Clive Barker: An Appreciation

Not long ago, Clive Barker told us had had a terrifying brush with death, due to being put into a coma for seven days due to a spillage of poisonous bacteria into his blood during some dental work. It was a shocking thing to learn, and I along with many others was relieved to hear that he made it through and his health was improving. It also got me to thinking about something I’d planned for this blog that, with everything that’s been going on with me and my book in the last three-quarters of a year, I’d never made happen. I wanted to do a series of appreciations of writers, such as Clive Barker, that have had a strong impact on me.

Barker wasn’t one of my formative influences; I didn’t pick up one of his books until 2002, when I was 33. It was maybe two-and-a-half years after I’d finally dug into some Stephen King, whose works I’d once avoided, erroneously believing the negative opinions of some non-horror-fan friends. Clive Barker being one of the biggest names in the field after King’s, I figured he was worth a try. So I started with a cheap, dog-eared volume I’d snagged from a used book shop, figuring that if it didn’t suit me, I wouldn’t be out much money. That book was Imajica.

Once in a while, a book comes along that turns my head inside out, and this was definitely one such book. It was epic, intense, and effortlessly strange. It was violent, graphic, sensual, demanding, and surreal. Not only did it demand my time, my active involvement, my intelligence and my imagination, it drew upon these before I even realized what was happening. It changed my perceptions of what a book could do, how far writing could go, and what I wanted to do with my own writing. (For this reason, I listed it as one of the books that made me weird in one of my guest blogs.)

I followed these up with two more of what would become my favorite Barker works, The Great and Secret Show and Everville, both epic works set on Earth and the dream-sea world of Quiddity. They weren’t quite the shock to my system that Imajica was, but the feeling of immensity, depth, and danger was there, expertly spun into works that gave me the feeling that there was something more here than fiction; that there was a truth within that only fiction can reach, one I could sense but could not–perhaps still cannot–express.

I’ve enjoyed some of Barker’s other works, including Coldheart Canyon, The Thief of Always, The Books of Blood, Galilee, and Sacrament, though those did not have the same terrific impact. In fact, it may be because they didn’t have the same impact that I drifted away from reading Barker: on looking at the log of books I’ve kept for the past 14 years, I was surprised to discover I hadn’t read any by him in the last five.

Clive Barker’s power for me is that, in some ways, he’s the opposite of King. Where King is so very good at finding the horror in the everyday and the mundane, Barker excels at elevating the everyday and mundane into realms of terrifying, dreamlike horror. Many writers try to create worlds that are larger than the one we all inhabit; Barker is one of the few who succeeds, not only on a lofty imaginative level, but on a visceral level. He simultaneously evokes senses of wonder and terror, and for that I’ll always come back, no matter how long I’ve been away.

Gary W. Olson is the author of the dark fantasy novel Brutal Light and several previously published and forthcoming short stories. He can be found via his website, his blog A Taste of Strange, as @gwox on Twitter, and in many other far-flung places on the Internet.