A lot has happened since we last spoke to Clive Barker. Nightbreed has opened and closed in this country, and we have seen two large books published, The Great and Secret Show and the more recent Imajica . We caught up with Clive in America where he is hard at work on numerous projects, including the re-decoration of his new LA home.
The last time we spoke to Clive, he was bemoaning the treatment that Nightbreed had received on its American release, so how did he feel about the UK reaction to the film?
“It was good! I also went with the film to Europe and it won several prizes. It seems to have been a picture which has taken time for people to warm to but which has been eventually accepted. It’s clear now that Nightbreed is a difficult picture for people, particularly those involved in marketing, to embrace. The whole concept of monsters being good guys, the dark side being at least partially a force for good: these are not ideas which people find particularly conducive or easy, but those who love the movie love it with a rare passion.
“It’s been reviewed subsequently on video extremely favourably, far more favourably than it was theatrically. Interestingly, Entertainment Weekly ran a feature about four or five issues ago called ‘A Hundred Good Movies You Know Nothing About’, and it listed a whole bunch of good movies, and in the list were some that I love, like Cronenberg’s The Brood , which was almost totally passed over in America, and Nightbreed was in the list as well. It’s interesting that only a year after the movie had been released on video it’s become one which people rent a lot and talk about a lot. I’ve had a huge amount of fan mail about it, there are the comic books as well and finally it’s getting some belated critical plaudits! It was a very difficult movie to bring out, particularly because Hellraiser had been such a success. It’s something about second movies - everyone is watching to see you fall flat on your face.
“Just because we had more money on Nightbreed than Hellraiser doesn’t presuppose that reviewers are going to be more sympathetic, quite the reverse. There’s a sort of critical pleasure which can be taken in watching something which has been made with a very low budget and which comes off, whereas a picture that has more money behind it almost offers a challenge to the reviewer, an ‘okay, let’s see what you can do chum’ attitude.
“I remain firm, though. I’ve not for a moment doubted that it was a movie that should have been made, that I was pleased to have made. You certainly can’t look over your shoulder and think boy, I wish I’d never done that. I’m really pleased to have done the picture.”
Currently Clive is involved in a number of other film projects in the States, one of which is an adaptation of one of his short stories.
“I’m executive producing a picture for Propaganda, from a short story of mine called 'The Forbidden' (from The Books of Blood volume 5), that movie’s called Candyman , and Bernard Rose, who made Paper House , is directing. You’ll be pleased to hear that Bernard has kept the rather bleak and nasty ending intact. Good for him!
“My role on the film was to work with Bernard while he was developing and writing the script. There were creative decisions being made all along the line; how it would be reshaped for an American setting; how the more cinematic moments could be developed and made even more cinematic. Bernard has done a very fine job with the adaptation, it’ll be an eight or nine million dollar picture - not cheap - and Bob Keen is handling the special effects. Filming is in October/November this year. It will definitely be Bernard’s movie but I would like to think that it will be true to the spirit of the Clive Barker movement.
“Other film projects ... The Mummy is on hold at the moment because Mick Garrard who was writing that with me is finishing a picture for Columbia called Sleepwalkers , which is from a Stephen King script; he’s finishing up on that at the moment, so I guess we’ll get back to The Mummy when he’s free, and in the meantime I have just finished the second draft of a science fiction movie for Universal which they are extremely keen on. That’s called Eden, USA , and I’ll be directing.”
With so much film-work going on, I wondered if Clive’s move to the USA had facilitated the work?
“Yes, absolutely. For lots of reasons. Firstly you’re just around the corner from all these people, you can go and visit them in their offices, talk to them, have a drink with them ... you’re not some foreign species which flies in on the red-eye for a bleary meeting over a power breakfast, and then leaves to go back and write a book in London. I think there are certainly psychological advantages from my point of view, just understanding the way the community works, maybe not liking all the elements of its workings but at least understanding them. It puts you in a much weaker frame of mind in relation to the powerbrokers in this town if you’re having conversations with them when your time-frame is eight hours different. Classically, I wouldn’t begin to talk to people in Los Angeles until about nine at night, and by the end of the day you’re kind of weary and washed out, and it’s not a great time to be sitting down and talking detailed plot points. There’s also the fact that the studios are very responsive to people coming in to do a pitch, to be there to explain and hopefully entertain them with a story...”
Was that how the science fiction film project came about?
“No, Universal came to me and said we want to be in business with you. I explained that I didn’t want to go on making horror movies, I wanted to make science fiction ones and they liked the idea.
“The main reason behind that was because I had been moving into areas of fantasy and dark fantasy in my written work and it had met with even greater commercial and critical success than the horror work; I mean The Great and Secret Show outsold Weaveworld, and Weaveworld in turn outsold The Damnation Game. Imajica was published here yesterday and it’s been reprinted already. I wanted to see that fantasy identity, as opposed to the hard-core horror, reflected in the cinematic work as well.”
So what is Eden, USA all about?
“Actually, it’s better if I don’t tell you - Universal would get upset! I would call it a science fiction/fantasy ... It’s an adventure, and it’s very much the kind of movie that I might have wanted to see. I want it to be the kind of movie which makes your pulse rush and stimulates your imagination at the same time. More than that ... you’ll have to wait!”
Moving from the film projects on to the book projects, and the last two novels have been large block-busting sagas. The first, The Great and Secret Show , is also the first in a trilogy, and is set, unlike all of Clive’s other work, in America.
“That was because I’d spent a lot of time there during the filming of Nightbreed and a lot of the strangeness I encountered was ideal material for a novel. There are a lot of weird little towns over there which are exactly alike - like Wimpy or Barratt homes - remember the town in Poltergeist ? They are all built, as The Great and Secret Show's Palomo Grove is, on a system of several little villages with the mall, this shopping centre, in the middle. They are horrible, godless little places and are really eerie. They’ve actually got three Szechuan restaurants and a place which just looks after your nails - one had a karate school for children, purely for children. I think you could only learn karate if you were under ten or something. Surreal.
“They’re entirely designed to be dormitory towns for Los Angeles. They’re all built on the fault line and are full of these banal, grinning, cheery people who have got this fixed smile plastered across their faces. I found them all kind of spooky.
“There were two things I tried to do with the book that were different from my previous work. The first was that the very heavy visceral horror had been replaced by a more fantastical outlook - what the Jaff gets up to is weird but not visceral. I wanted there to be a lightness to the touch of the thing. I did a first draft which was much more in the aphoristic style of Weaveworld and it felt wrong, because the culture that I was describing was so completely in contrast to the language I was describing it in. It felt phoney and fake and so I went back again and changed sentence structures and turns of phrase and tried to approach the book not with an American point of view, because I could never have an American point of view, but using a vocabulary that was slightly less literary.
“Another aspect of writing the book was to concentrate on plot rather than character, rather like the Irwin Allen disaster movies of the seventies. When they did those films they used to put on the poster lots of photographs of the characters, with‘The Architect’ and ‘The Fireman’ under them. It didn’t matter whether these were personalities or not, what mattered was that they had a function in the narrative. In The Great and Secret Show I’ve got ‘The Lovers’ and that’s what they function as. There’s also ‘The Bad Guy’ and so on.
“I have much more of a passion for story than for character. The fact is that in certain places in every project you make a choice to go in one direction or another and each choice is a different book. I don’t have patience with giving paragraphs over to describe everything and everyone. Whether that’s a bad thing or a good thing is neither here nor there, the fact is that I don’t- it’s not my nature. I write a fiction of ideas as much as of narrative and the two things are at their best when pulled together into a single unit. The convolutions of narrative fascinate me more than the convolutions of character.”
This fascination with narrative also spills over into Clive’s newest novel, Imajica , but here the convolutions are rather deeper than in The Great and Secret Show. I wondered what had formed the background to Imajica .
“Imajica started with my thinking about the images which appear in the great paintings of Christian mythology. Whether or not they’re true, they seemed to me to be extremely potent, powerful and important cyphers of image and meaning, so I considered writing a book which would be a fantasy but which would also be about God, about belief, about a man who discovers that all his life he has been prepared for an act of massive consequence but didn’t realise it. What would happen if you, David Howe, woke up one morning and realised that all your life to this date had been a subtle preparation for a metaphysical journey, and that everything that you had so far believed about the way the world worked was irrelevant and that there was a deeper agenda which had shaped your life without you even realising it? That is the feeling I was aiming for.
“I don’t want to give too much away, but in Imajica we have someone who is like the half-brother of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, but who is completely unaware of the fact. Not only this but he had a massive past responsibility which he has screwed up and forgotten. A lot of this came from the feeling that there is so much more in us than we completely comprehend, that our day today lives with their petty annoyances perhaps shouldn’t distract us from a grander and deeper perception of ourselves. In America and to a lesser extent in England, the notion of the shaman, and the shamanistic journey, has more credence now than it had ten years ago.”
This all sounds a little heavy, so how did Clive turn a fairly difficult subject into a novel?
“I am aware that this is a difficult subject, but I am also aware that over the years my readers have come with me on very strenuous adventures in one way and another, and I have been extremely voluble in my belief that fantasy fiction and horror fiction can carry a weight of meaning which they are very often denied. Now it’s no use my saying that I think fantasy fiction can be very profound unless I actually try it. I believe in the weight of metaphysical, social and philosophical meaning that this genre can carry, and it’s always been part of what I’ve done, but perhaps in Imajica more than ever, it’s the core, the centrepiece of the whole book.”
Clive’s next novel is striking out once more into new territories. This time he is attempting a book for children.
“It’s called Everville and I’m about halfway through at the moment. It comes out of my enthusiasm for C S Lewis’ Narnia books and Ray Bradbury’s work - Something Wicked this Way Comes and The October Country. I still enjoy those kinds of fiction, and I had an idea which I thought I could do something with. A book for and about children. Something Wicked this Way Comes is both for and about, but it’s also for adults. I think that like all great fantasy, Bradbury’s books grow with you and you find more things in them as your life experience accrues. The best children’s fiction speaks to adults and I’m not saying I’ll be able to achieve it without a struggle but it’s certainly a high ambition to go in there with.”
With thanks to Clive, and Laura Jennings at Harper Collins.
David J Howe