Weaveworld, published in 1987, was Clive Barker’s breakthrough novel. It was also his breakout novel, as it saw him transform himself from being the hottest new horror writer in town (with The Books of Blood and The Damnation Game), to being a hot new fantasy writer, or perhaps just a hot new writer full-stop. And of course, with the movie Hellraiser out the same year, Barker seemed to be announcing himself as an impressive creative force whatever the medium. He painted and illustrated, he wrote and produced plays; what was more, he was eloquent and outspoken in his views on the importance of imagination and the fantastic in art. I’d read some of his Books of Blood stories, but Weaveworld was much more my thing. After it, I read pretty much every novel he wrote as they came out (in paperback, anyway), faltering briefly at The Thief of Always, perhaps out of post-Imajica exhaustion (825 pages!). That ended with 2001’s Coldheart Canyon. I bought Coldheart Canyon, and it sat on my to-read shelf for about a year before I admitted to myself I wasn’t going to read it. I’ve never even glimpsed at his Abarat books (perhaps feeling a bit cheated that he never got round to finishing his Books of the Art series). I read (and reviewed) Mister B Gone when it came out, as a toe-dip back in Barker’s world, but aside from the angels at the end, I mostly wished I hadn’t. I’m not sure, really, what happened. Perhaps it was simply Barker exhaustion (he does write long novels, and perhaps even marvels and wonders can wear you out). Whatever it was, I recently re-read Weaveworld, to see if I could sample a little of what it was that made him so exciting back then. Would it still be there?
It was. It is.
Weaveworld is about a magical land hidden in a carpet. But really, this magical land is made up of fragments of our world — nooks of wonder and beauty we came to ignore, or never discovered, and which the Seerkind (the people of the Weaveworld — or the Fugue as they call it when not in its woven state) took as their own. The Seerkind are mostly human in appearance, but have “raptures” — crafts such as weaving, singing & dancing, that work like magic spells. To the Seerkind, we ordinary humans are Cuckoos, and our non-magical world is the Kingdom of the Cuckoo. And although we Cuckoos have, in the past, pursued and persecuted the Seerkind, it was a far worse enemy that forced them into hiding, an awful power known as the Scourge, which of course threatens them again as soon as they wake. The novel follows two ordinary-ish people from our world, Cal Mooney and Suzanna Parish, who come into contact with the Weaveworld, only to find themselves inextricable parts of the struggle of the Seerkind to wake, find a safe place to unpack the wonders of the Fugue, and survive the onslaughts of their many enemies.
Two things make Barker an outstanding writer of the fantastic. The first is the wildness and freedom of his imagination. Before him, the defining style of supernatural horror was that of Stephen King, who made his horrors all the more believable by placing them in settings designed to feel as familiar as possible, and written in a voice that assured you the writer was an average Joe like you, speaking down-to-earth, yeah, you-know-the-kind-of-thing speak. Barker blew that approach away by writing horror and fantasy like an Old Testament prophet. Where, with King, one subtly-built up supernatural element was enough to fuel a blockbuster novel, Barker has monsters and magical beings by the dozen before we’re a quarter of the way through. If King is the fireside storyteller, making you gather round while he whispers his tales towards their slow climax, Barker takes the Barnum and Bailey approach, full of fireworks, cymbal crashes, dancing girls and lion tamers. (And there’s a lot of the performer in his works — his Seerkind are, mostly, performers, Bohemians; perhaps naturally, considering Barker’s first career as a playwright & actor.)
That comparison to the Bible links to the other thing that made Barker such a notable new voice — the conviction with which he wrote, his belief in the transforming power of the imagination. In Weaveworld, when humans encounter the magic of the Fugue, it often has a near-religious effect on them. It changes their world, it opens them up to new possibilities, new beliefs. (Of Suzanna: “All she knew was that she was suddenly alive to a space inside herself where the haste and habit of her adult life had no dominion.”) Because, ultimately, Weaveworld isn’t about a magical world and a real one, it’s about one world which is both magical and real, it’s about the healing, the weaving together, of what can be imagined and what is accepted as real, between the mundane and the magical. The Seerkind aren’t ethereal beings, they’re “flesh and blood like you”; the Fugue is a place in which you can meet with wondrous experiences, but that is true of the real world, too, because the true place those wondrous experiences occur is in the mind:
“Magic might be bestowed upon the physical, but it didn’t reside there. It resided in the word, which was mind spoken, and in motion, which was mind made manifest;… all mind.”
“Imagination,” Barker writes, “was true power: it worked transformations wealth and influence never could.”
Two of the most interesting characters in Weaveworld are the villains, Shadwell the Salesman (whose name unfortunately reminded me of Siadwell, the comic Welsh poet from Naked Video in the 80s) and Immacolata the Incantatrix, who has a cold hatred for her fellow Seerkind. These, like so many Barker villains, aren’t merely evil; they are led to evil ends by understandable (if unordinary) motivations. Something to note about Barker’s monsters — they’re not just killers and beasts, they’re philosophers. They like to explain themselves. They have an aesthetic. (Just not the sort you’d expect to be expounded by the local art society.) In a sense, like the Seerkind, they’re performers, too, artists of a brutal kind, Bohemians gone bad. One of the things Barker seems to be saying is that all experience, potentially, can be transcendent experience, and that includes the painful experiences, the dark experiences, and the dark drives and motivations, too. At the end, the Scourge is not defeated, it is healed. The “Old Science” of the Seerkind (which perhaps could better be called Art) is used to “seduce it into confessing its profoundest desire: simply to see its own true face, and seeing it know how it had been before loneliness had corrupted it.”
Which reminds me of Barker’s own words about himself in the 1994 South Bank Show episode about him:
“My life has absolutely been transformed by the imaginative possibilities offered to me by artists. Isn’t that one of the reasons we go to books and paintings and theatre and movies? We go because we want our lives enriched. And that enrichment is a kind of change. We want our pain illuminated, and if it’s illuminated, maybe it isn’t quite so terrible… I think my kind of fiction, and I get this in conversations with people and in letters, is to some extent about saying these journeys are journeys which we’re all taking. And it’s okay to take them. And it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It doesn’t mean you’re marginalised. Just because you’re bringing your dreamscape into your daily life, into your conscious life, doesn’t make you fit for the madhouse. It makes you very healthy.”
Barker’s art is working the Seerkind’s sort of magic. He’s not merely peddling wonders to make a sale, to get a wow and a round of applause. He very much has a belief in what he’s doing, in its power to affect people, and for their ultimate good. Even if it takes them into some pretty dark places on the way.