Here’s a couple of reviews that originally appeared in Interzone #246:-
VAST AND STRANGE DOMAINS: CLIVE BARKER
‘We who would give you vast and strange domains, where flowering mystery awaits him who would pluck it,’ wrote the poet Apollinaire. Of the modern day explorers and cartographers of those vast and strange domains, I’d argue that few have an imagination as fecund as that of Clive Barker.
Exhibit #1: ABARAT: ABSOLUTE MIDNIGHT (Harper Voyager pb, 609pp, £8.99) is the third volume chronicling the adventures of sixteen year old Candy Quackenbush of Chickentown, Minnesota, in ‘the world of the Abarat, where every hour is an island in one eternal day’, to my mind a series with strong echoes of Frank L. Baum’s Oz sequence, though Barker’s creation is far stranger than anything Dorothy encountered.
As the book opens, our heroine is summoned to face the Abarat’s ruling council, where she has as many enemies as friends. There follow further travails, as with the realisation that part of her consciousness is not her own, but that of Princess Boa, requiring the assistance of the sorceress Laguna Munn. And then there’s a return in dreams to Chickentown, where her alcoholic father Bill has found religion and is determined to root out and destroy all things Abaratian, including his own daughter. And dwarfing everything else is the threat of Mater Motley, who launches a three pronged attack on the islands of the Abarat, releasing the sacbrood, who blot out the stars bringing absolute midnight, and then under cover of darkness she unleashes her stitchling legions and the vast Stormwalker, a creation of the alien Nephauree, who are using Mater Motley for their own ends.
There’s plenty of other stuff too (fecundity, remember), but I think that’s enough for you to be going on with.
I’ve loved this story ever since I read the first volume back in 2002 or thereabouts, and this latest offering easily matches the quality of its predecessors. Candy is the lynchpin that holds it all together and somebody who grows in stature with each book, a teenager who is wise beyond her years, an innocent who speaks truth while others deal in compromise and politics, somebody who is genuinely free of both guile and bile, and we can only sympathise with the way she is put upon and exploited by others, not least her own father and the parasitic Boa. Candy has many enemies, but her greatest nemesis is the monster that is Mater Motley, under Barker’s guiding hand taking on depth and substance, transmogrifying from callous manipulator and destroying avatar into a fully rounded character, her unrelenting hatred given solid grounding in the past, and with scenes that show she is not entirely heartless, rewarding those who serve her well, at times even bordering on the maudlin.
While there appear to be some important gaps in the story, such as what happened between Mater Motley and Boa (but I expect these to be addressed in future volumes), overall the book offers us an epic and largely self-contained design, one of setbacks and steps forward as the opposing forces take to the field, with the shadow of the Nephauree lying over it all, alien creatures whose intentions may be entirely beyond our grasp, though we cannot doubt that they will be inimical to mankind, like the Iad Uroboros from The Great and Secret Show. As ever with Barker though, what makes the book special is the wealth of invention, the sheer variety of wonders that he brings to the page and uses to add complexity to his plot, something of which this review can only give the merest hint. Simply put, this is a book of vast imaginative scope, one in which there are innumerable moments of jaw dropping splendour, with the audacious creation of the Abarat itself but the most magical gesture in a whole miscellany of wonders.
Exhibit #2: WEAVEWORLD: 25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION (Earthling Publications hb, 546pp, $45) celebrates the quarter century of the book regarded by many as Barker’s best, and is a sumptuous production with a reflective introduction by the author and a wealth of striking black and white illustrations by artist Richard Kirk. Weaveworld marked a step away from the work with which Barker made his name, volumes like The Books of Blood and The Damnation Game, and into some other terra incognito where horror was but one of many aspects of the fantastic at the writer’s disposal.
To crack open its covers is to step into a reality where our world is known as the Kingdom and human beings are referred to as Cuckoos by Seerkind, a race of magic makers who move between our reality and that of the Fugue. And yet, for all that, the Seerkind face extinction, first at the hands of the unbelieving Cuckoos and then from the Scourge. To survive they are forced to go into hiding, incorporating their reality into a magical carpet, one where the Fugue is hidden in the very warp and weft. But the guardian of the carpet is close to death, and hostile elements seek the Fugue for their own ends, the three-in-one that is Immacolata and her cohort, the Salesman Shadwell. It’s up to two Cuckoos, Cal Mooney and Suzanna Parrish, a descendant of the guardian with access to the power of the menstruum, to save the Fugue and preserve the future of Seerkind.
At the risk of repeating myself, fecundity of imagination is the thing with Clive Barker, I think. Yes, there is a marvellous story here, one that can be approached as pure adventure, but what makes it so much more than that is the sheer variety of invention Barker brings to the table, his imagination soaring effortlessly to give us a world in which Seerkind and their raptures co-exist with mankind and fallen angels. Then there is the beauty of the Fugue itself, a magical land in which wonders can be found, and yet at the same time with its being securely rooted in reality, so that it never seems totally incredible, but feels like home, a place where Seerkind argue and shout at each other, just as we Cuckoos do, where they get drunk and flirt and sing off key, a place where the magic is grounded in a concrete understanding of how it all fits together.
While Cal and Suzanna have a heroic dimension to their characters, the most memorable creations are the villains of the piece – the self-obsessed Shadwell, who sees everything in terms of the price that will be extracted for it, with his jacket that gives the viewer the thing they most want; the policeman Hobart, who has allowed his devotion to duty to turn him into an unthinking and unquestioning monster; the alien creature that is the Scourge, with vast power to offset the delusions he has about his own nature. And then, most significantly, there is Immacolata with her two sisters and their army of by-blows, who seems like a cross between the Holy Trinity and Kali. What appears to be central with each of these villains is egotism: while the good characters wish to preserve the magic of the Fugue for the benefit of all, the bad wish to force their own version of reality on everyone else, and are prepared to destroy the things they cannot possess.
As Barker states in his introduction, memory is at the heart of this story, with so many of the characters acting as they do solely because they have forgotten their own natures, as with the Scourge that takes on the mantle of avenging angel simply because its true identity has been lost and this self-deception empowers it to make sense of and acquire a purpose to its existence. In one sense, the Fugue itself is a Palace of Memory, preserving all that is best in Seerkind and Cuckoos alike, a template for how the world should be. And yes, there are memories too for the reader, of what we felt on first reading this book and comparisons to how we feel now, and perhaps also memories of the other adventures shared with Clive Barker over the years, the sights he has shown us, this in turn leading us to speculate as to what wonders he may yet have to share.
Flowering mystery: I want to pluck it. I want more vast and strange domains.