Glamourous Rags

A Profile Of Clive Barker

Years of California sun have gradually carved the smooth matinee-idol looks into the beginnings of a craggy maturity. Clive Barker at almost 50 both is and is not the wittily experimental playwright who worked with Jude Kelly on pieces like 'Colossus' (the life of Goya) and 'The Secret Life of Cartoons', or the angry iconoclast who revolutionaised genre horror with 'The Books of Blood'.

Hollywood, a place which can be both heaven and hell, has brought him fulfilment and a row of three pink houses, houses that are old enough Hollywood that one of them belonged to both Loretta Young and Ronald Colman.

'I came out of Liverpool frustrated - but what do I have to be angry about? I have a husband, David, and twentyeight animals, and work that I love. Of course this town can make you crazy: I hate it when people fumble an oppurtunity or when they lie to me, but I can walk away from those things to this quiet little canyon - 'Coldheart Canyon' without the ghosts. The life of the two-week old naked wild brown rat that we found abandoned by its mother in a drawer is more important to me than any of those things.'

Six or seven films based on his work are in production or development - the television movie of his novel 'Weaveworld' films in January. He hopes to do a couple more biopics in the tradition of 'Gods and Monsters' which he produced - and at least one more vast all the stops out fantasy project, though that too he would want to produce rather than direct. One past project with which he was dissatisfied 'Lord of Illusions' has been rescued into a preferred version by DVD - he hopes one day to do the same for his butchered fantastique epic 'Nightbreed'.

One of the three pink houses, the one where we are talking, is the home, for a while, to the gallery of paintings that are part of his current project 'The Abarat'. Paintings that vary from a vast impressionistic yet peopled triptych of twenty-five islands to intimate sketches of grotesques that leer out at the audience and challenge it not to empathize with their distortions and predicaments.

'I love the way much painting has come back to the figurative - I was never an abstract expressionist kind of guy. Painting has always been for me like what Kandinsky said about drawing being taking a line for a walk. I make a mark and then the second mark it demands and I see where they lead me.'

The paintings emerged when he thought he was working on another sequence of erotic painting - he has exhibited two already - and acquired that artist's dream and nightmare, a life of their own. 'At first I thought that perhaps each of them had its own story, and that there was a book right there. And then I realized that what I was painting was a world, and that they all fitted sooner or later into my mythology of that world.' Instead of starting with a story and finding strong visual imagery to tell that story, he had found visual imagery that demanded a four volume sequence of fantastique novels for children and young adults to give them shape.

But 'The Abarat' is more than just a new and major contender in those particular stakes. It is, for one thing, like his earlier children's book 'The Thief of Always', full of a level of beautiful terror that children are still just able to bear. 'I don't need to use explicit language or sexuality - I did those already.' And 'The Abarat' is also The Deal; Disney are committed to filming the first two books once he has finished the second, and are considering turning some aspects of the paintings into a ride - 'one of their dreamier rides like the pirate islands.'

Clive is a man who always pays his artistic debts. When he was young, one of his favourite books was Les Tres Riches Heures of the Duc De Berry and he had always wanted to make a Book of Hours. The fact that when he has, it is a heavily illustrated fantasy set in a world with twentyfive islands- one for each hour of the day and the space between- is one of the sequence's many conceptual puns. And the patronage of two huge corporations - Disney and Harper Collins - means that he has been able to make books that are not only viscerally exciting fantastique adventures, but gorgeous objects in the hand. He is fond of that term 'fanastique' as a way of getting away from the preconceptions involved with standard publisher's categories - sf, horror, children's books - which have more to do with helping people find their way around stores than with the actual work. ' People say that they don't read horror, or fantasy, and ignore the fantasy in horror fiction, the horror implicit in fantasy fiction.' The logic of the situation is that people end up only reading novels set on Tuesday and featuring purple monsters.

Using the term 'fantastique' is a way of signalling inclusiveness, not only across genres but across forms. 'I grew tired of the way people knew everything about Stephen King and nothing about Breugel or Goya. I like work that leads me to make connections - recently I started listening to Elgar and from him I found myself moving into a whole new sense of the poetry of Englishness. And then you find yourself re-reading - suddenly 'The Wind in the Willows' is this passionate hymn to rural placidity with a Dionysiac figure at the centre of it'

One thing that has changed him is being parent to David's daughter Nicole. 'She is a coolly confident 2002 fourteen-year old, but she still searches fiction, music and art for clues to how things work. I had not realized how important the late Aliyah was to her as a young black woman until she asked me to take her to the big poster that was acting as a shrine and cried as she lit candles there. At first I was sceptical - but then I realized how much this mattered-' grief is the performance of grief. The important thing is that the young go on being able to find all of the work they need to make sense of things.

When Clive Barker moved into the pink house, he found a portrait of Jean Cocteau tucked away in a back office and knew he would be happy there. Cocteau is one of his heroes, just for his versatility; another is Coward. 'David Lean once asked him 'Master, how do you keep the critics from growing tired of you' and Coward said 'M'dear, the important thing is always to poke your head out of another hole.' That joy in virtuoisity is the key to Barker's work at its best, and also the key to his contentment.

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