Weaveworld by Clive Barker

Tim White cover for Clive Barker’s Weaveworld

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.

Goodbye, South Bank Show!

Going since January 1978, The South Bank Show has finally been choked to death by the all-encroaching polystyrenisation of terrestrial TV. In the shopping mall that is weekend broadcasting, it came to resemble a beleaguered secondhand bookshop — quirky, cranky, unapologetically interesting — in the midst of a wasteland of junk food franchises. And now it’s gone.

And with its goes the second-best TV theme tune ever!  And that’s not faint praise. First place goes to the Alice-down-the-rusty-plughole theme to pre-eighties Doctor Who, which is religious music, as far as I’m concerned. (Third goes to Big Ron for Have I Got News For You.)

There were two criticisms people who didn’t like The South Bank Show had about it. One was that it was always about people you’d never heard of. It wasn’t, but when it was, then — duh, dat was duh point. The other was that it was pretentious. “Pretentious” in the sense of “It embarrasses me when people talk about things with any degree of curiosity or intelligence, so I’ll call them pretentious then run giggling for the exit.” So I don’t care about “pretentious” as a criticism either.

My favourite episode was the Clive Barker interview from 1994. I videoed it and watched it till the tape stretched, went snowy, and got tangled in my VCR. Then I transferred it to audio (having no way of getting it onto digital video at the time), and still listen to it on occasion when I need a dose of inspiration. (You can find it on YouTube, though the sound’s not in sync. I’d quite happily pay good money to have a proper DVD of it.) But The South Bank Show didn’t do much fantasy, nor horror. (There was a J G Ballard episode, and the inevitable show on The Lord of the Rings when the Peter Jackson film came out, but that was about it.) In fact, it hardly ever did the writers, musicians or artists I wanted to see on it. But I still watched it without fail. Even when I knew enough about whoever was on it to know I didn’t like them. I either ended up liking them, or spent a good hour arguing with the TV. Now that’s entertainment! Generally, though, it was just the air of books, art, films, or whatever creative pursuit it was — the atmosphere I like to breathe. I usually recorded it and watched it the following Monday evening, as a welcome corrective to the first weekday back at work. Now what am I going to do?

Well, it’s not the end of the world. Melvyn Bragg is still doing In Our Time on Radio 4 (which gets podcasted — thank you BBC!), and because it’s Radio 4, he can be as obscure and pretentious (or interesting and curious, as I prefer to put it) as he wants to be.

And Imagine… But, no, that’s no substitute. It ought to be, but it just isn’t. To my taste, Alan Yentob puts himself that little bit too much in the picture. Melvyn Bragg always began The South Bank Show with a quick, “Hello, tonight’s film is about so-and-so,” and then we were off. Alan Yentob has to make it a personal journey — his personal journey. We have to have interpolated shots of him wandering around with his hands in his baggy trouser pockets, looking thoughtful. The one Imagine episode I should have liked the most — on Haruki Murakami — was in fact about nothing but Alan Yentob, with no Murakami in it at all. And, yes, Melvyn Bragg did appear again to do the interviewing, but he always asked intelligent questions. Alan Yentob does the interviewing too, but, sorry, he just asks naff questions. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe it was just the crap theme music which put me off from the start. (I mean, the show’s called Imagine. So why have the least imaginative theme music on TV? Even QI‘s plunky piece of nothing is a step above Imagine‘s. They’ve changed it for the latest series, but I can’t remember what the new music’s like, so it may be an improvement, but it’s still not Variations.)

But there’s BBC4, so that’s alright. It’s not like the demise of The South Bank Show is leaving TV a total cultural wasteland. (There’s the Culture Show, too. A bit magaziney, and it somehow always ends up covering the same subjects as Late Review, but at least it interviewed Alan Moore, which The South Bank Show never did.)

Still, The South Bank Show has always been my favourite, and I’ll miss it. And so, till Melvyn Bragg reincarnates into a younger looking boffin with a redheaded Scottish sidekick… Oh no, that’s the other programme. Oh well, goodbye, South Bank Show!