With his round, boyish face, Liverpool-born author Clive Barker bears a resemblance to Paul McCartney. He even grew up just off the famed Penny Lane. But the fanciful sphere Barker creates is closer to Hieronymus Bosch than the Beatles. In fact, this outwardly genial Englishman specializes in tales so bloody bloodcurdling that his American counterpart, Stephen King, has proclaimed: “I have seen the future of the horror genre, and it is named Clive Barker.”
Most horror writers would kill—figuratively, of course—for such an endorsement, but not Barker. This overlord of the underworld likes to think of his writing as upscale scary—as much in the tradition of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe as that of King and Peter Straub. “I think I write tasteful fiction,” says the 34-year-old Barker. “I do seek to horrify, but I also seek to disturb, amuse, arouse and intellectually challenge.”
A strong stomach is as important as an inquiring intellect to digest some of Barker’s subject matter. His ghoulish short stories, collected into a six-volume work titled Books of Blood, are teeming with vile and demonic creatures, like the monster whose hunger is satiated only with the blood of children. Genital transformations and sexual obsessions also permeate Barker’s writing; in the fourth volume of his short-story series a man overdoses on a strong aphrodisiac, and every object he happens upon excites his sexual appetite.
Now Barker has published his first novel, The Damnation Game (Putnam, $18.95), which made the New York Times best-seller list in its first week. The Damnation Game is set in contemporary London, which is being menaced by a zombielike assassin who selectively mauls and destroys as the agent of a Mephistophelian character.
By using London and other cities like Liverpool or Birmingham as backdrops, Barker says he strives for a touch of the everyday in his work. “The more outrageous the fantasy element,” he says, “the more important it is to root it in as closely researched a reality as I can.”
The ghosts, ghouls and flesh eaters that menace Barker’s readers crawl out of a mind that has always embraced fantasy. “Whereas other boys bought plastic model aircraft, Clive would buy a plastic Frankenstein monster,” recalls his father, Len Barker, a retired personnel director for an industrial-relations firm. His mother, Joan, who was a school welfare officer, paints landscapes, and she remembers that Clive began grabbing crayons in his highchair. (Barker later called on this artistic talent to illustrate most of his own book jackets.)
After earning a degree in English from Liverpool University, Barker began acting and writing in fringe theater groups. In 1975 he moved to London and wrote plays with titles like The History of the Devil and Frankenstein in Love without achieving any particular success. As a hobby, he began turning out horror stories in 1981. Until the publication of Books of Blood three years later, he scraped by on welfare, though he always had enough money to spring for an occasional zombie movie.
Praise from Stephen King and reviewers alike has helped turn Barker into something of an instant cult figure on both sides of the Atlantic. His next book, due in the fall, is called Weaveworld, which Barker describes as “an epic adventure about a world in a carpet.” For his following book, which so far exists only in his imagination, Barker says he has been offered a $1 million advance. He also has written and directed a film called Hell-raiser, based on his own novella, The Hell-Bound Heart. Scheduled for summer release in America, the movie features a character who is pulled apart from all sides by hooks embedded in his flesh.
Such cheery plots stew and fester in the North London flat that Barker shares with a friend. For inspiration Clive clips macabre stories from London tabloids, but more often he draws from his copious notes on overheard conversations. “Everyone has stories like ‘rattling was heard in grandmother’s coffin three days after she was buried,’ ” he says.
Barker’s dreams prove another fertile source of ideas that may find their way into print. This is not to say that Barker’s repose is in the least bit ruffled. “I sleep very soundly,” claims the writer whose readers often don’t. “I sleep the sleep of the man who brings the worst stuff to the surface as a business.”