Well, since I’ve started re-reading a 1980s horror novel by Clive Barker (“The Damnation Game”, if anyone is curious), I thought that I’d write something vaguely similar to my other recent article about writing lessons that can be learnt from 1980s Shaun Hutson novels, but about the writing lessons that can be found in Clive Barker novels – especially those from the 1980s.
Still, I should point out that this article may contain some SPOILERS for Clive Barker’s “Cabal” and “Weaveworld”.
1) Mediums, imagination and creativity: One of the most interesting things about Clive Barker is that he didn’t really start out as a horror author. Before his first short story collection, “The Books Of Blood”, was published in the mid-1980s, he was already a playwright and an artist. Then, sometime after the publication of his novella “The Hellbound Heart“, he both wrote and directed the famous film adaptation of it. Later, in the early 2000s, he also helped to design a computer game called “Clive Barker’s Undying” too.
The main lesson we can learn from this is that learning other skills and experimenting with different creative mediums will result in better writing. Not only will it give you a better idea about which creative ideas will work best in story form (and which might be better suited to art, poetry etc…), but it also forces you to learn more about your own imagination too.
I mean, one of the cool things about Clive Barker’s art, fiction, films etc… is that you can tell that they all came from the same person. For example, Barker’s paintings often display the same focus on the human body and/or bizarre dream-like weirdness that his fiction does.
So, don’t be afraid to experiment with other creative mediums. You’ll get to know yourself better and this will result in better and more imaginative writing.
2) Don’t self-censor: Although the 1980s was well-renowned as a time where horror authors had more creative freedom than ever before (I mean, it was the heyday of the splatterpunk genre) and probably ever since, Clive Barker used this creative freedom for more than just shock value or titillation. He also used it to tell the kind of weird, subversive, nuanced, emotionally mature, imaginative, transgressive and unique stories that feel timelessly refreshing to read.
For example, his 1988 horror/dark fantasy novel “Cabal” contrasts an underground city of strange, scary-looking “monsters” with an upstanding, respectable psychologist…. who is also a serial killer. It’s a brilliantly subversive novel, showing how mainstream society is eager to destroy or condemn whatever it considers “weird” without ever looking at the far greater problems within itself.
This theme is also explored in Barker’s 1987 dark fantasy novel “Weaveworld“, where the main antagonist isn’t a fantastical monster (in fact the closest thing to a villainous “monster”, Immacolata, actually becomes a more sympathetic character later in the story) but a fanatical “moralistic” policeman who is often depicted in a brilliantly satirical way. Again, this comments on how mainstream, respectable etc.. society never really thinks to look at the problems within itself whenever there is something else it can condemn instead.
Plus, of course, when he was writing in a genre that was seen as “low brow” in the 1980s, Barker never simplified or toned down his writing. Although most 1980s horror fiction is more well-written than it is often given credit for, Barker often wrote the kind of complex, poetic, intelligent, painting-with-words, nuanced etc… fiction that would have probably won numerous major literary awards if it didn’t have the word “Horror” on the back cover.
Likewise, despite the highly “literary” writing style and the many grim and macabre horrors within his 1980s novels, Barker’s fiction will often display a wonderfully impish sense of humour too. These two things might seem like polar opposites, but it’s the contradiction between them that really makes his stories so distinctive. And it is the kind of thing a writer can only truly do if they don’t censor themselves.
One other great thing about old Clive Barker novels is how they don’t contain the puritanical undertones of most 1980s horror fiction and this is still refreshing even today. These are novels that don’t hypocritically condemn their more risque elements, but instead often show both their comedic absurdity and also their timelessly human and spiritual qualities. This is difficult to describe whilst still keeping this article “safe for work” (ironic, I know), but it results in the kind of timelessly open-minded stories that are still refreshing to read even thirty years or more after they were published.
Yet, Barker’s brilliant lack of self-censorship also manifests in more “PG-rated” ways too. For example, despite initially building his reputation as an expert writer of “edgy” horror stories during the 1980s, he decided to write a much more innocent, fantastical and wonder-filled series of YA novels in the 2000s (the “Abarat” novels) and they are just as creative, imaginative, subversive etc… as his general fiction novels are. You really get the sense that Barker is genuinely showing off another part of his imagination, rather than watering his stories down for the sake of popularity.
Yes, these days, “don’t self-censor” is probably dangerous advice. Perhaps it always has been. But, the less you censor yourself, the more interesting and creative your stories can be.
3) Imagination is infectious: One of the great things about Clive Barker’s writing is how it lingers in your imagination long after you’ve finished reading. This can have some wonderfully weird effects.
For example, in early 2010, I tried reading Barker’s 1989 novel “The Great And Secret Show”. Although I couldn’t get past the first 100 pages for reasons I still don’t quite understand, what I read still lingered in my mind to the point that, whenever I saw a dramatic-looking road I used to walk along every few days, I always thought of this story. After this happened a couple of times, I suddenly started thinking of it as “The Clive Barker road”. And the idea of visiting somewhere that reminded me of a Clive Barker novel made this road feel like a more interesting place.
In 2009, I fell asleep one night and had five nightmares – these were all “dream within a dream” nightmares which each began with me dreaming about waking up. Interestingly, the coolest – and least scary – moment in this sequence of dreams was when, at the end of the third one, I suddenly found myself triumphantly shouting the tagline from the cover of my old second-hand 1980s paperback copy of “Cabal” (“At last, the night has a hero”).
Anyway, what was the point of these journeys down memory lane? Well, it is to show how imagination is infectious. If you write something that is distinctive, unusual, interesting, personality-filled and/or imaginative enough, then it will take on a life of it’s own. To give you an example, even though Clive Barker hasn’t ever made a heavy metal album, his books were imaginative and inspirational enough to inspire the band Cradle Of Filth to make one (called “Midian”).
So, one lesson that is worth learning from Clive Barker’s fiction is that imagination is infectious. That you should strive to tell the kind of stories that linger in your readers’ imaginations and which inspire people to create things themselves.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂