Clive Barker’s Pleasures on the Other Side of the Demons

Paul Wells
Paul Wells

Clive Barker, novelist, artist, writer and director, has already achieved considerable success in two major aspects of the horror genre. First, he has resurrected a notion of “British horror”; previously mainly understood as a phenomenon of Hammer Film Productions, the maverick talent Michael Reeves or exploitation auteurs like Pete Walker. Clive Barker, with his self-conscious re-working and re-configuration of the British horror tradition, has simultaneously progressed the tradition but also called attention to its neglected backwaters, and re-engaged with the centrality of “Englishness” at the core of the genre.

Second, Clive Barker has added a significant myth to the canon of horror monsters with the invention of ‘Pinhead’ (Douglas William Bradley) and the Cenobites in the ‘Hellraiser’ series — ‘Hellraiser’ (1987); ‘Hellbound: Hellraiser II’ (1988); ‘Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth’ (1992); ‘Hellraiser IV: Bloodline’ (1995); and in the variety of monsters in ‘Nightbreed’ (1990). In ‘Hellraiser,’ Clive Barker uses the theme of sadomasochism not merely to draw together the issues of eroticism and brutality, but to emphasise the protean nature of the body and identity. Clive Barker’s sense of the mutability of the flesh and the combinative sense of organs and tissue is played out through characters with ambivalent sexual orientations, and the problematics of bodily need.

Clive Barker’s bodies are concerned with perspectives outside social orthodoxy, and “horror” comes out of the fear of a perverse yet partially desired experience of a marginalised or unknown “otherness”. Arguably, this is an insightful address of the quintessentially “English” attitudes towards the body. On the one hand, the English are perceived as physically inhibited, private, controlled and remote; on the other, they may be viewed as physically (if secretively) indulgent, brutal and impassioned when given an appropriate cause to be so. This is the tension Clive Barker implicitly explores, critically engaging with the complexities of sexuality and gender in relation to particular forms of controlled violence.

Taking up the work of Georges Albert Maurice Victor Bataille, Joel Black suggests that: “Killing and coitus are pre-eminently private acts, intensely personal experiences […] because they impart a wordless kind of knowledge mediated by the body. The carnal knowledge shared by lovers, of by murderer and his victim or witness, does not involve the communication of discursive meaning between two discrete individuals, but a communion at the instant of death between bodies that are no longer distinct from each other.”

Clive Barker’s work seeks to explore and illustrate the intensity of this “communion” and the private discourses that underpin it. Clive Barker thus significantly differs from David Paul Cronenberg, for example, is not merely seeing the body in its own self-determined flux, but in addressing issues of restraint, repression and release, and the aesthetic that may emerge from excessive acts of “change” upon the body. This aestheticisation of bodily violence may range from self-mutilation to unknowable assault.

Sexuality is intrinsically entwined with the pleasures and pains of violent imposition. As Douglas William Bradley has noted about the design of his character, Pinhead, the grid-iron pattern of nails in Pinhead’s skull is an act of controlled brutality that results in an aesthetically pleasing yet perverse beauty. Clive Barker’s work becomes especially important in this respect, in the sense that he effectively contemporised the sexuality of the horror film through this aesthetic. Rather than defining “pain” as the consequence of punishment or attack, the aesthetic embraces it as a model which makes the implied discourse of the Gothic — the attractiveness of the perverse and the transgressive — both a literal and symbolic set of events. Interestingly, this is also given an intrinsically “English” veneer of almost aristocratic superiority by its containment within an apparently distinctive “wit” — an image of the villain especially appealing to North American audiences, who likewise engaged with Philip Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in Robert Jonathan Demme’s ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (1991).

Like many of the key artistic achievements in recent horror texts, however, ‘Hellraiser’ has been significantly diminished by the rise of the franchised sequel. Clive Barker’s response to this has been to try to participate as much as possible in the progress of the ‘Hellraiser’ series in an executive producer role, but more importantly, to continue his work as a novelist and screenwriter in a spirit of continually testing the parameters of the genre. This has resulted in the emergence of another significant monster in the genre in the figure of the ‘Candyman’, an urban legend, in ‘Candyman’ (1992) and ‘Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh’ (1995). This black, hook-armed demon, played by Anthony Tiran Todd, is an ideologically charged “monster”, clearly playing out narratives of racial vengeance and redemption in modern North America. Summoned by calling his name in front of a mirror, the ‘Candyman’ — in Clive Barker’s vision, a revisionist version of the “noble savage” — effectively reminds contemporary culture of its collective sins, most particularly in regard to the treatment of non-white communities and civil liberties.

The ‘Candyman’ in this respect represents the core problem of North American society and merely enhances the sense of urban brutality, moral decay and social instability already evidenced in the corrupt material world to which he returns. Though Clive Barker did not direct the ‘Candyman’ films, his vision of the “horror” at the heart of an increasingly arbitrary and de-historicized social sensibility is clear. ‘Lord of Illusions’ (1996), based on his short story, ‘The Last Illusion’ from the ‘Books of Blood,’ maintains this theme by addressing once more how the sins of the past will inevitably revisit those who committed them.

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