Clive Barker achieved critical acclaim in the early 1980s with his short story collection The Books of Blood. Since then, he has penned more than 10 novels, his most recent being the second book of The Abarat Quartet, Abarat II: Days of Magic, Nights of War. As much a visualist as a wordsmith, Barker frequently turns to the canvas to fuel his imagination. In addition to the paintings he has created for the Abarat quartet, his paintings have been showcased in two books: Clive Barker, Illustrator, Volumes I and II, and shown at exhibitions worldwide. I caught up with Clive by telephone at his home in Beverly Hills.
Brett Alexander Savory: Twenty years ago, you were "the future of horror." As your career progressed, you again found yourself on the cutting-edge, this time of fictions that danced between the different subgenres of the fantastic. Despite all this hype, your nonfiction writing shows a great respect for horror writers past. Who were those you admired then? How did it feel being a fan of these writers, yet considered by the marketing pundits to be someone who seems to be bulldozing his way as the future of the fantastic?
Clive Barker: Okay. My nonfiction writing surely does show enthusiasm for writers. Not just writers, per se; I've always tried to be tri-handed in getting my enthusiasm across easier. So if I mention writers, I almost certainly always mention the influence of filmmakers and, indeed, painters, because painters were a big influence upon me, too. At the moment, because I have two interests, it's twice the fiction. Writing, and painting fiction, if you will. I've been at that for now three, four years without a break, a steady break.
I have kept with fiction almost entirely. I'm not the only writer, I think, you will talk to who doesn't read fiction when he's writing fiction, though. I am superstitious about influence.
BAS: That's actually kind of interesting. I'm that way, too. Once I start a novel, I don't want to read other people's novels, because I find it starts creeping in.
CB: I will occasionally, because I am reviewing, because somebody gives me a book and they want a quote on it, I'll give in to a book, or if its something I like, I'll give a quote. And I've done that a few times in the last couple of years, but most of the time of late, I have been a reader of non-fiction. I'm sitting in my library which has seven or eight thousand books in it—it's a big library and a good place for writing books, and overwhelmingly the books in this part of the library and the library next door are non-fiction. I think that the fiction writer lives in the fictional world and I try wherever possible to spend my time, when I'm reading, in a world of fact, so that I can find more interesting stuff to put into my fiction. I try to appease, constantly, the part of my imagination, the part of my brain, which is stimulated by fact, because, interestingly, most of my ideas, however wild they may appear when they eventually manifest themselves on the page, or on canvas, or on the screen, are rooted in the things that I have read that were factual. The only other major source of my work is dreams, and I don't know how factual those are.
So when I have time, I usually go for the conventional list of Straub, and Poe, and the Bradbury stuff which we all love, and I will always mention Hieronymus Bosch paintings—a huge influence upon my fiction. And I would speak of David Lynch movies, Cronenberg movies, and a lot of Japanese horror movies that I liked way back then. I know now it's become more culturally all right, but I liked them before people liked them. [laughs]
BAS: Before it was "cool" to like them.
CB: Yes. There were movies back when I was a kid, much, much younger, like Ali Baba, and some Japanese horror movies—these movies I saw in my late teens, which made a huge influence on me. So I guess I have to say it's not simply written stories that influence me, it's painted stories, and filmed stories.
BAS: Who do you admire now?
CB: Well, now you've come to the question of what now is, because what I'm reading now doesn't have any fictional bearing in it; what I'm reading now is to bring me out of my shell. Well, actually, I kind of have to be a little curt with you, because the stuff I'm reading right now is in preparation for my next two books, and I don't want to give too much away about it. I don't want to give away what's coming down the line, you know? But I'm never through reading about sexuality, I'm never without reading about animal life, I'm never through reading about religion. So, sex, animals, and God. How's that?
BAS: Sounds good. How did it feel being a fan of these writers, yet considered by the marketing pundits to be "someone who seems to be bulldozing his way as the future of the fantastic"?
CB: Well, you know, the praise in there is by the marketing pundit. I think most writers—most honest writers—have a view of themselves which is much more modest than the people who are marketing the book. I come to the desk where I'm sitting now every morning with the same blank page to write on, and the same trepidation about whether I'll be able to do it, like every other writer. I don't know an honest writer on the planet who does not say there is a little fear that today will be the day when—
BAS: —it stops coming. Yes, exactly....
CB: By the very fact that you are able to finish my sentence, this is a feeling that you must share.
CB: Of course, there are days when you feel a little more confident and up, but there are days when I'm showering, thinking about the work ahead, and having strong doubts about it. It's not that I don't like doing it—I do like doing it—but I want to do it at the top of my game. One of the reasons why I have moved consistently from one area of the fantastic—the world of horror—to the creation of fantastic worlds, Weaveworld, Imajica, etc., and then into illustration and fantasy for children, and a few more things that have come down the pipe, and which have gone superbly. None of the reasons I've done that is to keep that challenge going, to always have that doubt in myself in the morning, because that's part of what makes the work good. I don't want the blood to dry through repetition. When we put the first Abarat book out a couple of years ago, I was absolutely as anxious as I was when I first put out a book twenty years before, because it's a new area for me, and my inspiration might be misled, and who knows what people would say? I think, for me, and I can only speak for myself, the elements of the subgenres have a way in which they keep me on my toes.
BAS: How is the Tortured Souls movie coming along? Is the story going to follow the same one included with the toys?
CB: To answer the first part of your question, it's coming along very well. I have a meeting with my producers on Friday, and they will go over the screenplay, which I have been polishing in preparation for my direction of the movie.
It will be taking elements of the story, character elements, little stories from the models, but it goes off in its own, very particular direction, and it's a story I really look forward to telling, I'm very excited about the prospect of getting out there and shedding the romantic cloth. It's a very scary story, actually. I'm very excited to put it together. I may be a 51-year-old man now, but there's a little boy inside of me, and when I was a little boy scout, one of the things I could really do was tell campfire stories, you know at night, out in the country, with 20 or so other 10-year-old kids, sitting around a campfire. I grew up in a big city, so when we went out to the country, it was a big deal for us, and we would pile into our cars, and go out camping, and the leaders would say, "Clive, this is your moment." And it was my moment to shine; they always knew that anybody that bullied me during the day, that mocked me, would not be able to do it again out there. In actual fact, it was my time for revenge. And I think there's a little part of me that's still that 8-year-old kid, you know, still holding their attention.
BAS: Yeah, just on a bit of a larger scale.
CB: Exactly: things change, and yet they stay the same.
BAS: What director would you like to work with next? And what type of movie would you like to do next?
CB: Kelly Asbury is a man who is about to become very famous because he directed Shrek 2, which is a superb movie. He is going to direct a picture for me called The Thief of Always. That's the director I want to work with, and that's the movie! I think, in my eyes, he will be honest. We have, right now, a lot of horror movies in very active development. We're very close, in fact on a number of movies: Tortured Souls; we also have the six-hour miniseries of Weaveworld, which will be out next year. Abarat is being scripted this year by John Harris, and it's going forward, and, of course, Kelly is working on The Thief of Always. So all the areas that I'm playing with in my fiction—horror fiction, fantasy fiction, children's fiction—it's all coming to the screen, which is a great thing. Over the next two to three years, you will see an eruption of Barker projects on television and on the big screen, including The History of the Devil, one of my plays. Lots of stuff going down the line.
BAS: Over recent years, your projects seem to have scaled down on the commercial and grown more personal. Is there any truth in this?
CB: This is a big question. My literary projects or my non-literary projects?
BAS: Literary, because obviously, with the movies, there is a bit of an inherent commercial aspect to it.
CB: I'm not so sure that statement is true. You can't write something with a commercial intention. If I am motivated purely by the cash, at the end of the road, I'm untouched, I'm unmoved. In other words, the stuff that I write has always been to some degree or other proof. If I write horror stuff, it's because that stuff scares me, and if it's going to scare me, I would hope that it would have the same effect on the reader. If I write a fantasy book, like Weaveworld, that was a particular story, actually, because that book is very close to my heart. Now Galilee, a fairly commercial book, that book came about because the man that I've shared my life with for the last ten years is, in fact, black, and I wanted to write about a black hero, in honour of him. The house where much of the action takes place is actually the house where we stayed. In fact, you can take follow the instructions in the book to get to the house. And then Abarat, of course, comes out with a profound intimacy—me writing passionately in the stories inspired by paintings that I've been making over a period of five years. So I guess what I am saying is that I don't know of any time that I have put a pen to my paper to write a novel or a short story which was not personal.
BAS: To what extent did BDSM inspire the writing of The Hellbound Heart?
CB: Well, I've always had a toe in that world and I'm interested in it, and in my younger days, one of my sources of great pride was that I did an illustration. It went into a magazine called S & M in London, and the magazine was arrested for the obscenity of my illustration. I also think that one of the points of pleasure has been seeing how the mythology of Hellraiser and the imagery of Hellraiser has in its turn influenced the BDSM scene. You know, it's been wonderful to see bodies that are covered in tattoos from Hellraiser and scenes played out that are a complete homage to the Hellraiser movies.
BAS: The biggest compliment an artist can be paid is when life imitates his art.
CB: Absolutely. I love it when people find it sexual. So yes, it was influenced by BDSM, and I guess it has come full circle.
BAS: This is similar to when, in The Dark Fantastic, Doug says, quoting you, where you went to a Halloween party, and you walked up to someone dressed as Pinhead and said, "I created you!" and they told you to fuck off. Despite the response, it must be incredible for someone to make that their Halloween costume.
CB: It's immense fun. And the interesting thing there is that at that point you realize that artists, particularly actors, generally speaking, are often the celebrities of our culture. I don't think it's useful to be a celebrity. I give fewer appearances, and when I do, it tends to be tied to the release of a book. I'll go on television once in a while, but by and large, I don't want to be giving opinions about politics and social matters. My job is to tell stories and stay invisible.
BAS: In interviews, Stephen King has said that he finds it increasingly difficult to get back into the world of The Gunslinger for his Dark Tower novels. Is it the same sort of thing for you with the books of the Art? What can you tell us about the third book?
CB: I have never found it difficult to slip back into the mythology. I have three mythologies in play at the moment, actually four. The Abarat mythology, the Quiddity mythology—the Art mythology—the second book of Galilee, and right now, right in front of me, I'm writing the last Hellraiser story, a story in which we will finally say goodbye to Pinhead.
BAS: So is this a novella, or a novel?
CB: A novella, which will go in a collection of short fiction which will be published in the coming year. It's a long story, pitting Harry D'Amour against Pinhead in a no-holds-barred battle, which is very electrifying. I'm having a great time writing it. Pinhead's going to die in this one. And so to answer the question, I don't find it difficult.
Here's a story; you may not know it: In Abarat 2, which is coming out September 21st, I wrote the second book, and was about a week from sending it to the publishers, and I read it through one last time, to check on the punctuation, and decided I didn't like it, and threw it out in its entirety, and began again, and that had taken me a year to write. It was an interesting exercise. You, as a writer, can relate to what that's all about. It just didn't seem to capture what I mean and what I wanted it to be. I owe my readers the best I can make of material, and I also feel that any areas I made in the conception or the shaping of the material would have had dire consequences for book three and book four. I felt I had to go back and start again. There is nothing in the new version of book two which was contained in the old version of the book. So maybe that suggests that I did have more difficulty in entering into the world; maybe that was the problem. I was writing the second book on the heels of the first book. I didn't go off and write a screenplay; I ended book one and started book two. The third book will be an enormous book, and I know what's going to happen, or at least I know in broad strokes, and I know that's going to contain a lot of stuff which, in a weird way, I've been learning in the time since I finished the other book.
I think, as a writer, you learn to take in information and find the moment when it's right to tell the story. That's one of the reasons why I'm not one of those writers who predictably turns out a book a year; I'm not very good at that sort of thing. Even if I did turn out a book reasonably regularly, it wouldn't be the book people would be expecting, anyway. Sometimes I find I need to allow myself to grow into the moment of writing the book. And, the mythology of the Art—as the title suggests—is a mythology incredibly close to my heart. I am an artist, so, of course, I want to write the book of the Art—the third and final book—with as much feeling as possible. It's going to be a big book when it comes, and I beg for patience, and promise that it will be well worth the wait. I think what the third book will concern itself with is what the very origins of Quiddity, what the connection between humanity's origin and the origin of the conscience—the dream consciousness—that is there in the Sea of Quiddity, what that connection is. I've always believed in the idea of a collective unconscious, and Quiddity is really that. It's the sea we enter, as the mythology goes, where we enter once on the night when we are born, once on the night when we first kiss, and fall in love with the world, and once at the time we die. At the most serious and profound moments in our lives, we are given a moment to enter this place of pure dreaming, and that's fascinating, my fascination with dreaming. My dreams are mirrors of my soul. I'm hoping that will all be reflected in the third and final book.
BAS: On the cover of the UK edition of Coldheart Canyon, there's a blurb from Quentin Tarantino. Is there a friendship between you two beyond that of creator and appreciator?
CB: We know each other; we see each other very, very irregularly at functions. I tend not to go to the Hollywood things, so we've met very irregularly, though we have talked on occasion, and I've certainly written introductions for him. There was an introduction for the published text of From Dusk 'Til Dawn, and of course a quote for me, so I hope there is a thread, in that we admire each other's work, and it's nice. I'm a bit of a lone shark. I keep to myself. I stay away from the Hollywood scene almost entirely, and so I don't really know my peers. I very seldom leave my house—I'm painting, I'm writing, working, and so when I do talk with Quentin, it's usually because there is a project in the air, and I remain a fond admirer of him.
BAS: Have you seen either of the Kill Bills?
CB: I've seen Kill Bill Vol. 1, but not 2 yet. I have to reserve judgement until I've seen 2 to really judge the film as a whole.
BAS: We saw the second movie the other night. It's a different movie in that it's got different sensibilities than the first one. Which is interesting considering it's all one story, but that he chose to do them in different ways. With Lord of the Rings, it's all one style.
CB: I think one of things that Quentin has always been is a pasticheur, and I think that he's always been very open about that. His style is essentially a refinement of other people's styles: "I'm doing this because I love Sergio Leone, etc.," and that's cool. You know what? I think he should do The Sound of Music...with killer nuns. [laughs]
BAS: [laughs] That'd be great. Do you miss performing on the stage as much as you used to in the Dog Company, or is that a part of your life you've been comfortable letting go?
CB: That was such a long time ago, and I was never really good at it, to be honest with you. I was always the weakest actor, and totally outclassed by Doug Bradley. So I don't miss it at all; I'm kind of shy and I enjoy doing it a bit at a time. No loss there.
BAS: Do you ever get the urge to write another stageplay, or is Colossus likely to be the end of the road on that front?
CB: There's a possibility. My problem, honestly, is that there aren't enough hours in the day, and on a day like today, I'm trying to put together a deal to make a bunch of horror movies, so I'm on the phone most of the morning with lawyers and folks trying to get them together. This afternoon, I'll be writing. After this interview, I'll go and answer fan mail for a few hours, which I do once a month. And I'll paint. At about 7 or 8 o'clock, I'll get into my painting clothes and go next door. It's a long day, broken up into different segments. In this day and age, you need to be a businessman in some respects, and because I work at the moment in three mediums—writing, painting, and filmmaking—I divide my day accordingly, and dividing it again into playwriting would be hard for me. But that's not to say I'd discount the idea; if the right thing comes along, I'm there.
BAS: As an aside, in Doug's book, where it ended, I believe that you had done a hundred paintings for Abarat; I was just wondering how many more you had done.
BAS: Wow! Are there going to be more, or is this it?
CB: There will be about 600 in the end.
BAS: And they'll all be in the books?
CB: Not all of them will make it into the third or fourth books, but what I'm hoping we'll do is release a super-edition of Abarat when all four books are finished, and maybe we'll put all four books into the same book—a 2,000-page volume, with all of the paintings in. In the meanwhile, I think I should tell you, if I can slip this in—and you're the first person I'm telling this to—we are going to have an exposition of paintings in Chicago, in the autumn, at the Museum of Modern Arts. It will not be all of them, a very small number, but you'll be able to see them in person. I'm very excited.
BAS: You tend to write about alienation in your fiction, about people being cast out of society simply because of their differences, be it their sexuality, appearance, beliefs, etc. You also frequently show the traditional bad guys as good guys and vice-versa (e.g, Night Breed). Do you think this is the tendency that attracted you to the West Memphis Three case?
CB: Yes, of course. It's very important to me to, when I can, lend my voice, whether it's a fictional voice or whether it's a voice being used in a public forum, to say something in support of those who, in some way or other, are outcasts, to empower people in what is essentially a predominately white-built, male-built power structure—and a predominately straight-built power structure. And the fight isn't over. We haven't won. There are still churches breeding hatred and division; there is still the Reverend Phelps going to the funerals of gay people, and people who died of AIDS, and carrying posters saying that they're dying and suffering in Hell. We haven't won the war against the inhumane and cruel and the heartless, and the elements that exist in our culture—the extremists who rot what is good in our belief system by pushing their own particularly corrupt codes, their excuses for their own prejudice. And I want to be useful. Every artist wants to be useful. I want to have an effect; more than anything I want to have an effect.
BAS: I wanted to thank you for letting us use those ten black-and-white drawings for the West Memphis 3 benefit anthology, The Last Pentacle of the Sun.
CB: You are so welcome; it was no problem.
BAS: In Doug Winter's The Dark Fantastic, Doug writes in a footnote: "Brewing at the heart of the weave is an image that haunts Barker's fiction: 'And at the centre of this burgeoning province, perhaps the most awesome sight of all: a mass of slate-coloured cloud, the innards of which were in perpetual, swirling motion.'" What does this image represent to you?
CB: Creation. The dark cloud that is constantly in motion, that is what I envision. One of things I hate about living in L.A. is that the skies are always clear. I love storms: the air being electric, clouds gathering, the air turning that wonderful golden colour, and the calm just before the huge storm. So that image, that symbolic cloud is, I suppose, the churning of my brain, around and around and around. A huge, slate-coloured cloud...all right, not so huge, but a slate-coloured cloud against the top of my skull, occasionally giving off a strike of lightning.
(The author wishes to thank those ChiZine readers who supplied him with several of the questions used in this interview.)