LONDON -- Clive Barker is revisiting his old haunts.
Ghastly pale sky, stale air, constant threat of rain: It is a typical English afternoon. Yet the crown prince of horror fiction scarcely notices the weather, so absorbed is he in peering through the abundant foliage, studying crumbled tombstone inscriptions and reminiscing about his adventures among the 166,400 people buried here in Highgate Cemetery.
There was, for instance, the vampire hunter. "I met him once. He had just gotten out of jail -- he had been basically digging bodies up and staking them. A very strange guy, but who's to say he's wrong? One must give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he actually assumed these people were really vampires.
"Otherwise, why do it? It's very uncomfortable digging up bodies late at night. Who'd want to do that? And I'm not so thoroughly certain of the way the world works that I would absolutely discount the possibility that once in a while some restless spirit gets up and knocks people over."
That's Barker: not only a fascination with the darker corners of death and life, but a desire to share his enthusiasm -- to tell what it feels like to hold a man's brains in his hands, or to describe the ultimate horror film as simply a chronicle of the physical changes a human body goes through in a lifetime. There is, he says, no delight the equal of dread.
And Highgate? Well, this is where he's done some of his research. Nothing illegal, mind you. Nothing too unseemly, even. It's just that the cemetery's near his home, so it's easy to drop into the more accessible eastern side for an hour of mulling over the horror tales that are tumbling out of him in abundance, earning him acclaim and sales figures second only to Stephen King.
Hollywood has also taken notice. Barker wrote and directed the new movie "Hellraiser," becoming in the process a commodity hot enough to turn down a chance to write and possibly direct the third "Aliens" movie. "I was busy," he says, "and secondly it was someone else's esthetic. The parameters on originality were fairly strict."
Highgate, with its splendid array of Victorian decay, replenishes the creative juices. Like the incident years ago -- although this one didn't happen to Barker, but rather to his friend Julie.
"She came one night with a pal of hers," the writer recalls. "They went to one of the big mausoleums, and somebody had propped one of the corpses up against the door. It was this withered thing -- she said she had never been quite so scared in her life. I don't know if she's been back since."
Barker, however, keeps returning. "I love the way everything is overgrown," he says. "There's a poignancy to it. It's so peaceful and quiet -- like an extraordinary park, except we're walking on the dead."
Sometimes literally so. He stumbles over a small bone. It's about six inches long, smooth and surprisingly heavy.
"It's a bird," Barker says doubtfully.
It's kind of large for a bird. Is he sure?
"Yeah. I'm sure I don't want to know."
But he keeps turning it over in his hands. The idea of a bone lying among these toppled monuments and sunken graves has clearly provoked him. It might have rolled out of a crypt. It might have come from a Clive Barker story.
"It's rather big for a bat," he says finally. "Besides, birds' bones are hollow, aren't they? This one isn't." He looks around, mock nervously. "C'mon, guys! Where's the rest of it?"
There's no answer, of course, so Barker drops the bone and goes back to wandering around. He knows both sections of the cemetery as well as most people know their own back yards. He recently brought his parents here with him. "They love it. Mum's Italian, Dad's Irish, and they both have morbid streaks." Barker's own streak wouldn't be called anything so mild. "Macabre" isn't enough. "Gory" pops into mind. ("Sick" is the one used by his critics.)
"I always remember my mother telling me that in one of the Liverpool cemeteries, the Germans scored a direct hit while blitzing the city. The bodies were hanging over the telephone wires," he says in his charming nasal voice that always, even in the dead of night, sounds revved-up and energetic. "It's an extraordinary image -- dead bodies flying through the air. It's probably wholly apocryphal, but I've never much cared about the distinction between the apocryphal and the true."
Some true facts about Clive Barker:
Five years ago he was unknown to all but a small number of avant-garde theatergoers in England, and totally unheard-of in America. Now, in little more than a year, seven books of fiction have appeared in this country. His volumes of short stories, "The Books of Blood," have done extremely well. (The sixth and final volume hasn't been published here yet.) His first novel, "The Damnation Game" -- sex with ghosts, a man who doesn't realize he's dead, and other demonic treats in contemporary London -- spent a brief period on the best-seller list this spring. His second, "Weaveworld" (Simon and Schuster/Poseidon) -- an enormous fantasy about a world woven into a carpet -- is just being released now, and is expected to do even better.
Somewhere during this time came word from Stephen King. People tend to listen when the country's bestselling novelist says, "I have seen the future of horror and it is named Clive Barker ... He makes the rest of us look like we've been asleep for the past 10 years."
Like a zealous hostess at a cocktail party insisting that everyone take at least three canape's, King tends to be quite generous with his compliments: Stroll into a bookstore and it seems like half the horror novels are recommended by him. Yet somehow, only in Barker's case has the praise stuck. Meanwhile, the publishing industry, which has been looking for another King ever since the real one ascended to supernova status, has weighed in with its own form of compliment. For Barker's next book, which exists only in his mind, he was offered an advance of $1 million.
Fiction, however, is only one of his abilities. In the beginning, he was a playwright: "The History of the Devil," "Subtle Bodies," "Frankenstein in Love" and last year's "The Secret Life of Cartoons" (concerning a cartoonist who discovers that one of his characters, Roscoe Rabbit, has taken up with his wife). Barker's also written screenplays based on two of his stories, but the finished products, "Rawhead Rex" and "Underworld," were so bad that in both cases he renounced them. So for his latest movie, "Hellraiser" -- about a love triangle, a dead man who craves a new skin, and punk visitors from another dimension -- he not only wrote the screenplay, but also directed.
The picture opened in the United States two weeks ago, and he's quite proud of it. "I'm not just taking the 12 most beautiful youths in California and murdering them," he says. "I've got real actors, real performers -- and then I'm murdering them." In its first three days of release, it recouped its production costs. (Barker will be appearing in Washington at the Old Post Office Pavilion on Oct. 14, in connection with the Touch of Evil horror film festival.)
Oh, yes -- he's also an accomplished artist who did the covers for the British editions of "The Books of Blood." These are vigorous, gruesome creations that not only serve as come-ons for the contents but as exact reflections of them. No false advertising here.
All told, not bad for a 34-year-old who was living on welfare five years ago, and who was no doubt considered a little odd because he poked around the neighborhood cemetery for amusement.
Now that he's rich and successful, in fact, Barker doesn't go to Highgate as often. For one thing, a group called the Friends of Highgate Cemetery is reclaiming it from the nature to which it was largely abandoned after World War II, trying to make it less the sort of place where you'd film the graveyard scene in a cheap horror flick -- as, indeed, at least one such scene has been.
At the moment, the more interesting western side is closed to all but guided tours and grave owners. When a request is made to be allowed to interview Barker in the western half, Friends Chairman Jean Pateman demurs.
"I have a very tender regard for all the people there," she says. "The last thing I would ever want to do is be showing someone around who writes about the unpleasant, is connected with fiction, comic writing, pyrotechnics ... horror, most categories of drama, anything macabre -- they're out."
Somewhere in there she mentions that if she did let this Mr. Barker and his interviewer in, she would expect a "nice donation" of about 50 pounds sterling to the upkeep of the cemetery. But first she would need to know "more about this author's subject matter."
Okay, Mrs. Pateman, here's the idea: Barker tends to write about ordinary people whose lives are rudely interrupted by the supernatural -- sort of like walking down a city block and tumbling off into the Grand Canyon. "Pig Blood Blues" tells of a new teacher at a school for adolescent offenders who discovers that the students worship a monstrous, man-eating porker, and guess who's coming to dinner? In "The Body Politic," a man's hands rebel against him, and he learns what the sound of one hand clapping is.
"In the Hills, the Cities" describes how a couple touring in the Yugoslavian countryside witnesses the battle of two enormous giants, each built of tens of thousands of people. And in "The Yattering and Jack," there's a homicidal Christmas turkey ("Headless, oozing stuffing and onions, it flopped around as though nobody had told the damn thing it was dead, while the fat still bubbled on its bacon-strewn back. Amanda screamed. Jack dived for the door as the blind bird lurched into the air, blind but vengeful").
These stories are among Barker's earliest; in his later pieces and the two novels, he relies less on splashy horror and concentrates on extending his range of effects. Nevertheless, this visual, visceral, bloody stuff is what you remember most.
An omnibus collection of the first three books (published, naturally, by Scream/Press) is dedicated to his mother and father. "I've started one of them," says Joan Barker, a retired Liverpool school welfare officer. "It's not my type of reading, and Clive realizes that."
Others who don't like this stuff have accused Barker of being a goremonger -- a charge he doesn't quite reject. "I view myself as a commercial writer. I operate in the marketplace, which has expectations. I'm trying to turn those expectations on their head, but it would be naive to expect they didn't exist." Still, he argues that he locks the violence in his stories into the narrative. It's never simply there for effect.
"We're tantalized by the very act of being, by mysteries, and we have to know more," he says. "If we don't want to know, we're lying to ourselves. Anyone who willfully cuts his hand off from experience, however dire and dark that experience may be, is bound to have an incomplete vision of the world."
Everyone says he looks like a younger Paul McCartney. Even Linda McCartney, who recently took a publicity photo of Barker, says it. So perhaps it's fitting that Barker grew up in Liverpool just a few steps away from the Beatles' Penny Lane, and went to John Lennon's Quarry Bank grammar school.
He was a typical kid. Typical, that is, for a future writer: pudgy, nearsighted and introspective. But he waves away any speculation that all horror writers have warped youths. He knows what interviewers want him to say, and delivers it in a mocking voice: "My sex life has been a disaster, I spent a lot of childhood being obliged to kiss the corpses of dead relatives, I'm very very uptight, and the only thing I feel comfortable in is a straitjacket."
Actually, his parents were very supportive of young Clive, indulging his fondness for plastic Dracula models and encouraging his budding artistic abilities. "He was a perfectly normal lad," his mother says. "We're quite normal." Still, his friend Julie remembers him "as always fascinated by death and the forbidden and taboos." Within reason. "Like any sensible person, he wants his thrills from art. Clive used to faint at the sight of blood."
Sitting on the living room floor in the pleasant house he shares with a friend in London's Crouch End, Barker is no longer pudgy or bespectacled ("It's the virgins' blood," he quips). But he's still as introspective as ever, and can analyze himself in a stroke: "I have the normal complement of anxieties, neuroses, psychoses and whatever else -- but I'm absolutely nothing special. All I have is a fevered imagination, which actively likes to make elaborate metaphors to discuss and explore those anxieties and neuroses and psychoses."
Barker is not just sitting on the floor because that's where he's most comfortable. He's sitting there because there are no chairs or coffee table in the room, so ground level is the only practical place to drink tea and eat Family Favourites Chocolate Chip Cookies. Most of the house, for that matter, has an unfinished, unfurnished look. The kitchen is so clean and white it seems never to have been used, and Barker's office contains little more than a desk, with books and manuscripts stacked up on the floor.
This is not because Barker recently moved in; he's been here a year. In fact, he shortly will be moving again, closer to the city center and his film work. It's simply that he's too absorbed in his writing to care. The man who has inspired a collecting frenzy among his fans -- the signed, limited set of the six "Books of Blood" goes for about $700 -- isn't too interested in such things himself.
He cares about bodies.
"I once suggested that the most extraordinary horror film ever would be if you could actually buy a life," he says. "The moment the child was born and for the next 70 years, you'd take a picture of him every minute. Then, at the end of 70 years, you'd run the movie. You'd be watching the source of every transforming metaphor in horror fiction, perfectly embodied."
Whenever horror shows a body transforming into a werewolf, bat, smoke, cancerous growth, zombie or fly, Barker argues, it's really describing the simplest developments of the human body. It's speeding up and distorting for dramatic purposes the changes that everyone goes through -- changes that, because of the distractions of daily life, we don't appreciate or acknowledge.
"Our lives are dominated by the fact of our bodies," he says. "We know discomfort, arousal, hunger, appetite ... We are living in this extraordinary secret thing. It's a house whose innards we cannot know. The moment we are looking at our bowels, we're dead. Hence, for me, the interest in looking at somebody else's -- the closest I can get to looking at my own."
Which is why, for research purposes, Barker attended the autopsy of a 79-year-old man a couple of years ago. It was a test in the Hemingway mold -- he wanted to see if he could handle it, and he mostly could. "The only part I couldn't take is when they sawed the top of his head off."
The pathologist asked if Barker wanted to hold the brain. Of course he did. "I held it, and I thought the same thing that I think in the cemetery -- that there was this story, and it was silenced. In this literally two handfuls of pink jelly, if it could only be plugged in and relived, there was 79 years of hatred and love and betrayal and sexuality and confusion and theology and ambition."
Next to the VCR in Barker's living room, there's a tape of "Zombie Flesh Eaters." Somewhat more incongruously, on the turntable is "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum." And, back on track again, there's a toothless skull in the otherwise empty fireplace.
This last item was a gift from a dentist friend. Barker doesn't know where the dentist got it -- maybe a root canal operation gone wrong? Learning the truth might prove as frightening as a Clive Barker story, and as entertaining.
It's all part of the equalizing force of horror. "It says your anxieties are my anxieties, and it's all right for us both to have them and confront them. Let's say that we are born into a condition of fear and vulnerability and potential loss, and see how we can deal with that -- see the cup as being half full, rather than half empty."
Barker's cup was filled to overflowing at the movies. When he was 15, he lied about his age to see "Psycho," and hasn't been the same since.
Sneaking into X-rated movies has never been as easy in England as in the States, and Barker and his friend Norman took quite seriously the process of stuffing rolled-up handkerchiefs into their shoes to make themselves taller. Norman, who was a sizable chap, brazenly led the way, and Barker slunk in behind.
Unfortunately, all the emphasis on getting in confused their timing. "Psycho" was on a double bill with George Pal's "War of the Worlds," and the two teens had entered toward the end of the Hitchcock. It is one of the supreme moments of all horror movies.
Vera Miles descends into the cellar, where she sees the old woman in the chair. "Mrs. Bates?" says Miles, and reaches out to her. The chair swirls, the light swings -- and it's the corpse of Mrs. Bates. Two beats later, Tony Perkins appears in full drag, kitchen knife in hand ...
"My first thought was, 'Jesus!' It was the first 20 seconds of horror I'd ever seen -- as far as I was concerned, this was just an arbitrary moment," says Barker. "I was terrified witless."
They watched the movie through to the end, saw "War of the Worlds," and then "Psycho" began again. For the new showing, four young women sat down in front of the boys. And this time, when the climactic scene rolled around, Barker studied the women instead of the film. He knew what was coming. They didn't. There is no delight the equal of dread -- especially someone else's.
"It was a great moment," he says. "I was watching the girls screaming, not watching what they were screaming at. To be able to scare people like this, to hold them in thrall, even when on one level they didn't want to be held in thrall, was extraordinary. It was like being in on a secret."