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The Transformations of Clive Barker

by Paul Cornell

First Appeared in Burnt Toast#13, 1993

I once went to see Clive Barker at an ICA seminar on horror fiction, on a panel with Steve Gallagher, amongst others. Gallagher described the need children have for monsters, that his pre-vocal daughter had gone around growling as a cure for nightmares, being the monster rather than its victim. He'd also bought her a book, he said, where teddy takes everything dark and scary in his room into bed with him.

"Yeah," Barker muttered. "My heroes go to bed with things that scare them too."

It's a cool line, delivered in that easily-caught LA accent that seems to suit Barker as well as English does, but it also sums up his career. In a notoriously conservative and illiterate genre, he's always been the one with the literary skill and the wild politics. Finally, a Harlan Ellison of horror. But just lately, he seems to have lost track. Let be begin by analysing what Barker does that very few other people seem to.

The basic horror story is about the community, about defining it with reference to a dirty great monster. We aren't the monsters. They are. Even when we are the monsters (in Invasion of the Body Snatchers for example), the horror is that the monsters aren't really like us, even if they look it. That's one strand. The other strand, the confusing one, is that the monsters are also bits of us. The dark bits. Hence Dracula movies, where the community unites against the monster, but we all rather illicitly enjoy the vampire's style, and Werewolf movies, where we love hunting along with the beast inside, even if movie makers insist on stopping the monster at the end. American Werewolf is almost an interrogation of why a director should feel that the monster has to be suppressed. These two strands are linked by a final one, the victim strand. This says it's okay for our rampant dark desires to attack and kill people who are also outside the community, people that, gasp, deserve it. That's why it's always the couple necking in the car that are first attacked by the monster. In this incredibly fascistic wild justice, sexuality has to be limited to marriage and society, or it's fair game for the monsters.

This is all, of course, hideously politically incorrect. Frank Herbert does it to lesbians in The Fog, Bram Stoker does it to women (any women!) in Dracula, and poor old Oscar Wilde does it to himself in Dorian Gray. There had to come a time where somebody would leave the box open, let the monster out, and say that, by the end of the movie, that wasn't such a bad thing. The Howling was a step in that direction, so was the work of Stephen King (who'd be so much better if he'd stop trying to be a Great American Writer, still, the end of Misery is some sort of historical moment for the genre). The figure who finally freed horror from conservative psychological release cycles was Clive Barker.

The monster is part of the community, or of his own community. He almost deserves a PC classification, he's got 'difficult to meet needs'. A Barker hero is an ordinary person, of no particular moral angle, who meets a horrible fate, and then... and it's the continuation that marks out this work as so different. Pinhead is the ultimate 'and then' figure, a man who's gone through hell and found out that... it's not so bad. It's an S&M thing. The fear is the entertaining part. Once you've experienced the torture, the horrific moment that would be the last scene of most previous horrors, you then realise that... it's not so bad. In some ways this approach is very humane, reflecting the great ability of mankind to live under appalling conditions. In other ways, it heightens the delicious feeling for the reader of standing near the edge of the cliff. There's a guy standing on mid-air, a few feet away, after all.

Perhaps the sadism and domination of Barker's work is a reflection on the change in Western literature between two apocalypses, that of nuclear war and that of AIDS. The threat of atomic destruction always encouraged a point where the screen went white, a moment of dislocating and ending as portrayed so well in Terminator 2. Think of all those nuclear monsters, seizing those fifties couples in their cars. Fade to black. The community has to hang together and hang the outsider in order to save itself from the nuclear terror. Only the Japanese, with their monsters who start to crunch Tokyo at the start of the movie, got to experience the aftermath of the terror. Now that particular fear's gone, and instead we've got the longer doomsday of AIDS. That might have been a reason to increase the sexual repression, and in some cases (Shaun Bloody Hutson), it's brought horrid things to the surface. But Barker offers a new alternative.

Barker's books are about biological change, and living with horror on a day to day basis. They offer the complex ritual of S&M as a bizarre alternative to the quick orgasm of nuclear destruction. In many ways, instead of being comforted, the Barker reader is made to confront bits of life they may have wanted to ignore. So is the Barker hero. The Midnight Meat Train allows a man tired of the late capitalist world to escape to a whole different community, the only horror being the sacrifice he has to make to get there. And it's... not so bad. Hellraiser suggests that the process of becoming a skin-hunting monster is... not so bad. In the Hills the Cities offers a neat reversal on the punish-the-deviant theme. The gay heroes are human, positive and sympathetic. They engage our identification, only for them to be killed in a scenario which owes much to the ancient deviant-bashing stuff. The only difference is that they're killed by monsters that neatly represent all the standard forces of oppression. That, in contrast to all the other monster stuff is... so bad. In one go, the community has become the monsters. That's a great achievement, and one that could only be possible in an era when the reader has developed a healthy distrust of the community.

This isn't to say that Barker doesn't overstep his own mark sometimes. The suggestion that a policeman enjoys the male rape he experiences is a dodgy one. It ill suits the new flesh to fall into the same errors as their ancestors. Cabal is simply a bad book, rushed out and an obvious draft for a screenplay that was a lot better. It's main problem is the reliance on nightmarish tone to get past reality problems. We can emphasise with feeling so alienated we want to go and join a city of monsters. We all come out as a monster some time. What we can't emphasise with is believing our psychiatrist quite so quickly and absolutely when he says we're a serial killer. It's a calculated risk on Barker's part, based on his careful following of mythical or archetypical material. It doesn't work.

Barker's fascination with myth seems to be getting the better of him. It was he who first connected the two great 'intelligent female reader' categories in the bookshops, Horror and Fantasy, to forge Dark Fantasy. These days he seems to be forgetting his intention to lead us through places we suspect we'd rather not go. Weaveworld was muddled, but won on points owing to its mythical force and genuine feel for the horrors of humanity. Imajica and The Great and Secret Show are even less focussed, and seem to be showing an alarming tendency to substitute Big New Ideas for human observation.

Recently I heard a radio interview with Barker where a group of ill-informed critics berated him for writing violent and horrific material. Instead of identifying them as the hypocrites they were, and leading them through that dark territory inside, Barker surrendered completely. He said his early works were only to allow him to write his new stuff, which would be harmless and emphasise the values of home and hearth.

It sounds to me like the monsters just lost their spokesman.


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