This is an interview with Clive Barker that featured in Albedo One #3 from Winter 1993. Hopefully it gives an interesting snapshot of his thoughts and opinions at that point in his career. This is the first time that it has appeared on-line.
When word trickled down that there was the chance to interview a major writer, who was also a film director, playwright and artist, I grabbed Des Doyle (expert on all things fantastical) and elbowed myself to the head of the queue. Naturally we were more than a little in awe of, what to us was a very important person indeed, but after less than two minutes in his company he had put us entirely at our ease, Clive Barker is not only a very talented man but also a very friendly and likeable one. On the sort of schedule he was maintaining during the weeks leading up to our meeting he had every right to be jet lagged and irritable. Instead he was polite, enthusiastic and appeared to be as interested in us as we were in him. If I wasn’t a fan before the interview, I certainly was afterwards.
ALBEDO ONE: In the new edition of The Hellbound Heart the word fabulist occurs as a description of the type of writer you are. Is this your word or that of the Harper Collins publicity machine?
BARKER: It was my notion that… the terminology was somewhat troubled. Publishers and bookstores have the desire to compartmentalise the kind of fiction we’re interested in. Sometimes in a way which forces the fiction to be viewed in a way that is not useful to that fiction, dividing the whole area of imaginative fiction into Horror, SF and Fantasy only works to a certain point, there are places were the material seems to be all three things – Alien as a movie seems to be plainly all three things and there are certainly lots of literary equivalents to that – Weaveworld and The Great and Secret Show, and certainly books which touch on horror, certainly have large fantastical elements in them and also have elements of SF, not hard SF, not hi-tech SF, not Bill’s (Gibson) cyberpunk SF but perhaps an older sense, a 19th century sense of SF. Anyway however the dialectic goes, the fact is that the areas overlap in a lots of places. I am not interested in writing for a particular genre audience, I am interested in writing for people who are interested in imaginative fiction, which I see as a body of literature which is very rich, very large, very varied which runs from Moby Dick to Alice in Wonderland and passes through Dante and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, obviously Frankenstein and Gulliver’s Travels and Pilgrim’s Progress. It’s this massive body of imaginative fiction.
ALBEDO ONE: Does this give you a problem in the States where they’re keener on giving labels to everything?
BARKER: Actually I’ve had less problems with categorizations in the States than I’ve had here. Not movies, I’m talking about books now. That may be because I’m an import there, I’m not quite in translation -I’m British so I’m weird anyway – there’s always that assumption. I’ve always said that if my books were translated from the Portuguese I’d get better reviews. That whole academic critical tradition – if it’s imported then it’s probably magic realism. And if it’s home bred it’s genre. I looked at the terminologies and saw that I fit into none of them, or all three depending on your point of view, and if I used the general term fantasy it will be associated with Tolkien, which is not the kind of work that I do, or Conan the Barbarian, or dragon-haunted Anne McCaffrey territory. A new word was needed, or rather an old word was revitalized, and that word was fabulist -somebody who makes fables, somebody who lies, somebody who deals in the fabulous. I’ve also tried and I’m very pleased to find that it’s carrying some weight now, to use the word fantastique to describe this body of fiction and I’m just stealing something from the French and using it in our vocabulary in the hope that eventually we begin, even within the community of the people who are intent on analysing this body of work, using this word, because ‘we are purveyors of imaginative fiction’ is a rather laborious way of putting it. We make the fantastique have a little bit more elegance to it. Labels are also finally, completely redundant. Once the person has picked up the book and is reading it, it doesn’t matter what the terminologies are. But you need the label to get them to pick it up in the first place. At least until the name means more that the label. Which is what’s begun to happen now and I think people pick up a Clive Barker book and it doesn’t matter as long as I don’t write a cookbook.
ALBEDO ONE: Were the Books of Blood originally written with the intention of submitting them to magazines?
BARKER: They were written in the first place as entertainments for friends and they were published by accident. I had a theatre agent who frankly knew fuck all about publishing books but he had a rudimentary grasp. I showed him these stories which weren’t to his taste at all but he said, ‘I’ll do something with them’. He sent four or five to Gollancz at first and the story goes that Livia Gollancz, the matriarch of Gollancz at the time, clutched her pearls and shrieked as though she had discovered there was a mouse in her underwear and said take these away from me. And then we passed them along to Barbara Booth at Sphere who said we’ll take these – we’ 11 take whatever you’ ve got. I said well that’s actually all I’ve got. She said we can’t do much with this small number but we could do more if you had more. So I said give me some time and that’s how those came about. But it was, as with so many of these things, as much accident as intention. I’d like to claim that there was some great master plan … I’m not even sure that my career hasn’t gone from one accident to another. I’m not very good with the long view, I just follow my imagination and it leads me into new areas constantly. I get very bored very quickly so I tend to move on because I’m tired of a certain area.
ALBEDO ONE: Can you see yourself getting tired of the fabulist area?
BARKER: No because the fabulist area is as big as Moby Dick to Alice in Wonderland. The whole point about fabulism is that, I think, it’s the interesting fifty percent of literature.
ALBEDO ONE: You once said in an interview that your books were written from the points of view of somebody on the outside looking in and that Stephen King wrote from the inside looking out. Can you enlarge on this?
BARKER: Steve writes from the point of view that the status quo is something to be valued. I think that the status quo is actually repressive and banal and wretched. He writes from the point of view of ordinary individuals whose lives and values are under threat from forces, monstrous things from other countries (how terrible), or other planets with strange plants. You know the old line about aliens coming and raping our food and eating our women. I think Steve’s perception is the world outside the community, perhaps even outside the family is a dangerous threatening place which is full of strange people with odd sexual habits, with strange configurations to their faces etc. I come the opposite way. I view the family as being the root of much of the unhappiness the individual feels. The conservatism, the very mundaneness of people’s lives, the source of the rage that makes people explode into violence and anti- social behaviour. And certainly the social and religious structures which control those communities, families in their intellectual compartments, are also responsible for the profound unhappiness individuals feel com-promising what is in them right through their lives, so my heroes or heroines, if they’re not marginal to start with become marginalised the further from the status quo they go or are summoned, for very often the thing that lies outside and threatens the status quo is in fact finally indifferent to it. The powers that come through my books, the semi-divinities, the monsters, angels and demons don’t really have the same kind of destructive intentions that Steve’s monsters do. They couldn’t give a fuck about the status quo, they don’t care about screwing up the world; what they care about is their own agenda which is actually a much larger agenda than destroying a whole bunch of houses on a hill. A lot of times the human beings are irrelevancies to them, and what the human beings in my stories often do is grab hold of this passing glimpse of transcendence and say I want a bit of this, maybe I’m frightened but I’m more hungry for it than I am frightened. Part of it is about purpose and meaning. What often happens in my stories is that when these forces appear in the lives of these ordinary people, the people realise that there is a larger context for their behaviour. Maybe they realise that their lives are not going to end when they draw their final breath, that around them in the atmosphere are forces that are important to them.
ALBEDO ONE: Do you believe that?
BARKER: Completely. It is my belief about the world. I am putting into metaphorical form my profoundest beliefs about what the world is like. I believe that – whose quote is it – “not only is the world stranger than we know, it is stranger than we can know “? As children we know more about the world, grasp all kinds of possibilities about it. Then we steadily close down. The shutters are nailed across our faces. And what the fiction of fantastique does is get its fingernails under the shutters and start to pull again to let a little bit of light into the sealed unit of our consciousness and say ‘remember the sense of wonder, the sense of infinite possibilities, remember what happened when you were first told the stars were really suns and that the light was very old and maybe these suns had even gone out by that time and remember all of those wonderments, and having remembered all those things remember them again.
ALBEDO ONE: Would you describe Stephen King as an influence?
BARKER: No. I think you can see from my fiction that he’s not. He’s a force of nature. He has an incredible fecundity, a massive audience and I am extremely happy for him, he’s a very nice man and I wish him every success in the world. I feel not the slightest compunction to compete with him.
ALBEDO ONE: Did him christening you the future of horror put a weight on your shoulders?
BARKER: I think it was a weight that I shrugged pretty quickly. Weaveworld was published three years after the Books of Blood came out almost to say I’m not a horror writer, I’m not in this competition, I’m not running a race.
ALBEDO ONE: In the publicity material for Imagica, names like C.S Lewis, Lewis Carroll and J.G Ballard are mentioned. Are these your influences?
BARKER: Influences fall into at least two categories – the category of authors you read when you’re a child and you first get a sense that adults are actually making a profession out of telling these kinds of stories. There’s another kind which you discover later. Ballard would fall into that category.
ALBEDO ONE: The influence of authors in childhood is more profound?
BARKER: Yes absolutely. Finally the first book of the fantastique that you pick up and read all to yourself or the first book that you buy – I remember I bought a Pan edition of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination for two and six back in 1962 or something, at the age often. It was a major investment and I treasured it and I read it through many times until I had another two and six to buy something else. The effect that a book like this has on you is profound It’s like your first fuck – you’re never going to forget it.
ALBEDO ONE: It might not have been that great, but you’re…
BARKER: …never going to forget it. Exactly. Especially if you’ve paid for it. The feeling you get when you discover books with an intellectual subtext, which Poe has but I didn’t know at the age often. Actually Lewis has in the Narnia books but I was completely unaware of. We then disgraced into a lengthy (well, fairly lengthy) discussion on C.S Lewis’s Christianity, Orson Scott Card’s championing of the Mormon faith and other esoterica but…
BARKER: The whole issue of the Christian fantastique fascinates me now because of Imagica – because Imagica is a book in which the hero turns out to be the half- brother of Christ – so I went back to all my favourite examples of the Christian fantastique. Pilgrim’s Progress is prime amongst those and an extraordinary work of the imagination which is completely passed over in books about the history of the imagination . If you study that book it is an extraordinary mental journey that is being taken and immaculately cleanly presented. I count that a success. I count Charles Williams a failure. The theology doesn’t marry cleanly to the narrative. Chesterton works wonderfully well, marrying his Christianity with his fiction, and is horribly undervalued critically and academically. I wanted, as a Christian revisionist and a Blakean, to bring those points of view to bear on a large scale narrative . It seems to me as though too often heroic fantasy (hate that term) has taken refuge in the metaphysics of dead cultures and in doing so managed to both take itself into a place of safety – who the hell is going to argue if you fuck over a Norse god – and remove itself from any serious debate. Point two, it seems to me that in Tolkien at least, the values which are being supported are not so much Christian values as Home Counties values. They’re the values of a very particular kind of Englishness. I sure as shit wouldn’t want to live there.
ALBEDO ONE: You probably don’t have the feet for it.
BARKER: The only thing that ever plays on the radio is the Archers, right? It is a world whose values are the values of a civilised, but a very dusty, dowdy culture.
ALBEDO ONE: Isn’t that the secret of its success – that it was so comfortable.
BARKER: I think not. The Lord of the Rings doesn’t succeed because it’s about defending the Shire but because it’s about little people, and they could have come from any culture, against mega scale villains and the little people succeed. I think the Shire could have been a good deal less cosy and the narrative still would have worked. The Lord of the Rings really doesn’t come into its own as a narrative, and Tolkien doesn’t find his voice, until they’re actually out of the Shire, when the adventure moves from this rather cloistered scones for tea environment into something which has more risk; when we begin to get a sense of the great darkness against which these creatures are set. I think the scones for tea values of the Wind in the Willows, which is a beautiful piece of fantasy writing, is a different thing. I recently read a very interesting essay in a book called Secret Gardens, which is about the golden age of children’s literature, which talks about the fact that my favourite chapter is the great failure of the book. My favourite chapter is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, in which they meet the Great God Pan of course, and the writer is saying that this is a terrible gaffe-a stylistic and conceptual gaffe to be introducing the G.G. Pan into this world of punting and picnicking animals and that to me seemed to be the very point of it. That when these darker, more rich, maybe more sexual figures, appear in the fiction of the fantastique, that’s when it catches fire for me. I enjoy the picnicking but the confrontations with the G.G. Pan there in the deep woods seems to me the real heart of enchantment in that book.
ALBEDO ONE: Children seem to prefer the darker side of fantasy, while we wonder if they’re up to it.
BARKER: I was giving a talk at a university a few days ago and Ramsey Campbell was in the audience and somebody asked a question about Pinhead from the Hellraiser movie. Whether I’d intended to make him this cult hero – it was all by accident – and Ramsey pipes up from the back he’d been going around schools vetting them for his son Matthew and he went into one which had an art exhibition of ten-year-old’s art and the first picture which had been put up to impress parents with a civilised school this was, was a picture of Pinhead.
ALBEDO ONE: How did that movie come about? Did New World come to you?
BARKER: No, I did a screenplay. I sat down with a friend of a friend who wanted to produce movies and 1 said, ‘I’ve never directed a movie but I’d like to direct’ and he said, ‘I’ve never produced but I’d like to and so we’ve got ignorance in common’. So I said to him, ‘what do you think they’ll give us?’ and he said, ‘they might give us a million dollars ‘ So I said,’ what can we get for a million?’ and he gave me a list of things and Hellbound Heart suggested itself as something we could turn into a movie for very little money.
ALBEDO ONE: Are you happy with what came out of it?
BARKER: For a million dollars? Yeah!
ALBEDO ONE: If you had ten million dollars would you like to make changes?
BARKER: Oh, yeah! They’re all open wounds. But the fact is you do what you do and you move on and you say we’ve got some stuff I like and some I hated.
ALBEDO ONE: Were you happy with Hellbound as a sequel?
BARKER: They’re my beasties, so l watch them totter off into the world like a loving father and watch them do things which I wouldn’t have them do but they’re under their own control to some extent. I can’t find it in my heart to be overly possessive. Life’s too short to be constantly glancing over your shoulder and saying, ‘shit, I should have had control over that’, because you can’t.
ALBEDO ONE: Would you be interested in directing a movie from someone else’s script?
BARKER: No, to be perfectly honest because I have my three score years and ten and I have a head full of ideas. I would much prefer to just do what I want to do.
ALBEDO ONE: Buddy Vance in The Great and Secret Show said that stuff like sleeping and shaving are irrelevancies and he was going to live 24 hours a day. Is that you?
BARKER: I did the calculations for Buddy. He worked out how much time he spent sleeping and shaving. It seems like we’re an entropic system and it steadily works its way down into nothingness and we’ve got to fight really hard to hold to purpose, to meaning. I feel the battle is against meaningless, purposelessness. The only way 1 know how to fight is by making work – by writing stories, by painting pictures, by making movies, by occupying myself in such a way that the void doesn’t yawn quite so darkly or grimly as if I was sitting on my own. I hate being ill and being reduced to being static. I hate sitting in front of the TV and being uninvolved in what’s going on. I hate waiting in airports – everybody hates waiting in airports – but we also invite into our lives the mundane because it’s comfortable, it’s safe, it’s strangely calming, the rhythm of something repeated. And it sickens me. And yet I will seem to have for an extended period an incredibly mundane life. When I wrote Imagica I wrote six days a week for sixteen months. What could be more boring than going to the desk every morning and writing three thousand words? And yet the internal adventure was so full of turmoil and tumult and romance and excess that it seemed to me to be a magic carpet ride.
ALBEDO ONE: You sound like someone who writes a book to find out how it ends.
BARKER: No, that doesn’t happen. Particularly a book like Imagica is meticulously plotted before it begins and I will diverge from that plotting when a new idea comes along. But I knew I was writing about a faker of paintings who was finally going to fall in love with a creature which was neither male nor female and I knew that he was the half-brother of Christ, so I knew his father was God. I didn’t know who his mother was – I worked that out along the way. I knew all about Judith. I knew what kind of places I wanted him to visit. I’d always wanted to write about a fabled city in the shape of a volcano with millions of people living in a tiny space, a place of decadence. I’d always wanted to write about a lake whose waters could possess you, a lake that had been pissed by a goddess.
ALBEDO ONE: Did you know how it ended when you started?
BARKER: I knew who lived and died and what kind of transcendence I wanted for my characters. And I knew what the first sentence of the book would be. I knew that in the teachings of Pluthero Craxase the line was there was only ever room for three people and I knew that they were Judith Gentle and Piopah and by and large everybody else was… redundant. I wanted to write a thousand page book in which the thing was really about three people and everybody else – the gods the goddess the demons the armies were somehow extrusions from those forces.
ALBEDO ONE: Are all your books that meticulously planned?
BARKER: Always, because they’re long, you know. That was even true of the short ones, it was true of Cabal as well. But for Weaveworld and Great and Secret Show there was a chapter by chapter breakdown. It’s my method, it’s not everybody’s. It works for me. My method is to build a narrative structure on which I’m going to heap all the details of my invention and, for me, the pleasure of reading is in the details, the asides, the digressions, the little insight. I want the narrative to be solid and strong and I want to have a terrible inevitability about it so that when Gentle begins as a faker of paintings and has his art taken away from him because he realises it is of no value, when he realises 800 pages later that he can actually make a map of his journeys, that he can use his talent as a means of recounting, of sending out into the world information about the journey he has taken, the reader should be able to track the change of attitude – from this waster at the start to this mapmaker at the end and that arc be very precisely pinpointed and drawn.
ALBEDO ONE: Has moving to America had an effect on what you’re writing?
BARKER: I don’t think so, I wrote about America before I moved and I’ll write about England now I have
ALBEDO ONE: But actually being steeped into that culture?
BARKER: The only effect it may have had is of making me more proper.
ALBEDO ONE: Because you see yourself as being more English now that you’re abroad?
BARKER: Yes I’m very aware that my cultural origins are much more literary that those of the people around me; That I have much less interest in TV and game-shows and I Love Lucy repeats. My enthusiasm for popular culture is pretty obvious but it’s not anything like as all-consuming as it is for many of the people living in LA whose concern seems to circle over and over again and around the box office receipts for a given movie or how many copies of Spiderman were sold this week. Who gives a fart? There’s no sense of tradition, the long view in either direction. Because there isn’t much history to look back on there isn’t the ambition for the long scale endeavour. But we in the area of the fantastique are able to access mythologies and ideas… one of the things I dislike about the style of so many contemporary horror novels is their reliance on the colloquial, the momentary, the sense that they feel more confident being poppy, filling the page with so many contemporary references that in five year’s time the text will be out of date.
ALBEDO ONE: What are the novels of the fantastique that have been written within the past ten years that will last?
BARKER: Ghost Story, I think. It’s a tremendous piece of work, first rate. I think people will look back very fondly on Red Dragon, more than on Silence of the Lambs. I think Red Dragon is the superior book. What else have I been blown away by. I think people will view Ramsey’s body of work very favourably and I think it will be the earlier things they will feel more comfortable with
ALBEDO ONE: Would you find anything of worth in James Herbert’s work?
BARKER: I think Jim is a great pop writer. I don’t know how the future will judge him. He’s not a very pure writer, stylistically. He’s very journalistic. I think that’s a frailty. It is very difficult to have both things. If you’re so up to date you can catch the popular audience there’s a good chance you’re sacrificing some of the long term effects. I would prefer to err on the side of the long term. Not have the number one best-seller but have something that’s still selling twenty years later like Ray Bradbury. I think Bradbury is a brilliant writer, an excessive writer very often, but his excess is the liability of his virtue and his virtue is to write poetry in prose form. I think the commercial viability of the fantastique is both a blessing and a liability.
ALBEDO ONE: Would the commercial people be crowing out those that go for literary merit?
BARKER: Well, the Patrick McGraths still get published and Thomas Tessier, and both are superior to Dean Koontz. But the fact is Koontz outsells Tesseir and McGrath many times ten to one but the stuff is being published. The lists still have room even in these hard times for these rather more difficult works. I am not convinced that you can walk the tightrope. I hope Imagica walks the tightrope. There are some very difficult things in this book but we’re in our fourth printing in America and our second here so we’re selling numbers. But there’s a lot of sexual material and a lot of violence in my work and there’s a lot of weirdness which maybe sweetens the pill of metaphysics. I think that that’s an honourable tradition, I think it’s true of the Bible as well by the way. But it is the case that the material in Imagica is quite problematic, deliberately so, much more than Weaveworld.
ALBEDO ONE: Americans might have problems with a Clive Barker film because it’s not tradition. Nightbreed for instance.
BARKER: They had terrible problems with that but you have to make the movie, don’t you. Cronenberg said to me, he called me up after the movie had opened and the reviewers had taken their hatchets to it, and he said, ‘Join the club. Here you are, you just made a movie that the critics took apart. Wait until you make your next one ‘ . I said, ‘What’ll happen it?’ He said ‘ They’ll say why can’t he make an individualist movie like Nightbreed’ . He said that time after time that’s what’s happened to him. That they’ve beaten him over the head and then they’ve used their finer feelings for the previous movie as a bigger bludgeon the next time round.
ALBEDO ONE: Has the experience put you off big studios? Will you go back to the independents?
BARKER: I’m an optimist. I go on the basis that even if don’t win I must enter the game at the highest possible level. I must try and make a book that will appeal as widely as possible, or a movie. The realists are winning, that’s the problem. The enemy is very strong. You turn on the TV – what happened to the imagination, where is it among the game shows and the soap operas?
ALBEDO ONE: It’s even difficult to Find in the movies. A movie with a plot is a genuine pleasure.
BARKER: And some thinking goes on behind the plot. TERMINATOR 2 is a brilliant piece of technical work and the blandest piece of thinking imaginable. It’s predictability is what struck me. You knew exactly what had to happen for them to have made the movie. For that amount of money. Fisher King is an exception. It’s a flawed picture but it’s still got some magnificent things in it.
ALBEDO ONE: Surely all the really worthwhile movies are flawed in major or minor ways?
BARKER: I agree with you. I like things to overreach themselves. I like to see overachievers at work. I’m not rather interested in people who do their job really well and manage to cross all their T’s and dot all their I’s. I like things that are raw and unrefined.
ALBEDO ONE: Surely the Hollywood polishing process tends to turn everything slightly bland.
BARKER: And yet you’ve got the problem of my world view. I have a responsibility to be a proselytiser. The material that we celebrate is being driven back by a tide of banality much of which is sourced in people who are claiming to make the material we celebrate which is terribly worrying. In other words the banalities of a Dean Koontz are far more dangerous to us that the insipidity of Martin Amis as a ‘thinker’. Because the Koontz’s of this world are actually playing the enemy’s game but wearing our faces, and that worries me a lot. They’re using the tools that have been honed by radicals and revisionists and anarchists and subversives to smooth and pat the head of the status quo.
At this stage HarperCollins’ representative in Ireland informed us that we had overrun our allocated time and that we really should wind it up. So basically Des and I stopped talking. Clive, however, continued as he said that we were the real thing, the fans, not just some journo to whom interviewing him was merely a job. There had been a suggestion early on that we photograph him outside a nearby graveyard and this we did, taking an extra half hour of somebody else’s time. Unfortunately our photographer, who consequently fails to get a credit, lost the damn pictures so you’ll have to use your imagination to fill in the blanks. By the way, I’m the one on the left.