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Interview

Clive Barker: Then you look closely
and you go, "Oh my GOD!"

By Paula Guran

March 2002

"I think the Bible and religious illustrations are often the place where we first find the possibility of sexuality." -- Clive Barker

Do we really need to introduce Clive Barker?

This phone interview [done for Horror Garage, Issue #5, a magazine I was editing at the time] took place at the end of March 2002, a bit over three months after I interviewed Clive Barker in person at his Los Angeles office-studio-home compound. (You can download that interview here on the site) for The Spook. We chatted in what has become a gallery for the hundreds of paintings that Barker has done for his Abarat project. [Abarat is an imaginary land in which a projected four fantasy novels take place. Intended for younger readers, ancillary rights have already been sold to Disney, If all goes as expected, the man who (to many) embodies the concept of horror with "no limits," may well be the Uncle Walt of the 21st century.]

The author-artist-playwright-film director-producer is far from entranced with Hollywood. (In his latest novel, Coldheart Canyon, he portrays what he aptly calls the wretchedness of the town.) He has declared that he doesn't plan to direct or write many more movies, although producing still appeals to him. Still, Barker and his production company, Seraphim, still have deals all over town.

After seven years with husband David Armstrong (who has a teen-age daughter they both dote on) and undeniable success, Barker may be "settled," but that does not mean his prolific imagination has stopped spawning the most fearful grotesqueries or having "fun" with the darkest of fantasies.


Barker picks up the phone with "Hello, luv, how are you?"His voice is even raspier than usual. He's either been talking a lot or the cigars are taking a toil. Already knowing me as a "book person," he touches on a soon-to-start movie project, then swings the conversation back to the publishing world.

Clive Barker CB: We have an original full-length movie called Saint Sinner going into production for the Sci-Fi channel. I took the title from one of the comics I did for Marvel, but it's not based on the comic. I liked the title so much I wrote a new story for it. We are going to be shooting up in Vancouver and perhaps the Seattle area [starting sometime in May]. And, you know, the rest of the stuff putters along...

HG: But you always have so much puttering!

CB: That's the methodology, yeah. Really just keep everything moving along at a steady pace because you know how unpredictable everything is.

HG: Definitely the movies are unpredictable.

CB: But increasingly books are becoming unpredictable, too. I mean everything is unpredictable because, I think, of the connections between the media now in a way there wasn't before. The sale of a book to a movie house can completely change its "hopes." It's all one huge self-serving system and I don't like that at all. I don't think it does us who love books any good whatsoever. I think its very good for the people who do the movies, but I don't think it's good for the people who love books.

You know i've been being published for coming up on 20 years soon and I've seen publishing transformed for the worse over that period. When I joined HarperCollins the man in charge was stilled called "Collins," I mean literally he was a Collins, and there had been a Collins in charge since the late 1890s. Now, of course its Rupert Murdoch and though the organization is much slicker than it used to be, some of the Old World charm is gone. I miss that.

HG: Another bestselling author said of the current state of publishing that "they've taken all the fun out of it."

CB: I think they have. People think the movies are fun -- and you very well know they are not -- from a distance they're fun, but when you get up close to them they are a lot of very, very hard work and its often unrewarding hard work. Unrewarding in the sense of never really feeling as though your idea is ever safe. The great thing that still remains true about books is that if you have an editor who respects you and a house that respects you then chances are your writing is safe. I think for any artist the safety of his or her ideas is the primary thing. To have a place to put your ideas that is secure enough that your ideas are going to come through purely, undiluted to your readership is the most important thing in the world.

HG: What if you lose that editor?

CB: A real problem sets in. My American editor passed away last year and the editor before him was fired. But I've always had Jane Johnson with me there for the eleven years I've been with HarperCollins and she's been fantastic. I've had the comfort and the security of having her there. Now with Abarat I have Joanna Cotler who has her own imprint, so I have safety in that, too. Are we ever completely secure in any of these places? No. Were we ever completely secure in these places. Probably not. That was probably a little bit delusional. Editors got fired in those days, too.

HG: You mentioned Abarat. The first book has already been turned in?

CB: Yes, that will be out in late September, early October. I'm going to see final proofs in a week's time and then it goes off to China, I think it is, or Hong Kong -- where they'll print it. I'm writing Book Two now -- writing and painting Book Two side by side.

HG: How many paintings?

CB: I think there'll be a lot of them...

HG: But you already had 300 or so...

Abarat Cover CB: Right. There are 100 or so accompanying paintings in the first book. I know I've got about 45 paintings for the second book already done. Now how many more paintings I will discover I already have, I don't know. I may find haven't got them, in which case I have a lot of catch up to do in terms of original paintings. It is a bit of an adventure to find out. Since I've done this backwards -- painting the pictures first then writing the book -- it's a discovery and I'm enjoying that. I'm enjoying this whole process. It's sort of fun to go through the paintings that are hanging on the wall in real life. One hundred and ten of those are already in a book and already have their place with their characters and so on. Now I'm moving on to a second set of characters and worlds and I'm having a thoroughly good time.

HG: What about the length of the book? Are we going to have another one of your heavy, thick books?

CB: It will be slightly heavy... because it's on heavy stock paper. We're doing this on the most beautiful coated paper because the illustrations need to be gorgeous. It's going to look like an art book with a 100,000 word story. That's what we're aiming for -- a 19th century look for the book. It's all full-color illustrations all the way through, not a black and white illustration in the whole thing. So it is going to be heavy because of the weight of the paper -- which is exactly the right reason for it to be heavy.

The extraordinary thing is that they've been able to bring this book in -- 400 or so pages, full color illustrations -- for [what will be a retail price] of $24.95. So I think we have two bites of the apple here: not only is the text (hopefully) engaging but the images are going to be engaging on a whole other level.

I know I was certainly drawn in as a child by books with illustrations -- like the Bible. My grandmother had a huge old family Bible which had monochrome reproductions of paintings. Renaissance paintings, actually, which were clearly chosen by homosexuals. You could open the Bible up anywhere and it was adorned with these paintings...and there was a very kind of languishing body effect to the whole thing. I remember being fascinated by this book at the age of six and going to it, you know, and finding -- ahh...

HG: [Laughing] Pictures of naked men? Is that what you are trying to say?

CB: Yeah! I think the Bible and religious illustrations are often the place where we first find the possibility of sexuality. Then later on you see the movies of these things -- of course the movies were a lot more self-conscious about this. You have Cecille B. DeMille movies or some terrible, God-awful epic, but these are very sexual movies. What's interesting is that they've patterned themselves as being very innocent and righteous -- which I always love because it proves you can be morally self-righteous and show a lot of flesh...absolutely justified by the scriptures.

HG: [I'm laughing a lot by now and Barker is chortling, too.] Ahh -- let's get away from this for a moment because I need to ask about horror. Part of the raison d'etre of Horror Garage comes from you. That bit about the "sheer artlessness of a Z-grade zombie flick," which, in itself, "can tellingly reveal the root of the genre's fascination in a fashion that a more sophisticated piece of work may conceal" from The A-Z of Horror? Are you reading any horror fiction these days?

CB: When I writing I never read fiction. It's just a sort of rule I've applied...

HG: And you are always writing...

CB: Yes, well -- right now i've been reading a lot of history and biography. So the answer has been, no, I really haven't been reading much fiction. I read Black House (by Stephen King and Peter Straub)... and Hannibal (by Thomas Harris)... but those were both last year. We're just into this year and I haven't really read anything... Oh wait! That's not true! I read Anne Rice's Blood and Gold.

HG: Do you like Anne Rice's books?

CB: In the right mood, in the right mood... I think she wouldn't mind being referred to as a writer you need to be in the right mood for. The loveliness of the prose, the certain self-consciousness of the prose -- it takes a mood for it -- I mean just as you have to be in the right mood for Steve [King], you know. I think there are times when you want to hear opera and times when you want to hear Nirvana; times when you want a hamburger and times when you want some incredibly foo-foo desert. The same is true about Stephen King. So, I was in the right mood for Anne Rice and I had a good time with the novel.

HG: Since you haven't been reading a lot of current horror fiction the I guess you haven't much of an opinion about current horror? [Laughing]

CB: I don't guarantee that, but it wouldn't be a fair opinion! Have you read any good stuff lately you can recommend to me?

[A listing of recent books I recommend ensues with Barker jotting down titles and asking who published what.]

HG: Well, that takes care of horror... let's see, what about music? That's the other part of Horror Garage. I know the Philip Glass score to Candyman,The Music of Candyman (from Orange Mountain Music, Philip Glass' record company) is finally available...

CB: And with the most erroneous set of liner notes you can imagine --

HG: Don't they refer to you as Clive Barnes?

CB: I mean I could care less if my name was right, but what really annoys me is this guy, whoever he is -- I hope he reads this -- this guy had the temerity to imply that Bernard Rose [the film's director] was fired off Candyman and didn't get to finish the movie the way he wanted to finish it!

This guy -- I don't know who he is, if he's a friend of Philip's or what-the-heck -- says Philip was apparently very disappointed with the movie because of the notes going on and it was being fiddled around with and it wasn't what Bernard wanted and all. Well, Philip went on to score the sequel. I don't know what the guy is talking about, but it really irritates me when people pontificate from a place of ignorance. But it is nice to have the music finally. It's wonderful music.

There's a nice young guy -- you won't know him, but you will soon -- who is doing the music for Saint Sinner. [Christopher Lennertz] I was talking to the director and saying how lucky I had been over the course of my filming life to have been blessed with the work of Danny Elfman, Philip Glass, Simon Boswell, Christopher Young...I mean the Hellraiser score [by Christopher Young] elevates that little movie to a whole other place and the music for Candyman makes it into an epic experience.

HG: Weren't you doing a project with Jonathan Davis of Korn?

CB: Yeah, we're doing a DVD which will come out later this year. Jonathan is writing music to go with some of my paintings and I am actually going to make a painting that will go with some of his music, so the DVD will be sort of a reciprocal creative experience...very fun.

HG: I always thought you should do something with Trent Reznor --

CB: That might be just too obvious... Chris Young taught me something very important. When we were doing the resurrection of Frank scene from Hellraiser he played me some big lush waltz music on the piano. And I said WHAT? He said. "Trust me, play the scene against the waltz music."

I think I learned a lot there. By and large horror movie music is better when it is doing something slightly against what expectation tells us it should be. Danny Elfman did that over and over to Nightbreed and to Tim's [Burton] movies -- giving something to the films that really gives you a different kind of excitement, a different kind of energy than the images suggest.

I don't believe you can overestimate the importance of music in movies Whether its Bernard Herrmann's scores for Hitchcock or John Williamson's scores for Spielberg -- these are scores that transformed the films.

HG: Then don't go see Queen of the Damned.

CB: Welllll -- one of the problems you have with putting rock music in a score is that you instantly date the movie. If you listen to Bernard Herrmann's score for Psycho -- it was used practically note for note with Gus Van Sant's re-working of the film and it seemed more modern than Van Sant's re-working. There is something rich and emotional in these scores that's usually missing in most rock music. Rock also goes against the rhythm of horror movies. The rhythm of horror movies is very particular. They tend to be full of long, quiet passages and sudden bursts of activity then long, quiet passages...did you ever hear rock music like that?

HG: I think it's the antithesis of rock.

CB: Totally! What you have in Queen of the Damned is driving rock music all at one level set on top of the action. It drives the scares away. When they were trying to put some of that sort of thing in Hellraiser I actually played them part of the movie Psycho and I said, "Imagine if, in 1960. Hitchcock had put contemporary music in this? I mean -- Ricky Nelson? What would have been left of the movie?" It just wouldn't be the same. It wouldn't be a classic. It would be kitsch no matter how powerful the images.

Abarat Cover HG: Speaking of classics -- Doug Winter's biography of you, Clive Barker: The Dark Fantastic, is out now in the UK and will be available here in June. How does it feel to be biographized? You aren't even 50 yet.

CB: It's interesting -- Doug wrote a tentative chapter about my dad passing away and then was able to enrich it for the end of this book. This makes it a much fuller and richer experience because with my dad's passing I felt it marked a passage in my life. The Jewish religion says that you can not truly be a man until your father has died -- maybe there is a certain amount of truth in that. All these years in which Doug was talking to me, talking to my family, talking to my dad -- then making an account of my relationship with David Armstrong, and then the passing of my dad -- it does seem to me as though he picked a particularly extraordinary time to write it.

Can I read it all without squirming? No... HG: Can David read it without laughing?

CB: Probably not! Part of it, you know, is pure recognition -- you go, "Oh God, that's me." But it feels wonderful because is an extraordinarily good book, a rich book, and it's a book that makes me feel I had a life already -- and that's strange. That feels strange, I mean I'm still trying --

HG: You are still having a life!

CB: Exactly! But we've done a lot of things -- when I say "we" I mean for the books there's my editors, my publishers, myself; and the people I've worked with in the movies and the people I've worked with in the theatre and the people I've worked with in art galleries -- there's been a lot of stuff. So it didn't seem like a terrible place to take a pause. When I did get worried about it, I remembered that [actor-director] Kenneth Branagh wrote his autobiography at 30.

HG: Before we end this -- I don't think you've been wicked at all today. Haven't you anything absolutely wicked to say to restore your image?

CB: You know I don't -- I'm a family man writing for children...[there's a grin in his voice as he says this.] I will tell you that we can guarantee that -- having done all this, Abarat and so on --there's some stuff coming down the pike -- Damnation Game [based on Barker's first novel] over at Warner Brothers, Bloody Mary [with Barker producing] is also moving along quite nicely at Touchstone -- oh yes, and Tortured Souls, the toys...

HG: Yes, yes! I see the next series of six figurines are already being touted...

CB: The first six are long gone -- they sold out in three weeks. We've had some fun with that, so we're going to make a movie of Tortured Souls over at Universal.

HG: I have to admit, I do think people are shocked when they see them.

CB: I think they are, too. When you think of "toys" you just don't think at this level of intensity.

HG: But they aren't toy toys for children. I mean they are intended for adults.

CB: That's true, they are very much for grown-ups, but when you see them for sale for eleven bucks a piece and they are packaged in plastic and there is something toy toy about them. Then you look closely and you go, "Oh my GOD!" And the second six take even that to a new level of intensity.

HG: Will there be a story to go with this set? [Each of the first six figurines --inhabitants of dark Primordium, the first city ever built -- was accompanied by a portion of an original novella by Barker that explained the characters place in a plot to overthrow a corrupt imperium and further machinations. This is the basis for the movie.]

CB: No, not this time. But the lucky thing is we will be transferring all this onto the screen. And that's a great thing -- I don't think a horror movie has ever been made with a design so complete. What we are going to do is give the models to the special effects guys and say, "Here's your actor, here's the model" and it's going to be very fun.

HG: How's it working with Todd McFarlane [of McFarlane toys that makes the toys]?

CB: Todd and I are working together on this and its been great. At one point he actually encouraged me to do this more even more intensely.

HG: Encouraging Clive Barker to be more intense with a creation? Now that's scary!


Barker's voice is going. We end our chat and I encourage him to go have a glass of wine. He thinks that perhaps hot tea and lemon is more appropriate.

But it's probably very intense tea. #



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Copyright © 2003 by Paula Guran All Rights Reserved.