In an attic somewhere in West London there is a painting, hidden away from prying eyes: a hideously deformed and corrupted portrait which suffers the consequences of the bizarre imaginative excesses which Clive Barker has committed to paper and celluloid. There has to be, because even film critic Barry Norman had to admit that Barker himself is “a very agreeable fellow”.
But as Clive Barker sits back in the grey on grey hotel room, thin nervous fingers toying with a large bourbon, there is something in his eyes — or maybe the smile — which gives the impression that he just might go for your throat.
When we spoke, the Cabal had just been published, and planning for the movie Nightbreed was in the early stages.
Cabal and Nightbreed
“Cabal is a short novel, about two-fifty pages,” Barker explains. “It’s the first in a series of stories about this character called Cabal, who begins the book alive and human, and ends the book neither! He moves on from that position of being neither human nor alive to new adventures.
“It’s about a character who is a monster, basically. The line on the cover of the book is: At last the night has a hero. And in a sense, he’s going to be a hero of the night.”
At some point in the past Barker referred to Cabal as being a cross between James Dean and a werewolf, and he smiles when reminded of the fact.
“That’s right. I always said: He’s dead and good in bed!” He laughs. “Nightbreed is the movie version of CABAL, the creatures that Cabal falls in cahoots with are the Nightbreed. I start shooting that in Pinewood in February, as writer-director.”
Before Barker began work on Nightbreed, there were plans for a film based on the character Harry d’Amour, who first appeared in the story “The Last Illusion”, in the Books of Blood, followed by appearances in the short story “Lost Souls”, which appeared the Dennis Etchison anthology Cutting Edge, and most recently in the novel The Great and Secret Show.
“The Harry project has been put off until after the Nightbreed film because someone made me an offer I couldn’t refuse! The offer being a three-movie deal in which they would allow me just to make the movies, and keep their hands off, which is great!”
In the days since his bad experiences with the movies Underworld and Rawhead Rex Barker feels that he has been treated pretty well by the movie companies.
“We never had any interference from New World on the Hellraiser pictures. They just tended to let us get on with it. They had suggestions to make at the script stage, but there’s a sense that we are over here, we’re Brits, they are in Los Angeles, they come over here, it’s cold, it’s wet, they stand in the corner of the set for the day looking cold and wet, and they leave. And it’s actually very good. If we were making films in Los Angeles, I think we’d be getting a lot more producer interefence. A lot more.”
The Harry d’Amour film is planned as the first in a series.
“They’re a lot more expensive as pictures than the Hellraiser pictures, or indeed Nightbreed, so there’s certainly a sense that this is the the right order in which to do things.”
Barker seems to be building up a permanent crew to work on his movies, both in front of and behind the cameras.
“Many of the team who were on Hellraiser were on Hellraiser II. A few of them have actually moved to other things: Robin Vidgeon, who shot the first and second Hellraiser pictures went off to do Fly II. Doug Bradley, who played Pinhead, is an actor I’ve known since I was seventeen, and did all my university stuff with me. Many of the people I worked with in theatre I’ve worked with in the movies, so there’s a kind of continuity there. Peter Atkins too. Peter I met when I was twenty-one, maybe twenty, and he was eighteen… There’s a book coming out on me in America called Shadows in Eden, by Stephen Jones, and it will contain a whole chapter on the theatre stuff we did. Peter did a long introduction to the section on theatre in which he details our meeting… it’s so funny. I was sitting in the bath reading it and laughing like a loon and remembering that this is exactly how it was!”
The original Harry d’Amour story was a blend of the B film noir detective and horror story demons and monsters, a mixture which Barker originally also planned to have in the Underworld.
“Originally Underworld was mutants versus mobsters, that was always my pitch line. It should have been made for a million dollars, by someone from the Corman school, and it should have been extremely violent and extremely nasty! There should have been a lot of absolutely grotesque monsters and a lot of smoking uzis, preferably hidden in well-cut Armani jackets. I wanted great surrealism. The idea with the drug, White Man, was that their dreams actually took physical form: I wanted people with trees growing out of their eyes and stuff like that.
“What ended up happening was that the producers sold the movie as a ‘rock ‘n’ roll adventure’. You only learn this, of course, the day before they shoot the thing. They say – this was their quote – We’re going to get a tits and car chase man in to rewrite it. And I said: Well, okay, as you like. This is presumably someone who will put in tits and car chases. Yes it was, they said. So the movie ended up having a little bit of mutants and mobsters, and mostly tits and car chases!
“I had an episode halfway through, two thirds of the way through, shooting where I was actually called round to the producers, and they said: We had your screenplay rewritten and we think its really great, but we’d like you to put these lines of yours back. And they had a page with all the lines written out, the lines they liked. They said: We think this is the poetry of your screenplay, and if you’d just put it back…! And I said: How long have you got left of shooting? And they said: We’ve got about three weeks, but most of these lines are for those scenes. So we shouldn’t have any real problem. That’s the way they are.
“Going back to the Corman thing, originally the whole thing was quite a dirty, nasty, sleasy little picture, which was kind of fun. Nicole was a drug-addict, they were all drug-addicts… Later on I also discovered that they wanted a ’15’ for the picture, so someone had to go back and take out all the drug addict routines. And it had a great scene for Doctor Savary, the guy who died at the end. I had this thing about the dreams brought out by the drug in the system, and Savary’s great fear was hypodermics, so all these hypodermics exploded through his eyes and skin… they shot some of this, but I don’t know what happened, I never saw any of that stuff.
“Underworld looks lovely, but it’s boring as hell! It’s sort of a designer boredom movie, isn’t it?”
Clive Barker’s second movie project was an adaption of the story “Rawhead Rex” from the Books of Blood, which he wrote the screenplay for.
“It was made by the same people, and they knew they’d screwed up with Underworld and made it bad and boring, and so they said: We need to make a monster movie. And then they got in some very cheesy special effects; a story which was set in Sussex in mid-summer in the original novella was shot in Ireland in the wettest and windiest February they’d had in a long time… I mean, they screwed up every which way. They killed different characters to those I’d killed in the script, and they had an incredibly bad piece of special effects for the monster…”
A monster which is only the most important thing in the movie…
“I think so. It looks like a sixties monster… a bad sixties monster! Terrible. But what do you do? The main thing is that if you shoot movies without imagination, forget it, the whole thing just becomes lame and boring. I think it’s a boring movie.”
One of the earliest discussed film projects based on stories from the Books of Blood was an adaption of “The Yattering and Jack”.
“We talked about that, then my agent sold it to TV, to Tales from the Darkside. I was going to direct, then couldn’t because I was doing something else. The picture was shot, and I thought it was pretty lame. We are now, however, planning to do “In the Flesh” with Warner Brothers, and we’re going to do “Jacqueline Ess”…”
With several movie projects on the go, and more novels in The Art series to follow The Great and Secret Show, some might wonder how Barker manages to fit everything in.
“I have a work schedule — I’m talking about the writing here, not about the movies — which is based on how many words I have to produce a day: somewhere between 2,500 and 3,000 a day, which is a fair amount, but not as many as I suspect Stephen King produces, for instance. But I don’t see it as a major problem. But I do have to generate that amount of material each day. Now, sometimes that 3,000 words will take five hours; sometimes it will take eight; sometimes it will even take ten, but I won’t leave the problem until it’s done. And then when it’s done, it’s done.”
Barker does not sit down at a wordprocessor to begin his day’s work, prefering a more direct link between his ideas and the paper.
“It’s all handwritten,” he says. “I don’t even have a typewriter in my workroom. It works for me to handwrite things, and if it’s not broken, why mend it? I think one of the important things to me about it being handwritten is that it’s natural. It’s a thing I was doing as a kid, and I think there’s a great continuity, and I don’t want to break that continuity.”
“I need to be able to write in a day,” he says, returning to the art, rather than the craft of his work. “And if I don’t, I need to paint, or whatever. Obviously when I’m making a movie it’s fine, because the exhaustion level is so high. You get up at six o’clock and you get on set at seven. By eight o’clock you’re rolling, and you finish at six, maybe eight. You view the rushes from the day previously, you go home and prepare the work for the next day, you get to bed at one o’clock, and then you get up at six o’clock again. And you do that for ten weeks. And at the end of that, you’re wrecked! The thing that nobody ever warns you about movie is how physically exhausting it is. Whereas writing is not.”
We say that we’d heard rumours that Barker wasn’t happy with the first cut of Hellraiser II when he saw it.
“I didn’t like it at all,” he admits.
Did he then add additional material to it?
“Lots! You’ve been indiscrete: I’m going to be indiscrete — Who did you hear from?
The tape recorder is turned off.
“That’s cool,” Barker says. “I just need to know who your sources are!” He grins. “I didn’t like the first cut at all, and I asked that we went back and shot some… very tough stuff, which makes the movie very shocking, and very gruelling…”
Because that is what people will expect after the first movie?
“I think the first picture certainly had that reputation, but the first picture is not as graphic as people remember it being. You actually go back… it was not an immensely graphic picture. We only lost twenty-five seconds to the censor. It’s nowhere near as graphic as the second one. Of course, you’ve got to understand that at this point I’m talking about the pre-censored version. I mean, who knows? I read an article yesterday in which Tony Randall said that there was a larger body-count, but less blood in number two. Liar! We were using it in major amounts! But the censor may remove a lot of that.
His novel Weaveworld is about fairy tales and childhood — What sort of child was Clive Barker?
“Nerdy… very short-sighted, I still am, overweight, an outsider, a loner… an imaginative kid I suppose, someone who was very eager to escape all the time into my imagination…”
All things he put into the character Cal Mooney.
“Cal is… er… a lot of things in Cal… I have a great grandfather who was a poet, an Irish poet; I have a brother who used to live in the Mooney house, with the trains going along the back… all the places that Cal goes through in the book are places that I know very well. And Cal’s dreaminess is very much part of me I’m the kind of person who walks down the street thinking of something and walks into a lamp-post. Actually the reason why I don’t drive is because I would kill people! I’d be thinking of something and take my hands off the wheel!”
What was he afraid of as a child?
“Oh God, it’s such a long time ago! School. I never much liked school, I was quite a good student, but I didn’t much like it. I played truant a lot of the time when I first went to my secondary school, my grammar school: I didn’t like it very much at all. I had to learn Latin! Terrible! And we had a French master, and I wish I knew him now, and if he ever reads this, which he won’t, he was an absolute fucker! A dick-head, and I hope he reads this! Doctor Robinson, wherever you are, I think he’s a professor now, Professor Dick-Head Robinson. He used to wear long black robes and put ball-bearings into the lining, so he wound them around (his hand) like that and whammed them down on your hand. Absolute bastard! If there’s any justice in the world, the man is somewhere in concrete! And the urge to revenge myself remains very strong. I still feel very angry about some of that, time doesn’t mellow my contempt for people who take that power and use it in schools, in universities, you know, the weak mean — they usually are men — who use the fact that they are put in control of younger people as a means to play little Napoleons. There are a lot of them out there. Teaching is all too often a place which attracts a certain kind of weak personality, who likes to dominate…”
Perhaps it’s because they never left the academic world, went from learning to teaching?
“I’m afraid that’s true, very often. I mean, I also had wonderful teachers, extraordinary teachers, who were massively influential upon me. I mean, I had an English teacher, and an art teacher, who were just extraordinary. It’s very important to have those influences, but some of them are negative influences, and I think it gave me a very strong anti-authoritarian streak. You know. If somebody says don’t, hah! That’s the invitation to do it! Whatever it is, do it!”
Do writers need to have personal fears to write horror?
“No, they need to be human. And that’s not a joke. They just need to be born, to write horror. It begins the moment somebody actually takes you out of that nine months of swimming around, the closest you’ll ever get to another human being, intimately associated with her system and her rhythms, and rips you out. And you’re exiled, and the moment the exile begins, the horror begins. Because the rest of the time you spend an awful lot of the time wondering whether you’ll ever get that close to anybody ever again, and you watch the losses and the departures… the departures begin there. And the departures go on throughout your life. First pets die. That tends to be the first thing, the canary dies: What happened to the canary? You know… erm, well, says mother… or the goldfish, the goldfish are even faster! Because goldfish last even less time, and you come down one day and there’s what used to be something that was alive and swimming around, on the top, or even worse, belly-up! And you say to your mother, or your father, What happened? I mean, this is a universal experience, right? It’s distressing, I mean what can you do, give ’em mouth to mouth?
“But you see these things, and they die on you. And it continues. And I think what continues is the incomprehension about that. And the more important and significant the people or the creatures that die on you become, the more angry I think you feel towards the world, and the system that makes that so. And it’s happening to you all the time, it’s happening to us in the half-hour that we’ve spent talking, our systems have been quietly degenerating and failing to regenerate… sorry about that!” He grins. “But it’s true, isn’t it?”
In the half-hour that we had been sitting there degenerating it had become pretty obvious that Barker really enjoys what he does…
“You know, my dad worked for forty-seven years of his life before he retired, he started work at the age of fourteen. He made a living wage, not a great wage, and he worked incredibly hard to make my brother, and myself and my mum’s life better; and he came to the end of his forty-seven years of work, and I said: Well, dad, what did you think of it? And he said: I hated every day of it! Now, I go to my desk in a morning and have a great time, and it sometimes seems almost indecent that I get paid for it! We have to admit that everybody in this room is doing something much closer to something that they love than my dad working on the docks, and then later on working in a cable-manufacturing company, ever did. Here we are, we are not wage-slaves in the sense off having to turn into the office at nine o’clock every morning. Yes, of course we have deadlines: I have to deliver another book by the fifteenth of December because if I don’t, well I suppose Collins might take the advance back. But I’ve spent it!” He looks over to the Collins publicity people in the room. “I’ve spent it! Do you hear?! But we’ve had fun today; we’ve been taking plastic corpses round to… I mean, it’s not exactly been a tough day for us on the whole. There hasn’t been major suffering going on. We’re kind of blessed creatures…
“I don’t know that I ever considered myself working class. I think I consider myself relatively classless. I don’t think it’s a major concern to me. I suppose I thought about it when I started to get money, but that’s not necessarily so much to do with class, it’s about certain assumptions about what you do with money. It’s more a kind of Calvinist thing about ‘Oh, my God! I’ve got money, what do I do with it?… Do I deserve it?’ And so on. I think that’s the distinction I’d make. Now, if that’s a class distinction, then it is. But I think it’s a different class distinction to the ‘lower’, ‘middle’, ‘upper’ distinction. It’s to do with people who have actually got pleasure in their lives, in their working lives, and people who haven’t. Now in the old days that used to be a class distinction. It’s the same distinction now, but you can’t call it class. Not in the same sense.”
Certain ideas seem to recur in Barker’s work. Puzzles for example: there’s the Lament Configuration box in Hellraiser, the knots in “The Inhuman Condition”…
“Yeah, a major preoccupation for me because they are mysterious things, and also very simple things: mazes and labyrinths — the labyrinth in “The Madonna”, and there are other examples… you’re right, puzzles preoccupy me. They are both intellectual and emotional at the same time. They’re very cool things in principle, but they’re also things which can intrigue. Chinese boxes are extraordinary — there’s a wonderful kind of marriage of the physical problem: How do I open this? And the intellectual problem…” He shrugs. “Just another obsession.”
Perhaps the most obsessive image in what he does is the image of the ‘flayed’ figure.
“Yeah, I have obsessive images. And the thing about the flayed image, to me, is that it is an image of vulnerability, and it is also a very sexual image. I mean sexual and scary at the same time, you know? When you feel very eroticised — when you get out of a hot shower, for instance — making love after a hot shower is great because you feel very eroticised: a touch becomes very significant. And a flayed image is almost like pressing that to an incredible extent…”
Bringing the nerves to the surface…
“Absolutely. Kissing must be great when you’re flayed!”
I say that I refuse to even think about that.
Clive Barker grins again. “I don’t believe that for a moment!”
(c) PAUL TOMLINSON 1989
Originally published in the fanzine Other Times.
Conducted at the Copthorne Hotel, Birmingham, 26th August 1988.
Thanks to Nick Cairns and Catherine Humphrey, who were with me on this one. To Fiona MacIntosh at Collins who set up the interview for us. And to my brother, Mark, who loaned me his 35mm camera so I didn’t have to take the photographs on my crappy little 110 (remember those?).