A collection of a writer's prefaces and random prose pieces often feels like the mustard-stained bread crusts on a child's plate after lunch. Nutritive quality? Low. Value? Marginal. Overall response? Ugh.
That verdict, fortunately, doesn't apply to all collections, especially one by
, a writer perhaps best known for his "Hellraiser" story and "Abarat" saga. His thoughtful musings on horror and culture have been collected in "Clive Barker: The Painter, the Creature, and the Father of Lies."
As varied and unexpected as this material is — editors Phil and Sarah Stokes have culled material from the last 25 years not just from books and reissues but also from DVDs and press materials — there's still a theme that manages to run throughout. It involves two c-words: creation and calling.
"I am not the man I was," Barker explains in a brief foreword dated earlier this year. "Then again, who is? We change and develop. We are stirred and troubled by different events; even broken and rebuilt as experiences form our personal reefs."
That may be true philosophically or even just mathematically (Barker's 58 now), but this collection also shows how some things don't change: issues that concern him now troubled him just as much early in his career.
When he laments over "the wretched banalities of life as it is barely lived in this over-polished, but under-nourished virtual world" in the year 2011, it echoes something he wrote in the 1980s when he published "Clive Barker's Books of Blood." At that time he was just as irked by cultural mores and customs, complaining (in a previously unpublished introduction) that "we invent rituals (Mass, reason, Freud) to keep [fear] at bay. … Sooner or later, it comes. Better then, wiser then, to go and meet it, head on, see it for what it is, with all its terrors intact."
A horror writer as social commentator? The point of the genre was to provide entertainment, escape, and scare the hell into us. This collection argues the contrary, giving us Barker's aesthetic concerns as well as showcasing his painterly hand with a series of black-and-white sketches that seem Goya-inspired (to this untrained eye, at any rate).
Horror writers, probably more than others, get condemned for the shock value, violence, gore and obscenity of their work — Barker has earned a few of these criticisms over his career — but often, he points out in the 1991 piece "On Censorship," the genre is "very often judged by the worst of its examples." A grotesque shock or two is sometimes needed to wake people up, and that's often the intent of the genre's best writers, especially someone who "knows his Milton as well as he knows his de Sade." That's how Barker refers to one of his most recognizable characters, "Hellraiser's" Pinhead — and it applies equally well to him.
A 2002 advance reading copy of "Abarat" includes a note from Barker explaining his desire to create "a world of limitless horizons" inspired by his love of the Oz and Narnia books. (The next installment in that series, by the way, "Abarat: Absolute Midnight," comes out this fall.) His appreciation of other horror and fantasy writers doesn't involve only the deceased ones: In a 2005 piece in Time magazine, "Cornelia Funke: The Next
?," Barker celebrates the author of "Inkheart" for her "moody unpredictable characters, and the instinctive feel of her plots, which are happily devoid of emotional manipulation."
Much of the book is devoted to the "Hellraiser" saga and the novel that spawned it, "The Hellbound Heart." But there are plenty of other pieces here showcasing his philosophical musings on personal identity ("our lives are scattered throughout with periods of unbelonging") and poetic meditations on why a writer decides to write horror tales: "We all hear the call of the dark once in a while: a siren song, inviting us to take a ghost ride into nightmare." And at other times, Barker is just very candid about what horror writers do: "We spend our working days making traps … that will corner the reader into confronting … experiences most of humanity spends its time assiduously avoiding."
The energy and candor he brings to these pieces make this collection hardly an afterthought. In fact, it's a provocation to read him if you haven't and surrender yourself to one of those cunning traps.