Hellraiser: Barker on a spiritual quest
Jane Ganahl OF THE EXAMINER STAFF
Aug. 11, 1996
The noted horror master's new novel touches on the extinction of animals and destruction of the gay population by AIDS
In one especially pivotal scene in Clive Barker's new book, "Sacrament," photojournalist Will Rabjohns - one of the first-ever gay heroes from a best-selling author - refuses to kill a polar bear for attacking humans in its path.
"Will says that he doesn't want to see something punished just for following its nature," says a pensive Barker. "Because as a queer man, he can't afford to make that judgment."
Barker, who's been open about his own gayness for years, was in town this week to talk about the new book, a risky, radical departure from the fantasy-bordering-on-horror works he's famous for, like the best-selling "Everville" and "Imagica." The never-resting Brit who calls Los Angeles home is equally well-known for producing and directing cult-favorite movies of his scary stories: "Hellraiser," "Candyman," and "Lord of Illusions." Only Stephen King is better known in the genre.
But, at age 43, Barker craved a departure from the formula. The result: "Sacrament," which, like his other books, includes forays into Barker's unbridled imagination, but is also rooted in reality, touching upon extinction of animals and decimation of the gay population by AIDS.
"This is a much more issue-driven work than I've ever done, and I'm really proud of it," says the linen-suited Liverpool native, over a mushroom salad at the Ritz-Carlton. He looks weary from five weeks of promotional travel, but is still devilishly handsome, with chin-length hair and eyes that spark with both profundity and mischief.
Right now, it's the somber, committed Clive who's speaking. Moments later, though, he'll be relating an anecdote that has him giggling uncontrollably, about the time he had breakfast with Margaret Thatcher in Miami, with Scotland Yard thugs standing behind her. ( "Her purse never left her lap! And that hair! There could've been a hurricane and it wouldn't have moved!" )
But when it comes to "Sacrament," which Barker calls "terribly personal," he finds it hard to laugh. "I very much needed to write this book. I felt I had the power as a writer to do it, and my publishers allowed me go this route, although they were a bit worried about it."
One thing that probably worried them was Rabjohns. Barker's dynamic protagonist is a resident of San Francisco's Castro District, when he isn't globe-trotting to photograph endangered species or following a spiritual quest to his native England. And he's not just gay, he's joyfully sexual, open to libidinous encounters.
"That was important to me, because Will's sexuality is not just an interesting detail, it's central to the theme of the book," says Barker, who admits to Rabjohn's character being somewhat autobiographical.
"But he's also a guy who's lived his life and is saying, I don't know what this adds up to. He captures life on film, but retreats from it. It's one reason I wrote the book because I'm there myself. It was a self-criticism. It was a way to wake myself up, to tell myself "don't just be a witness.' "
Underlying the drama of the plot - Rabjohns is nearly killed by a bear; while in a coma he relives a terrifying experience from his childhood that tells him his fate and the planet's are intertwined - is the subtheme of extinction: of both animal species and his own "species" of gay men due to AIDS.
Barker, never one to mince words when it comes to politics, erupts. "The sanctity of the animal world has always been a passion of mine, and it's under constant assault. This government made all these promises on the environment and has not delivered. Al Gore wrote an environmental manual, for God's sake!"
And as far as the more personal issue: "I've had many friends die of AIDS, and it looks like the cure is still years away. Writing this book was a way to reconnect with them, and to make it real for people."
Choosing San Francisco for the locale was easy, Barker says. "I never lived here but I have a lot of friends here and I partied here a lot back in the '80s." He rolls his eyes and smiles dryly, remembering a more hedonistic time.
"I wanted to celebrate this community. It's much larger than any other on the planet, more joyful too. This is the city of Harvey Milk! I always felt I wanted to capture that in a book."
Will the college kids and fans of fantasy fiction who line up at Barker's book-signings (more than 400 Wednesday night at Booksmith) stick with him through this reality-check period? "Apparently so," he says, perhaps a little embarrassed. "We're in our fourth printing in four weeks. I had no idea how it would sell; it's the fastest-selling book I've had so far."
Noting the shock on my face, he laughs. "I know! I'm as startled as you are. But delighted."
Barker thinks he knows what it is about "Sacrament" that people want. "One reason I think the book is hitting a nerve is that people have a universal need to look at their spiritual reality, their religion, and pick apart the structures. So much time was spent early in my life confronting hypocrisy, cruelty, homophobia, other things inherent in some organized religions. At this stage in my life I am questioning everything."
And when Barker looks for God, he finds evidence in our furry friends. "Animals are one of the best manifestations of the glory of life. And then you turn on the Discovery Channel and see documentaries that feature animals attacking people. It makes it OK for us to kill and hunt them if we see them as demons."
He throws his hands up in exasperation with his fellow humans. "We have the privilege of being witnesses here, but does it connect us to the world? No. We see a lot of things that need to be done, but it only makes us more remote."
"But," he adds cheerily, "Things can change. I think I was put on the planet to stir the imaginings of people by opening doors and saying, look at this! And to turn their attention back to what they've already seen in the real world, but to which they've become blind."
©1996 San Francisco Examiner
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