Clive Barker — writer, artist, and master of the horror genre — speaks exclusively with Stephanie Reid-Simons about the true nature of fear, finding the right arena for his stories and his Neverland dreams. Learn more about Barker’s work with Amazon Studios.
What separates great horror from the things that go spatter in the night?
Clive Barker: Metaphysical despair. That the world is meaningless and we’re just bouncing around on it and when we’re finished we die and that’s the end of it. That’s scary. That’s existential. When Sartre put the idea of existentialism in front of us at the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of human hope was possibly at its lowest ebb. The bombs were going off. Europe was trashed. Economies were in ruins. And worst of all, we’d learned new ways of killing each other. Existentialism arose from the ashes of Auschwitz and Hiroshima and we had to address that very seriously.
There are horrific moments in movies (and not necessarily horror movies either) when something is evoked that has an awe-inspiring emptiness. When we are imbued with the sense that the cosmos is huge … and empty.
Pascal says, “We may enlarge our conceptions beyond all imaginable space; we only produce atoms in comparison with the reality of things. It is an infinite sphere, the center of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere.
What that phrase evokes is the sense of a limitless empty meaningless space we as human beings have no control over and a total inability to impress meaning upon.
We think we have the power to impress ourselves upon the world in some fashion — through having a family, through feeling love, through our associations with political parties or to a church — and when we feel those connections we feel momentarily safe. And that’s horror; it is only momentary. It’s about reducing our sense of importance. Most horror says, “You think you’re fine and fancy, don’t you. Well you’re not. You’re meat.” That I can be so easily erased. In my estimation, all of that is as far from a simple ‘boo’ as it gets.
You tell stories in so many different arenas (books, movies, comics, video games) … how do you decide which is the right one for a particular idea?
Barker: I don’t. They choose it for me. I’ll start something with the intention of being a novel for example, and through one circumstance or another, it will end up a comic book. Or a movie. I’ve found that the story will end up being the format it wants most to. I just try not to get in the way of that.
If you could create a mashup with one of your worlds with one of someone else’s, which would you choose?
Barker: Neverland and my very real, very personal world. As a child it was always Neverland that caught my imagination. I didn’t read Narnia till quite a lot later by which time some of its charm had waned. I was rather too old for it. I was a very shy kid. A very solitary kid. I couldn’t play games in the play yard. I wasn’t the kind of guy that played war. You have to remember this was twelve years after the second world war. It’s all everyone still talked about. And the cleanup is going on all around us. And we still had ration cards. It’s bizarre to think this, but that’s what was going on. So there was me feeling like a solitary little kid and when the wind came along, I was just carried away. I’ve always loved the sound of the wind. The sound of the wind to me is about the far away. And there was just something about Neverland that I adored. As a child I used to see myself as Peter Pan and still do to some extent, I suppose.
What has been the hardest story for you to tell?
Barker: My life story. It’s an ongoing story, and I don’t know what happens at the end yet.
Which of your creative works would you do over again if you could, and why?
Barker: All of them. Because they’re not good. Because in the process of writing something, you get better at it, and if you don’t then you’re very dumb indeed. If you don’t learn the lessons from your mistakes then you deserve to keep making them over and over again. But if you do learn the lessons then you stand at the other end of the process and look back on it and go, ‘oh, but I learned this and wow.” I will not look back on a manuscript until the whole thing is done. And I know a lot of people will think that’s utterly crazy. The fact is that if I did look back, my heart would sink and a thousand doubts would devour me and I would be probably unable to continue, actually. I dare not look back at the failure behind me for fear that it will also be in front of me.
How has your relationship with fans changed over the years? You’re able to connect more directly than ever. Has that been inspiring, terrifying … both?
Barker: Oh. I’d say entirely inspiring. I recommend it to any writer. I really do. It’s been wonderful experience. I have no caveats whatsoever. The people that have been there in the wee hours of the night to lift me up and keep me going and provide a groundswell of support are always there. And they’re very smart people. We laugh a lot. There’s a lot of really bad jokes on there. But there’s a lot of love.
What attracted you to the Amazon Studios project, Zombies vs Gladiators?
Barker: Extremes. Absolutely extremes. We can push push push. We can go, I think, to extremes of horror and extremes of spectacle and extremes of narrative intensity that people haven’t been given in horror for a very long time. We’re actually taking two groups of people that the viewers of those types of films will be very familiar with from other movies — gladiators, and zombies — and we’re going to fling them at each other with lots of back story. And that’s a great story to tell. In the end, why do you choose any story to tell? Because it excites you. Because it gets your pulse racing. Because it gets your palms clammy. That’s why.