“The Pit and the Pendulum”
Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1935
A day or two ago, I finished reading volume 1 of Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. His style is beautiful; his choice of words is meticulous; his characters are carefully interwoven; and his imagination is mind-boggling. If you haven’t read this and you call yourself a fan of horror, you should probably be ashamed (I feel ashamed that I have not read him before now). You are missing out on some terrific stories. Now I understand why Stephen King called him “the future of horror”.
But of all his praiseworthy attributes, the one that stands out from all the others is his imagination. I cannot even imagine how he formulates his ideas. For “Midnight Meat Train”, was he just riding a subway and wonder “where does this go? What’s at the end of the line? Maybe there are cannibals at the end of the line? Where did they come from?” How did he associate cannibals with a subway? [Of course, this is all speculation I am just pulling out of the air. I have read nothing about Barker’s gifted imagination. I am using my own imagination and my experience in developing stories to speculate about his methods.]
I heard some place many years ago that genius is not seeing the similarities between apples and oranges (anyone can see the differences), but seeing the similarities between apples and tractors–or in this case, seeing the possible connections between cannibals and subways.
In “In the Hills, the Cities” How did he come up with the concept of giants made of tens of thousands of people functioning together as a single entity? Was he thinking of the original druid burning men and wonder, “what if they were bigger and could come alive?”
To come up with stories such as these, one must think completely out of the box, out of the established paradigm (per Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).
The more I read of works like this, the more I take to heart the advice I see occasionally from publishers that they do not want to see more werewolf-vampire-zombie (wvz) stories or that wvz stories must be very well done to be published. I enjoy wvz stories as much as the next reader, but if I were a publisher, I do not know if I could stomach seeing hundreds come across my desk in a month for years on end.
In his work “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, Lovecraft stresses the importance of an element of the supernatural being present in what he then termed “weird fiction” because if anything is possible, then there are no longer any physical laws of reality to shield us from the horrors that may actually be in the universe. Barker does exactly that. In his writing, there are no limits to what may happen to any one at any time. We are all under the threat of horrific annihilation at any moment.
Likewise, another of Lovecraft’s bits of advice is that characters must be ordinary people so that the appearance of the supernatural will be obvious and stronger than if the characters were all super characters. This makes sense. Superman is only super when he is on earth; he would be just another overworked taxpayer on Krypton. From what I have seen so far in volume 1 of Books of Blood, all of Barker’s characters are quite ordinary people caught up in quite extraordinary and horrible circumstances. Perhaps his way of characterization is genius in itself. I think anyone can make up a fantastic character, but to make someone real, to make a genuine person and have their character show through, when it is easier to make up a shallow one or two dimensional stick figure…isn’t that a form of genius in its own right? In terms of characterization, Barker’s imagination does not tend to the supernatural, but to the perceptive and to the meticulous. [No, I haven’t read The Hellbound Heart yet but I have read “The Yattering and Jack”, and I feel confident that when I do finally encounter Pinhead (I have seen a few of the Hellraiser series), he will certainly not be two-dimensional even though he is definitely supernatural.]
But I digress.
The upshot of all this is that as writers we should push our imaginations to the limits, exploring new ways of coming up with ideas, and disdain themes and motifs that have been worked to death for decades. That is a great part of the challenge of writing. Though I love classic literature such as that by Hemingway and Fitzgerald, their works do not push the limits of the imagination as do the writers of speculative fiction such as Barker and Lovecraft or Bradbury and Asimov. Writers of speculative fiction are explorers of the imagination.
But of the subgenres of speculative fiction, where does that leave writers of horror?
It leaves us as explorers of the dark arts of the imagination. Whereas writers of science fiction and fantasy may push into better worlds like Magellan sailing around the globe, we authors of horror push into the dark, threatening, forbidding areas of the imagination, much as the conquistadors pushed into the Central American jungles or intrepid British explorers pushed along the Congo or Amazon in search of wealth or lost cities. Indeed, it could be said that we are searching for metaphorical lost cities in the recesses of the mind, seeking long-hidden worlds surrounded by mystery and horror.
If life is a journey, then we, as writers of horror are choosing the most terrifying journey through the imagination that we can, because we love the thrill of being faced with horror on every side.