WEAVING NEW WORLDS
CLIVE BARKER ON THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW
There can be few authors alive today to whom the term 'phenomenon' can be readily applied. Clive Barker is one of those few. Not only has he taken the horror genre and turned it on its head with a series of immaculately crafted and superbly realised short stories, but he has also taken the cinema by storm with Hellraiser, his directorial debut of his own novella, The Hellbound Heart, and is set to do the same again when Nightbreed, the film version of his novel Cabal, opens this autumn.
He is also the author of two other novels, The Damnation Game and Weaveworld, and his latest novel, The Great and Secret Show is now available in paperback from Fontana books.
I caught up with Barker at a discussion session about the new novel. There were several editors and writers present and the conversation swung wildly from the books to the films and back again.
To start off with, after having set his previous two novels (not including Cabal) in England, we were interested to know why he had set The Great and Secret Show in America.
Clive explained that the main reason was because he had spent a lot of time there recently, because of the films, and that a lot of the strangeness that he had found 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 Palomo Grove is, on a system of several little villages with the mall, this shopping centre, at the centre. 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."
As well as the actual locations for the novel, Clive had announced that the book was about "Sex, Hollywood and Armageddon". With this in mind, he felt that America was the obvious setting for such a story. "Begin with sex and end with armageddon and I guess Hollywood is somewhere in between." he commented.
"The average American household has two books in it - one of which is the Bible and the other is probably a Stephen King novel. The average American household has the TV on probably more hours than there are in the day and so there are these environments where people are just dreaming away their lives and are probably deeply unhappy. I also liked the idea of William Witt the pornographer in The Great and Secret Show having a view on all this because it is said that the pornography business in America earns more than the music and movie businesses put
Other influences on the novel were the place names, which Clive felt to be really bland until he actually looked up on a real map and discovered that the place names really are as bland as Deerdell and Laureltree.
Despite the switch in setting from England to America, there is another aspect of the novel which sets it apart from most of his other work to date, and that is its vaguely genteel approach. Clive explained some more about this aspect of the novel.
"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 phony 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. Clive compared this to the Irwin Allen disaster movies of the seventies. "When they used to do 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."
It could be said that there is not as much characterisation in the novel as in Clive's previous work but Clive himself is very eloquent in his defence of the book. "I think the worst and the best thing that can happen is that people criticise you for something that was intentional. In Weaveworld and The Damnation Game, I'd given over to narratives that had a lot of characters in but I tended to emphasise some more than others and I decided to do something different this time. In other words, it was a creative decision - whether it was the right creative decision or not is in a sense academic - I did it. I think there's another book with the same plot as this which would be twice as long and contain all those descriptions of minor characters and so on."
"I have much more of a passion for story than with character, I always have had. 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. There certainly comes a point in every draft when you realise that you're not improving the book, you're just making it different, and the slow realisation of that is rather grim. There comes a point where you simply have to stop tinkering.
"I don't have patience with the Tommyknockers style of giving a paragraph over to describe practically 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."
The Great and Secret Show is the first of a potential trilogy of books about Quiddity and the monstrous Iad Uroboros that live on its farther shores and Clive explained a little about how the series would proceed.
"The next one will be Harry D'Amour's book, definitely. It will be set in New York and will reveal the complete truth about the Great and Secret Show and the plans of the Iad. I don't know at the moment whether that will resolve the story or whether there will be a third book."
After Clive has finished work on the Nightbreed film, he hopes to start on another large book, not the second Art book, but something more along the lines of Weaveworld. He also hopes to complete a couple of intense horror novels as well, not to mention the continuation of the Cabal/Nightbreed saga. He has a contract with Collins for his next four novels, and is also negotiating for his next movie.
One thing that can be said with some certainty about Clive Barker is that he likes to keep busy.
David J Howe