King of pain

Clive Barker talks about the connection between pleasure and pain, and why everyone is a "book of blood."


Stephen Lemons
February 4, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

Clive Barker, of "Hellraiser" and "Candyman" fame, may not be the first person who comes to mind as a writer of erotic fiction. Instead, the 47-year-old Liverpool-born author/painter/director/producer, whom Stephen King once declared to represent the "future" of the horror genre, is best known for his graphic, sanguinary depictions of ritualistic slaughter -- the kind of stuff that might have given Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy nightmares.

"Everybody is a book of blood," writes Barker. "Wherever we're opened, we're red." Apparently Barker takes great pleasure in playing out his dark fantasies. Homicidal monsters with hooks for hands and demons who delight in tearing humans to shreds populate his books. Yet the flip side of Barker's yen for butchery is his equally macabre exploration of sexual ecstasy. It's a link that's existed in earlier efforts such as the 1987 novel, "The Hellbound Heart" (which inspired the movie "Hellraiser"). There, murderous creatures known as Cenobites exist in a dimension where pleasure and pain are indivisible.

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Think of the misshapen Cenobites as sort of over-the-top stand-ins for sadomasochists, and you can begin to grasp the nature of Barker's literary eroticism. His work introduces readers to a vast torture garden of forbidden delights. In one of his best short stories, "Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament" (included in the recently published "The Essential Clive Barker"), the main character's telekinetic power over men's bodies allows her to rearrange their anatomy at will. As a result, a male chauvinist doctor is disemboweled during an office visit, Ess' patronizing husband is painfully transformed into a bloody suitcase of flesh and a wealthy lover is morphed into a grotesque, four-legged beast.

Toward the end of the story, Ess ends up in Amsterdam, naked and bound to a mattress on the floor of a squalid apartment, where she acts as a prostitute before killing her sated johns. When Oliver Vassi, the only man she truly cares for, tracks her down, she makes a spear of his penis and commits suicide by making love to him, simultaneously killing him with her knife-like breasts. "Tangled in a wash of love," writes Barker, "they thought themselves extinguished, and were."

For Barker, the Ess story offers a perfect example of the imaginative connection between the erotic and the horrific, a connection he sees as characteristic of the human psyche.

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"I would say, wherever we are using our imaginations to think about the world differently, there are similarities in process," explains Barker, placing his feet on the edge of a coffee table in his large, sunlit Spanish-style home. "Otherness and removal into otherness are very much a part of what we want from eroticism. We want the erotic experience to remove us from the mundane, the banal. We want eroticism to transfigure us, actually.

"In 'Jacqueline Ess,' there's both the desire for fatal reconfiguration and at the same time, the fear of death," continues Barker. "That's very much about the momentary erasing of the self. The French have the 'petit mort,' the idea of the 'little death' which follows orgasm. It's the idea that in sex we're in the grip of something much larger than us that we don't have much control over. But we actually like not having control."

Dark and handsome, with short brown hair, gray eyes and a toothy grin, Barker could easily pass for one of Hollywood's many buff, aspiring actors. Certainly there's nothing terrifying about him. Chatty, with a slight English accent, he's intelligent, charming and witty. He wears a white shirt with an open collar and corduroy pants the color of gun-metal; the only remotely Gothic accoutrements to his wardrobe are a silver cross around his neck and black leather belt studded with small animals. A white-gold wedding ring represents his fidelity to longtime partner David Armstrong.

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But if Barker's appearance seems conventional enough, the art on the walls of his yellow Beverly Hills house contradicts this rather firmly. All around him, hung salon-style from floor to ceiling, are his much sought-after paintings -- monstrous, Bosch-like projections of his fantasy life. Humans with the heads of birds, ragged bipeds that only vaguely resemble men and golem-like creatures with horns and wings. These are just a few of Barker's creations, though hardly the most explicit or the most frightening of his oeuvre. Barker says that they are meant for a children's book.

There are, however, many explicitly erotic paintings to be found at Barker's Web site. Huge, half-penis, half-kangaroo animals throttle attacking humans; long, thin, elastic pricks sprout from the heads of male critters who milk themselves into bowls; purple and red demons force their hands up the genitals of bald women; and so on. The imagery is at once absurd and repulsive, humorous and salacious, with thick, crude brushstrokes that call to mind the work of German expressionists.

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"I've done two exhibitions at La Luz de Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles, and three or four in New York," says Barker, glancing at the paintings to his right. "The first exhibition at La Luz was called 'One Flesh,' which speaks for itself, and the second one was called 'The Weird and the Wicked.' So yeah, there's a lot of erotic material in both the books and the paintings, and to a lesser extent in the movies."

Barker, a gay man, portrays both homosexual and heterosexual scenes in his work, each with equal realism. But this has not always pleased his fans.

"A few readers do not appreciate gay elements, particularly in the book 'Sacrament,' which has a gay hero whose sexual preference is very much celebrated," he says. "Some readers would rather that didn't happen. For me the issue is: In horror, which is so much about the body, how can you avoid sex? The genre often goes to sex as a source of horror. Look at 'Dracula.' It has a profound sexual subtext. He [Dracula] is going around biting these women and giving them spontaneous orgasms in the middle of Victorian society, which is not at all approved of.

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"Very often, I need characters to do things which, under the right-thinking circumstances, they would never do. They need to walk metaphorically through a door into another world ... and you've got to get the character to a place where the audience will buy it. Sexual desire is one great way to do that. It's an important tool for me, if you'll forgive the expression, a narrative necessity."

Barker says that his heterosexual imagery is informed by both imagination and experience. And he likes to be even-handed by including gay, straight and lesbian characters. In his "New Murders in the Rue Morgue," a revisiting of the classic Poe detective story, he goes a step further by having the female protagonist copulate with the orangutan who is the murderer in the original tale.

"I like writing sex from each side of the equation," says Barker. "As a gay man, maybe you get to explore your feminine side. I don't wish to offend any heterosexual writer, but perhaps you get to write in a more informed fashion about both sides. I think gay men are very good at writing about straight sex and relationships. After all, it's hard to imagine who is more insightful about the war of the sexes than Oscar Wilde or Tennessee Williams. These are men who were for the most part defined by their homosexuality.

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"And of course, I've never had sex with an orangutan," he chuckles. "I need to be sure and say that."

Among the various projects on which the prolific Barker is hard at work is "The Scarlet Gospels," which he promises will include a collection of erotic short stories, poems, paintings and photos by him. Callaway Editions, which put out Madonna's notorious "Sex" book a few years back, will design it. Barker estimates it'll be out in a year or so.

"It's mostly written," he says. "But I haven't done a movie in a long time, and I'm itching to do so."

Barker is also intrigued by the possibility of applying his outri, Grand Guignol style to erotic films, but he admits that it remains problematic.

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"The difficulty would be that you wouldn't be allowed to show it," says Barker, who did do some short films with erotic content in the '70s, such as "Salome" and "The Forbidden," now available on VHS and DVD. "It's a testament to the sickness of our culture -- to its twisted Puritan values -- that the most graphic representations of violence are allowed to occur in R-rated movies, but the sight of an erect penis? Oh, never! It goes to the heart of our fear of the body and sexuality."

Yet Barker, like many creative people, notes that technological advances could help him fulfill his desire to produce erotic cinema for a mass audience.

"The Internet may be the thing which allows us to do it," says Barker. "Perhaps I'll end up making movies for that market. It's not that far away. I want to reach the largest number of people. Here in L.A., you're just preaching to the converted. The people who need it in their faces are in Phoenix."


Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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