies. 

“And he had a good time making the movie. He said, ‘Hey do I get to come back with worms coming out of my eyes?’ And I said, ‘David, if you want to come back with worms coming out of your eyes, you got it guy, no problem’!” 

It’s not only the MPAA that get worked up over Barker’s fiction and films. We all know that the States are crammed with fanatics and bible-thumpers, but Clive knows this better than most... 

“I get so much mail, some saying I am already burning in Hell - which is an interesting theological notion - but many saying I will burn in Hell, or that I’m the Devil’s child or on occasion I’m elevated to the Devil himself. I get copies of The Bible with passages underlined and so on. I mean the hypocrisy and nonsense of it all, where does one begin?” 

Which of course leads us to believe that these god-bothering people actually read Barker’s books... Does it worry him that there is this fascination with the darker side, which is always a prominent theme in his works? 

“I’m much more concerned that people are interested in the Catholic church. I’m much more concerned that the Catholic church prevents contraception in nations that are spilling over with starving babies. It seems to me that the people who pull on the black magic string don’t look at the organised religions and their horrors anything like closely enough. If you want a really scary religion, look at fundamentalism, in any form.” 

Clive Barker was born and raised in Liverpool, which has a strong Catholic community and culture, how much does he owe to his roots? The accent is now lost and his speech liberally spiced with Americanisms... 

“I never had the accent. Knowing what part of is your roots, what part is your education, what part is genetic, what part of you is self made - those are difficult analyses. It’s a bit like being told by some body that you look like one of your relatives... and you can’t see the resemblance, it may very well be there, but you just can’t see it. And I feel the same about my roots. Maybe I do seem like a child of Liverpool, but I can’t see the resemblance. Your environment makes a mark on you, of course.” 

Ever since the first groups of humans huddled round the first fires, the Shaman has been with us - priest, teacher, medicine man. A storyteller recounting his dreams, tales of spirits and animals in the Otherworld. His dreams would become the dreams of the tribe, their identity.

It is from his dream diary that Clive Barker plucks many ideas and themes for his bizarre creations. His dreams become his drawings, stories, novels, films, and our memories and nightmares. There are many parallels between the state of dreaming and watching a movie in the darkened auditorium. Does Barker parallel himself at all with the Shaman? 

“The whole idea of the shamanistic principle, that the tribe can collectively dream a solution to a problem and that the shaman somehow indicates the direction in which the tribe heads off into their collective unconscious, to pick around amongst the bones of old gods and return with news and indications... that is very easily parallel with what, particularly the writer of the fantastique is doing. 

“The realist, the writer of naturalist fiction, is necessarily bound, by definition. The fantasist says, all right, I can write about divinity, semi-divinity, demons, gods and spirits of air and water or stone. I can write about human beings, sane, crazed, visionary, even dead and I can write about them all in landscapes that are very realistic or very unrealistic. I can write about them in states of mind which are also worlds unto themselves. 

“So when you’ve got that range of possibilities, reality dissolves, which I think is a dreamstate in a way because in our dreams we also meet the dead, we commune with gods and spirits. Whether we literally do that is an issue which I haven’t resolved for myself. I’m tempted to think that sometimes we do, that there is a literal sense in which in certain states of consciousness, dreaming, trance states, drug states, any altered states, I think it’s very possible that in some instances we are actually communicating with entities other than human, at least other than living human. 

“But even putting aside that possibility - which I realise marks me as a crazy - let’s just assume that this is all the mind’s creation. Even under those circumstances, in dreams we are learning from our subconscious, which is, to take the realist view, representing itself as the dead or the semi-divinities in order to instruct us. We are learning from those forms and forces in symbolic form, and we are growing by the exchange.” 

The Shaman was the most respected of the tribe, he has a great power, but little wealth. Is it the power or the wealth that motivates Barker? Does he find himself exercising restraint in his fiction to comply with what his now vast audience want to see? 

“I don’t know what they want. They seem to be willing to take me at my most extreme. Which pleases me. Great And Secret Show doesn’t soft pedal any of its themes, which are very difficult. There is some strange fantastical stuff, the odd sex, some very violent material, it’s a big book and so on... Yet it was one of the most popular books in terms of number of copies sold that I’ve done. So I don’t think about my audience in the sense that I think, ‘Oh, I’d better not do that - it might turn them off’. 

“With movies it’s a different thing. You’ve got the constant problem of the MPAA and the BBFC and so you’ve got people telling you that you can’t do this... but in books it never occurs to me to mellow what I do... 

“As for motivation... I got through my twenties without earning a dime and not worrying about it. Money has never been a motivation. 

“It is very important for me to produce - to make things that don’t resemble other people’s things. Not just for my audience’s sake but for my own so I don’t bore myself... It’s important for me to have the power storytelling gives. There is something very wonderful about holding someone enthralled, just as there is something wonderful about being held enthralled. 

“I love to be told a story, I love to be in the middle of a movie and know that this movie’s got me. Not just fantasy stories, it’s all kinds of stories... The story is about what happens next. That’s what the kid wants to know when he’s told a story, ‘What happens next?’ It’s very primitive, very simple. And I love to have that done for me. 

“I hate knowing what is going to happen next. My problem with most Hollywood movies is you always do. There’s a terrible predictability about most movies, particularly horror movies. You enter most movies knowing who’s gonna live or die, knowing what the division of good and bad is, knowing who you’re going to end up caring for and who you’re not. 

“I have nothing in my life but work - that may sound like a trial, but it isn’t. I desire nothing in my life but the making of stories on the screen or on the page, and it obsesses me.” 

Clive Barker has more than enough to keep himself busy... In addition to creating and writing his ‘fabulist’ tales – currently concentrating on the Abarat series that he also illustrates – he has ventured deeper and deeper into the world of Hollywood and film production. He was Executive Producer on the 1998 film, Gods And Monsters, the critically respected biopic of cult horror director James Whale. Dread, adapted from Barker’s short story by Anthony DiBlasi was released in 2009 and there are two more movie manifestations currently awaiting release: The Thief Of Always, scheduled for 2010, and Tortured Souls, adapted from his own Hellraiser-linked short story and being directed by Barker himself … and he tells us that he intends to, “get on with the business of making movies on a case by case basis...” 

Then, after a short pause, he adds, “But I don’t take movies as seriously as I take books. And never will.” 

Clive Barker was in conversation with Remy Dean

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