Physics, alchemy, evolutionary consciousness, the shark's bad press and the hope that a future Pope might be "one of those guys who understands what boys are for and goes forward."
JOHN M. FARRELL freewheels with the master fantasist, CLIVE BARKER.
FEW COMPARISONS seem as pointless as the one constantly being shorthanded for master fantasist, Clive
Barker. Even the press release from his publisher Harper Collins succumbs to it. Therefore, to get it out of the
way, unequivocally and once and for all, the positioning of Barker as the 'heir-apparent' to Stephen King makes
about as much sense as having the folksy American illustrator Norman Rockwell 'father' the Anglo-Irish Francis
King's, for the most part, is the world of campfire tall-tale and urban legends that almost invariably begin 'My sister had this friend who met a guy...' Barker, on the other hand, is more an alchemist, a magician whose sleights of hand themselves suggest alternate worlds, subtly interwoven with our own. King's appeal may lie in his skillful dispatch of a cracking good yarn; but Barker's rests with his disquieting command of a more subterranean syntax. In this respect, Barker's works are personal investigations into those eerily familiar, yet uncharted landscapes each of us shelter within. King's works are solid, deterministic packages with clearly externalised good and evil. Barker's are more like the enigmatic cube from the Hellraiser series itself.
The urge to find signs of LA living wearing the Liverpool-reared fantastist down are irresistible, yet futile. The ugly fact as he bounces, a lively step in his foot, through the foyer of the Berkeley Court is that he looks terrific. His inky black hair tumbles effortlessly, his matching gold earrings heightening the phosphorescent flash in his own dark eyes while thin dashes of goatee-inspired facial hair make his smile more winning than it ever seemed on any of those damned book jackets.
No, LA obviously suits him. Even more to the point, success suits him, and there can be little doubt that Barker's fortunes are continuing to climb. Even with dramatic diversification in animation, CD-Rom, and TV Mini-Series underway, Barker has elsewhere insisted that the novel is his great love, the work to which he always most happily returns. His all-too-brief spin through Dublin has already taken in a book signing at Waterstone's and in the evening he's appearing on The Late Late Show. All of this in an effort to help promote the paperback edition of Everville, the long-awaited follow-up to 1991's Great and Secret Show, although there can be little doubt that the sales would prove meteoric even if he just stayed at home, in the mansion that once belonged to '40's leading man, Ronald Coleman.
Whatever the pundits say about him and King, there is one other significant difference. Personally, Barker's blend of exuberent candidness and sinister mystery is fiercely attractive. Clive Barker is, as they say, and there's no easier way of saying it, a ride, and that's something I've never heard anyone, male or female, even come close to saying about Stephen King. The publicist from Harper-Collins ushers us into the mahogany-red leather sofas off The Conservatory and orders up some teas and coffees and, for Barker, a banana...
JOHN FARRELL: Because of the kind of work you do you must meet people who believe you're an adept with access to secret knowledge and places. How do you deal with them and, in fact, more to the point, are you an adept?
CLIVE BARKER:The first assumption is that I'm not. Magic is a very serious subject for me but I wouldn't be playing fair with what I know to pass any of that along. Being, by its very nature, outside language, some of this stuff has to remain unsaid and unspoken. It's a very serious study for me.
Does it connect with your studying philosophy in Liverpool?
It sort of came a little earlier than that. Philosophy, as much as anything else, came out of a desire to understand how much the study of magic overlapped. How much of it was genuinely occult knowledge and how much of it is was...
Barker fades out on this thought as the young waitress approaches with our bevvies and the banana. He beams gratitude up at her and as she sets the items down on the table before us I know that she'd probably like his room number as much as I would.
When it arrives, his banana sits, a serviette between it and the oval plate, a thick bladed knife beside it, like an apparition from a Freudian surgery. The image is so unintentionally obscene that Barker can't help but exclaim, "I love that!" as the both of us begin giggling like errant schoolboys. The discovery of the cream that's been brought in tandem with the milk, leads Barker to observe with mischievious irony, "I could put that cream on my banana, couldn't I?" I offer a popular and easy Benalux recipe in which a banana is baked until its skin is burnt, then sliced, the soft inside brandied, flambéd and, finally creamed. Even this fails to dispell the phallic suggestion of the damned thing and I find myself laughing and admitting that it nearly makes me too nervous to continue. "It's out of here!" he says in his best California twang, a gravelly hybrid of West Coast and West Liverpool as he snatches it up and begins to dispatch it.
So, we're in Liverpool, and you're reading philosophy against a background of esoteric and hermetic material. Is there an overlap?
The overlap is that I've always been like a grasshopper, all over the place, looking for connections. I always feel the kty thing is connections. How do you connect up, say, William Blake and Stanley Spencer, how do you connect Stanley Spencer with Aleister Crowley, how do you connect Aleister Crowley with .... Fludd.
How do you connect Fludd with, you know, modern physics? In other words how much of what Fludd was saying was a symbolic reference to what is now going on when we study inter-dimensional material and the like in the physics.
Well, that mutability of matter would have been the foundation for Fludd's alchemical writings...
"Exactly right, which we now, more and more, realise is the case. The world is stranger than we knew and our present intellectual structures do not allow us to comprehend readily the paradoxes which seem to underlie being. The question is: 'Is it the structure of consciousness or the structure of cultured consciousness,' if you see what I mean, 'that makes it difficult to understand these paradoxes? Is Einstein difficult for mere mortals like you and I to comprehend or, is relativity difficult because consciousness, primate consciousness, has difficulty with it or is it because we've been brought up with a certain way of looking at the world that is about serial time?' I'm fascinated by that. I feel as though the interdisciplinary concerns I've always had are about seeing where the connections lie, believing that the map we have of consciousness is like a map where the ley lines are in place but we just can't see them - like all ley lines, assuming ley lines exist - and that the connections between places of power are invisible to us.
I think one of the things that fantastic writing does is that it joins up the places of power. It actually says to the reader: 'This thing that you remember from your childhood, this moment of epiphany you know from your childhood, is actually connected up with this piece of physics, and this piece of physics is actually connected with the theory of magic, and the theory of magic is actually connected to your ideas about sex and your ideas about sex are actually connected to your ideas about love, which, in turn, are connected to your ideas about death which are, in turn, connected with higher physics'.
When Kaprov in the Tao of Physics wrote, "When Shiva dances she is describing the shape of the universe and now 2,500 years later science has caught up with Shiva," it was like a lightning bolt, I couldn't understand the whole book but I understood he'd made a connection for me which I really needed. I'd always been interested in physics, in theory, and I was always interested in dance, and I'd been interested in theology, and, whoa, here he was saying 'Of course, you're interested, they're all connected.' We live in such strictly decompartmentalised times, when it's all about specialisation. I mean, I've just been in a bookstore and there all the fucking books are divided up from each other. I know why that is, but I would also love a bookstore where they deliberately confused you and they made you move and browse and search from one scene to another. You know what I mean? Wouldn't that be kind of cool?
Like a slightly mad second-hand bookstore?
Or, perhaps, a profoundly sane sort of bookstore, one where the structure of the shelves reflects the nature of our thoughts. I'm a great fan of Nick Roeg. He's out of fashion now which is regrettable because he's an extraordinary film-maker, and his argument always was that the reason he edits his movies the way he does is because that's the way people think. Yeah, sure, there may be some form of momentum, but it's fractured, you move off the path and back in again and off the path and back in again and the better your mind, I'd argue, the more fractured it is. I think the great mind holds to a path at the same time as being fractured.
But isn't the restrictive narrative form of Hollywood movies there specifically because they don't want people to be tangential or begin making critical judgements, because it hopes to disguise the film's own weaknesses?
I think a book should be like a great conversation, and the great conversations are the mellow ones, the ones when you really come away thinking, 'That was amazing. I had a time there'. Very seldom are they like debates, they're not debates, they're feelings out of each other's complexities, yeah? You think stuff through and instead of coming at him or her like a speeding bullet, you let that particular idea advance in your own head and it's a very complex moment - intellectual, emotional, philosophical, many-levelled, historical. If you're having a conversation with friends it often refers to earlier conversations, earlier feelings. A Hollywood movie relates to that kind of conversation by employing a slap in the face. That's the Hollywood experience. Pow! Pick yourself up, go have a pizza.
Is that the reason why so much Hollywood horror is never really frightening, never really tapping into our deeper sensibilities of the way the world is ordered?
Or disordered. Well, it could be that the cinematic experience is always going to be hog-tied by the fact that it is about the surface of things. Very plainly, Jaws is about more than a shark coming in and eating people, but when most people see that movie it's about sharks eating people.
And Robert Shaw especially.
Yes, yes, at great length. And yet, clearly, I think it is an extraordinary bit of narrative energy and it is a completely amoral and very crass misrepresentation of what the world is. I think it's actually very dangerous for sharks. I don't like that.
Well, the great white shark has suffered because of Jaws.
That's the point, because in actuality it has. What the movie does is completely play into every cliché about the natural world. What it says is that the natural world is sentient, devouring, malicious, wilful - now, devouring may be true but just about everything else is a lie.
And that our response to it should be resistance and, if necessary, extinction, we kill it.
Definitely, absolutely. Here we are using Jaws as a wheel to break a butterfly on when it's just a piece of popular movie-making but nevertheless my point is that in its desire to tell a story very simply and do it very well, the movie is vicious at a level I don't think it even understands it's being vicious at. It doesn't have any other way of looking at the world except in a simple dynamic, the dynamic being that the thing with the teeth, even though it's in its own environment, going about its own business, being an eating machine, which is essentially what it is, means you - us - harm, that the natural world means us harm, whereas the natural world couldn't give a fuck about us. That's what's so wonderful about it, and so natural. I care about the lies the world has told us about the natural world.
CD-ROM has the opportunity for non-linear narrative. Can you tell me anything about the Ectosphere project or is that still Top Secret?
No, it's going very well. The images will be amazing. The thing is it's still driven by certain parameters, gaming parameters. I'm not a player and I do not have much capacity for it which, sometimes, I think is, you know, a frailty. But what are you going to do? Imagine being in front of a screen playing a game? Forget it. So, my partner Malcolm and I, Malcolm's the gamer, I'm the picture-man and I think it's wonderful to look at. It's going to be rich and ripe and baroque and I think that's going to be wonderful, but it's still, at the end, going to be a game.
It's a very long and painstaking process.
Yeah, but I'm involved in an animated feature at the same time. The animated feature makes the other situation look - Pow! - like lightning. It's amazing and that's much more my field. I've always thought of myself as an 'animated features man', and a 'shorts' man as well. I have a good time with that, I love it, I love working on the storyboard. It's a real thrill and you've much more control.
Will the animation be drawn from your own work?
They've gone off on their own. We've worked together on this in the sense that I've been happy with what they've done, but part of it, a lot of it, frankly, is about how easily the form can be manipulated in space. As the director was telling me when I came up and asked, 'Why don't you have this extra line there?' 'Because every time you put that line there I have to draw it 24 times for every second. Do you really want that line there?' I mean Disney hired a guy to draw Bambi's eyelashes and that took two years! And that was all that guy ever did!
But they were the best eyelashes Hollywood has ever seen.
Fucking great eyelashes!! But it was a non-union studio and he could afford to pay some poor schmuck. You can't do that anymore! But I really like that process, animation, and very much want to do more.
While we're talking about current projects, I have to ask, because there's been all this commotion about the BBC Drama budget being slashed, is Weaveworld going to be effected?
I had a conversation with them this morning saying, 'What are we going to do about this?' I don't know. Not all the money is coming from the Beeb, by any means. Showtime is also in there, so I suppose there'll just be some different carving up but I never now how those kind of monies work. I think the other thing about the Beeb is that you don't know how much their protesting and their howling is just because they're not going to be able to work quite the way they want to, but you never know when they're telling the truth.
Producers! Full stop. Who knows? I'm not saying for one moment that they're lying through their teeth but I am saying that one of the best things the Beeb could do now is complain, really hard, about how little money they have...
Buddy Vance's farewell party in The Great And Secret Show is a classic send-up of the whole Hollywood scene. Since writing that, you've moved to LA. Has it confirmed your earlier intuitions? It looks like it may have.
There's less cocaine these days than there was.
You moved too late?
Yeah, tell me. I have remarkably little to do with that world. I go very, very irregularly to a party. I hate big parties, I hate bars, clubs, all that stuff. The biggest crowds I ever get into is when I'm doing a public signing and I will do that for a limited amount of time and then I'm back to my house and my friends and the dog. I'm not good with large groups. There's so much empty talk. It all feels like marked time. It really does.
But speaking of drugs...
I noticed, though it's not that overt, but Fletcher in The Great And Secret Show, has burnt his mind out with mescaline but has, nonetheless, made himself a candidate for the Nuncio. This evolutionary leap. Hmm.
Have you ever read Terrence McKenna?
Of course!! The Archaic Revival is extraordinary. The Food Of The Gods was okay but it didn't contain anything you couldn't read elsewhere. But The Archaic Revival contained ideas I found extraordinary. I've never met him, I've encountered many of his friends and have read everything by him in article form and so on, he even has these lectures on tape. He's one of those people I sense are hugely illuminating but then I step back and I'm not sure what I've just been told. There's something quite frustrating about that. He's a fireworks going off and some of those sparks are gong to be illuminating and some of them are just going to leave you struggling and shaking your head and I'm comfortable about that because there are clearly amazing ideas in there, but the thing I could never figure with him though is at what point he is no longer sure that he believes what he's saying. He's talking about drugs and plant mind and shamanism and that's okay, he's one of those people pressing to an extreme position and it's really interesting to read that. But when he gets to alien invasion by plants and I think, 'How much of this does he genuinely believe?'.
That's a thought Fred Hoyle had as well.
I know. Sure, but McKenna takes it a lot further. For one thing he says that once the drug is inside your system, the alien plant mind is helping you see the world.
You believe in differing levels of consciousness. You yourself made the qualification 'primate consciousness' earlier.
I completely believe that - a primate consciousness, a reptile consciousness, or should I say, probably, a reptile unconsciousness, but then the question is: 'What lies beyond the imagination, a notion of divine consciousness, a post-primate consciousness, the super-primate consciousness?' One of the things about the Nuncio, even the name nuncio means messenger, a messenger from something that is already implicit inside us, and all the messenger is saying is 'Awake!', all the messenger is doing is shaking us up.
You know we have a Papal Nuncio here?
I know, I know! I love that!
He has a palace and everything and lives in incredible style.
With a whole bunch of beautiful boys hopefully.
They're beginning to be a bit more cautious about all that.
Isn't it about time they just gave it all up and just emerged from their collective closets with a big smile on their faces. 'Never apologise, never explain.'
I think we're still some distance away from that.
Sure, I know, but let's see what happens with the next Pope.
You think they might get in some fun-loving type like Sixtus V or Urban VII?
Yeah, exactly, one of those guys who understands what boys are for and goes forward.
Barker's humour is such that you can't be sure which appealed to him most here, the bouncy internal rhyme or the flip sarcasm wrapped up inside it. Either way, his robust laugh proved contagious and the two of us chuckled maliciously for the few remaining seconds allocated to us.
Granted, it may have been a bit anti-climactic after a conversation that touched on physics, evolutionary consciousness and alchemy, but let's face it, even a visionary has to let his hair down sometimes. That's not, by the way, idle flattery. Truth is, it's been one of the most exhilarating interviews, ever. Barker's a genuine original: self-educated, self-created and self-propelling, and all without the usual trappings of self-centredness and self-absorption that normally accompany such an energetic mind. Or maybe it's just that he's so good at it you don't mind, don't mind at all.