Clive Barker. That name alone is enough to send a shiver down your spine. He’s perhaps one of the most influential horror writers since the 1980s, blending fantasy, horror, and speculative fiction elements into something that manages to be both terrifying and profound.
You would know you’re reading a Clive Barker story even if it were presented to you without name or title. Barker did not push the limits of horror. He simply did not recognize the limitations existed and unleashed one horror after another on an increasingly rabid fan-base who wanted more.
Barker’s fiction is sexy. It’s transgressive. It makes you squirm in your chair and appreciate the fact that you’re reading something and experiencing emotions that perhaps you shouldn’t be. It’s the book you should hide when proper company comes over, but instead you set it out on the coffee table so they know who they’re dealing with.
I have written before about the impact his fiction had on me. Here was an author who wrote horror that had an innate sense of queerness to it, not only in characters but in themes. More importantly, his characters’ queerness was never the most important thing or prominent thing about them. It was normalized representation in a hyper-reality of blood and gore and dark fantasy.
The profundity of that fiction only increased when I found out that Barker, himself, was gay. And now, in our third year of iHorror’s Horror Pride Month, an article dedicated to the man’s genius is perhaps overdue.
So, here are five of my favorite books by Clive Barker in no particular order. If you’re also a fan and have different favorites, I’d love to hear yours in the comments!
Clive Barker Books of Blood
Okay, so I’m cheating right out of the gate on this one, but I don’t care.
Books of Blood actually total six books containing 30 stories, though you can often find all six in a single volume. They were published between 1984 and 1985 and had horror master Stephen King hailing Barker as the future of horror.
In a way, they almost feel like Clive Barker saying, “This is a taste of what I have in store for you later.”
Tonally, the stories covered a lot of ground. There was the undeniably comical “The Yattering and Jack” which told the story of a man dealing with a demon sent to torment him by Beelzebub. The demon does his level best to drive Jack insane, but the man continues to ignore him until the demon breaks the rules and finds himself under Jack’s control. The story was eventually adapted as an episode for Tales from the Darkside.
Then there was “Rawhead Rex” which concerned a hellish ancient creature accidentally unleashed upon a rural community that slices and dices its way through the countryside.
But one of my favorites, the one that still haunts me to this day, is “In the Hills, the Cities” which finds a gay couple stumbling upon an unearthly sight in Yugoslavia where every ten years the populations of two entire cities strap themselves together to form giant humanoid forms as tall as skyscrapers. This year, however, something goes wrong and one of the giants collapses killing thousands of people. Upon seeing it, the citizens in the other giant are driven mad and careen across the valley as their members slowly die of exhaustion.
Several of the stories from Books of Blood have been adapted for film including the title story which forms the wraparound for the entire collection. It involves a young man pretending to be psychic who angers the spirits traveling a desolate highway through the afterlife. They carve their stories into his skin and he becomes the Book of Blood.
You’ll also find the source story for Candyman in its pages titled “The Forbidden.”
If you haven’t read Books of Blood, do it now!
It is damn near impossible to explain Imajica in just a few paragraphs. Its sprawling narrative is by far the most complex that Barker ever wrote and the author has called it his favorite.
In the novel, Earth is just one of the five connected worlds called Dominions ruled by a God named Hapexamendios. Long ago, Earth was separated from the other four dominions but every 200 years Maestros, the greatest magicians of the other Dominions, attempt to reconnect the planet back to the other four.
Every single attempt fails, and death and destruction almost always follow in the wake of that failure.
The story follows a man named Gentle and a shape-shifting assassin by the name of Pie’o’Pah, Pie for short, who travel across the five dimensions experiencing one terrifying scenario after another.
At 824 pages, it is by far the largest work on this list, but it is also one of the most immensely satisfying if you like the intersection of horror and dark fantasy.
Cabal was first published in 1988 and would later serve as the basis for the film Nightbreed which Barker wrote and directed.
It concerns a young man named Boone who is convinced by a psychiatrist named Decker that he has committed a series of horrible serial murders.
In a series of dreams, a city called Midian is revealed to Boone. It’s a city that accepts monsters and miscreants into its fold. After another patient reveals the way for Boone to find the city, he sets out, only to discover Decker has followed him.
Boone is shot and left for dead and is taken into the city of Midian and that’s where the real trouble begins.
For me, Cabal might be one of Barker’s most overtly queer stories. It speaks to the ideas of hidden communities forced to the margins of society. The main antagonists are priests, doctors, and police, i.e. groups with which the LGBTQ community has clashed with time and again throughout history.
If you’ve seen the movie, there is merit in reading the source material.
The Hellbound Heart
You didn’t think I’d get through this whole thing without this one did you?
Hellraiser and the dreaded Cenoibites began their life in the pages of yet another novella from Barker titled The Hellbound Heart which appeared in Night Vision Volume 3, an anthology edited by none other than George R.R. Martin.
When hedonist Frank Cotton hears of the mysterious Lemarchand Configuration and immediately sets out to find the puzzle box for himself. Upon securing it, he returns to his grandmother’s abandoned home and sets out offerings for the mysterious Cenobite, members of a “religious order” dedicated to extreme sensual delights.
Poor Frank had no idea what he was actually releasing. The Cenobites have blurred the lines between pain and pleasure for so long that they can no longer tell the difference, and he is soon pulled against his will into a dimension of torment he could never have imagined.
When his brother and family move into the home later, they accidentally set off a chain of events that will change all of their lives forever.
If you love this novella and the Hellraiser films, I also recommend The Scarlet Gospels, a sequel that digs into the goings on in Hell with Pinhead and the Cenobites as well as the return of Barker’s world-weary supernatural detective Harry D’Amour.
The Great and Secret Show
Another beautiful example of Barker’s ability to blend horror and fantasy, The Great and Secret Show centers on the conflict between Randall Jaffe and Richard Fletcher over the dream sea called Quiddity.
Every human visits Quiddity three times in their lives: the first time we ever sleep outside our mother’s womb, the first time we sleep beside the one we truly love, and the last time we ever sleep before we die.
That’s not enough for Jaffe, however. He wants control of Quiddity to tap into its powers and Fletcher is dedicated to keeping this power source pure.
The story is wild and wonderful and terrifying with creatures that could only spring from the imagination of Clive Barker. The Lix, for example, are snake-like creatures created from feces and semen.
The novel was later adapted as a 12-part graphic novel as well.