Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Lord of Illusions

One day back in 1986, Stephen King wrote, “Never in my life have I been so completely shaken by a collection of stories. Never have I actually put a book aside because I was alone and knew I must soon turn off the lights…or at least turn in. I have never experienced such a combination of revulsion, delight and amazement.” He was referring to The Inhuman Condition, by Clive Barker.

Now anyone who knows me at all should at least know this: Clive Barker is by far my favorite author and has been for many years. I first discovered him, as many good discoveries go, by accident. Home from college during spring break, my dad handed me a cheap drugstore paperback he’d bought and told me to give it a try, that it was a little too weird for him. That book was Weaveworld. I took it back to school with me, started reading it and put it away shortly afterwards. It was beyond me, beyond the scope of the things I’d been reading up to that point, and frankly, I didn’t get it. Several weeks later, during finals, I picked it up again from the beginning and was immediately hooked. A magic carpet that contains an entire kingdom hidden within its intricately woven threads? A malicious exile who wishes to possess it and enslave its inhabitants? A vengeful creature that may or may not be an angel? Sold. This was my first exposure to an author with the ability to weave together two separate genres—horror and fantasy—so seamlessly as to make it seem as though they’d belonged together all along. Dark fantasy—the Fantastique, as Barker called it—became my new literary love.

I went back and read Barker’s first novel, the Faustian Damnation Game, then devoured his Books of Blood short story collection, which, if I’m being honest here, contain some of the most twisted stories you’ll ever read anywhere. A word of warning for those who read them: Barker doesn’t pull punches, nor does he flinch when the you-know-what hits the fan. Next up, The Great and Secret Show, in which a miserable mail clerk working in the Dead Letter Room of a Nebraska post office stumbles across unclaimed correspondence that leads him to an alternate reality and the promise of great power, and eventually, a war between good and evil of cosmic proportions. Good stuff. But even this book (and its sequel, Everville) pales in comparison to my favorite Barker tome: Imajica. I suppose if I had to make a top-10 list of my favorite books of all time, Imajica would be, if not no. 1, at least in the top 5. And while Weaveworld and The Great and Secret Show spun my head around, Imajica blew it completely off my shoulders. In it, Earth is one of five Dominions called the Imajica and is exiled from the other four. Attempts have been made every 200 years by great masters of magic (including Christ, among others) to reconcile it to its sister dominions but the results have always been catastrophic. Thus, the use of magic (considered to be the world’s first religion) has been banned by a secret society that enforces its edicts with abduction and murder. But the time for the next Reconciliation is fast approaching, and the most unlikely candidate to bring it about has been discovered: lowly art forger John Furie Zacharias. That's just the tip of the iceberg, folks, and trust me on this: I don’t believe anything I’ve read since from any author has quite measured up to Imajica, and in my estimation, Barker has never managed to surpass it with the books he wrote afterwards. That said, he’s always maintained that he never sets out to write the same book twice, and frankly, he has a rather low opinion of writers who do (you all know who you are, so I won’t name names...this time).

In recent years, Barker has been hard at work on his bestselling young-adult fantasy series, The Abarat Quartet, but in the pantheon of horror and dark fantasy writers, his position is cemented. He truly is literature's reigning Lord of Illusions, and I am very glad to have met him all those years ago in the pages of a borrowed paperback. My reading life has never been the same since.

Note: After a trip to the dentist in January, Clive suffered from toxic shock and wound up in a coma for almost two weeks. Thankfully, he's home from the hospital and recuperating from the ordeal, and we'd like to wish him a full and speedy recovery! (You can read more about it in this interview.)

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