The genre of horror itself is very flexible — fantasy, sci-fi, slasher, noir, post-apocalyptic dystopian narratives, seventies hixploitation, fifties schlock — in the realm of darkness, there is limitless potential. Horror plays up our anxieties, mirroring the logic of our nightmares and subconscious macabre fantasies. Clive Barker, author, painter, and film director, has attained a unique celebrity within the horror canon. Famous for his ability to weave elements of both the sexual and the supernatural within his work, Barker reaches beyond the confines of flesh and blood to challenge conventions — societally and aesthetically.
Barker was born on October 5, 1952 in Liverpool, England, and grew up on Penny Lane, the famous street immortalized by the Beatles. While studying English and Philosophy in university, Barker also cultivated his artistic abilities. Today he continues to work across a variety of mediums — citing his own dreams, and the paintings he creates from their imagery, as a major source of inspiration for his writing.
Beginning his writing career with works of short fiction (pieces that were eventually collected in the multi-volume Books of Blood), Barker stood out from the glut of 80’s horror authors with his elegant prose, exploring bloody, gorish themes with impressive refinement. In the mid-eighties, when the Books of Blood were first released in the United States, horror master Stephen King was quoted on the back saying, “I have seen the future of horror, his name is Clive Barker.” His first successful “big story,” The Damnation Game, spurred him to continue with longer works, and Weaveworld and Cabal were published only several years later.
Clive’s ability to undercut the grotesque with elements of subtle satirical humor caught the eye of Hollywood, and an offer to write and direct the 1987 film HELLRAISER proved irresistible. Based on his earlier novella The Hellbound Heart, the film explores an alternative world unlocked by the power of a small puzzle box. Clive’s Christianity, and his willingness to draw inspiration from Biblical references, is obvious here, as subversive religious iconography runs rampant. The evil order of Cenobites in HELLRAISER draw their name from the term “cenobite”, or a member of a communal religious order. Despite being a Christian himself, Barker has openly criticized organized religion and its repressive structures. When one of the film’s protagonists confronts the Cenobites after solving the puzzle box, demanding to know who they are, she is told, “We are explorers in the further regions of experience. Demons to some, angels to others.” Having asserted that “issues of transformation, of paradox, and gender ambiguity” are central to his earlier works, Barker’s willingness to explore the complex soul of the supernatural brought him even greater fame.
HELLRAISER’s success spawned a franchise of nine films as well as a comic book series. NIGHTBREED (1990), was his next big screen experiment, a film adapted from the earlier Cabal novella. Armed with enough cash and special effects artists to create “the Star Wars of horror movies,” Barker began his ambitious undertaking with a wealth of characters and ambition, but saw his dream collapse when the film was cut unmercifully and reduced to a watered down version of his initial vision. Stating his “confliction” with modern Hollywood, Barker has often had to censor himself to see his work reach the mainstream. After the release of NIGHTBREED and finally 1995’s LORD OF ILLUSIONS, Barker confided that he was done with cinema.
Although he has yet to return to the director’s seat, his short story The Forbidden saw itself transformed on screen as CANDYMAN (1992) — one of the most captivating films in the “slasher” canon, and one that is still shown regularly on TV (more details here). Directed by Bernard Rose, its plot was moved from the suburbs of England and into the crime-riddled streets of Chicago. Set in the now-demolished Cabrini-Green housing projects, it traces the pedestrian terror of an urban legend to its horrific finale. While the main character, Helen (Virginia Madsen), is completing her thesis on the subject, she discovers the myth of the “Candyman” — a murderous soul with Pirate Hook hand and connection to multiple brutal slayings. It’s also worth mentioning for its representation of African-American culture, and accurate depiction of housing projects as incubators for crime and societal problems.
Many of Barker’s phantasmagoric works still sit in some stage of production as films or television shows. Discussing his writing methods in a 2009 interview, Barker was asked, “Do you scare yourself when you’re writing?” To which he responded, “F**k no. I arouse myself. I feel that charge in the air. The possibility of release, but the unlikelihood of it.” By luring his readers closer to edge, he drives through every emotion available while they remain suspended in his trance. If you’re not already a devout Barker fan, it’s time you were acquainted with the work of this fabulously eccentric horror genius.
HELLRAISER (1987) dir. Clive Barker [94 min.]
NIGHTBREED (1990) dir. Clive Barker [102 min.]
CANDYMAN (1992) dir. Bernard Rose [99 min.]