We say happy birthday to Clive Barker by sharing 15 of his works that helped change the face of the genre and redefine what people think of horror.
British playwright, novelist, film director, and visual artist Clive Barker established himself as a leading horror writer back in the mid 1980s with a series of remarkable short stories known as the Books of Blood. Since then, he’s been a prolific contributor to the genre, both with his many novels and written works, as well as his feature film adaptations. Two of his adaptations, Hellraiser and Candyman, are widely considered masterpieces of modern horror; among the most iconic and important genre films produced in the last 40 years.
Though Barker’s presence in the genre scene may be less prominent than it once was, his influence is far-reaching, helping inspire and shape scores of other filmmakers, authors, and artists. Decades after Books of Blood was first released, its impact continues to reverberate. In fact, Barker’s seminal horror classic is once again being adapted for modern audiences, with the highly anticipated anthology film Books of Blood coming to Hulu this month.
On 10/5, in honor of his birthday, our writers celebrate the legacy of the horror master by sharing 15 of our favorite film and fiction works from Barker — from his dazzling debut to his most recent collaborations.
1. THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN (SHORT STORY, 1984)
Recommended by Danni Winn
Clive Barker has written a vast amount of horror since he first introduced the world to his brand of nightmarish fiction back in 1984, with the release of Books of Blood, a collection of short stories that tempted fans in six volumes and ultimately won both the British and World Fantasy Awards of that year. “The Midnight Meat Train” is one of the six stories featured in volume one of Books of Blood. And although I didn’t read it when it was first introduced in the early eighties, my young self still stumbled upon this gory goodness around the mid nineties, within a copy of the renowned anthology, Splatterpunks: Extreme Horror.
Growing up, I lived outside of New York City and often rode both NJ Transit trains and the city subway system alone. While riding these trains, I read voraciously — and tried to remain unseen by the other commuters and inhabitants of one of the most unforgiving places on the planet. Part of what made “The Midnight Meat Train” so memorable was the way Barker describes New York City: like a dirty, violent, apathetic whore.
I felt this in my bones, even though I didn’t want to. I wanted desperately to love the city, revel in her glitzy hopes and dreams, and feel safe. But that just wasn’t the case.
For me, Barker (through the character of Leon Kaufman) absolutely nailed the love/hate relationship so many have with the city.
In a mere two dozen pages, Barker manages to paint such an extraordinary picture of a city in the grips of a mysterious killer and that of a listless office worker, Leon — and the fateful encounter with the purposeful Mahogany aboard a deserted subway car.
Accidentally stumbling upon the origin of a series of horrific murders within the bowels of the city, Leon is thrust into the middle of some wild shit.
Graphic, grotesque and unexpected, “The Midnight Meat Train” is a brief, brutal masterclass in writing that seriously resonated with me. Barker’s powerful prose, his penchant for visceral violence and this story’s shocking conclusion made me a lifetime member of the Cult of Clive.
2. IN THE HILLS, THE CITIES (SHORT STORY, 1984)
Recommended by Guest Contributor Peter Hayward-Bailey (@PositivelyHorror on Instagram)
When I first read “In the Hills, the Cities” from Barker’s Books of Blood: Volume 1 many years ago, I was absolutely blown away. So much so that, even today, it is a short story I often recommend. I must have been only thirteen or so when I first read it, and up to that point I had never read anything like it. Arguably, that is too young to experience Barker’s particular brand of explicit sex and violence. But for a young teen just getting into horror, I found it was the perfect place for my burgeoning genre passion to truly flourish. [There was a precision to their passion, sensing the moment when effortless delight became urgent, when desire became necessity.]
I was mystified by, not only the poetic construction of each sentence [Eyes you could watch forever, and never see the same light in them twice.], but also by the portrayal of a gay couple as the main characters. I’d never read anything with that kind of LGBTQ+ representation before, and it really opened my eyes to the fact that representation is really important.
Set on the backdrop of rural eastern Europe, the traveling couple make a chilling, and life altering discovery in the secrecy of the hills, involving an ancient tradition between two neighboring cities. What they find really has to be read to be believed.
Still, to this day I haven’t found a writer with the imagination that rivals Barker’s.
In this story, he creates a tradition in which the townsfolk construct a giant out of their own bodies, intricately harnessed together with rope systems, allowing them to do battle with a neighboring city and their similarly-crafted contraption.
The level of detail Barker includes into how these giants are created makes it sound entirely plausible. [They were good at the game of giants. It took many centuries of practice: every ten years making the figure larger and larger. One always ambitious to be larger than the other. Ropes to tie them all together, flawlessly. Sinews…ligaments…there was food in its belly…there were pipes from the loins, to take away the waste. The best-sighted sat in the eye sockets, the best voiced in the mouth and throat. You wouldn’t believe the engineering of it.]
The level of visceral gore on display in the story is enough to shock and horrify, but it’s written so beautifully that you can’t help but be entranced. [The broken flank spewed citizens like a slashed artery spitting blood.]
As I’ve grown up reading more and more of Barker’s work, I found that the extremely bloody scene of “In the Hills, the Cities” is just a taste of what the horror master is capable of, but it does brilliantly encompass all of the best qualities I’ve grown to love and admire in his writing.
If you are new to the work of Clive Barker and are looking for somewhere to start, I would say that this story is a great jumping off point.
3. THE FORBIDDEN (SHORT STORY, 1985)
Recommended by Alli Hartley
There’s an inherent danger here that I cannot deny as a White woman examining a folktale that has been embraced by the Black community — and not just the danger that I myself may be embraced by a hook-handed buzzing shadow of death. The perspective of a White person examining the social mores of minority community is always tinged with a distance of academic condescension. In films like The Wicker Man and Midsommar, the dangers of cultural tourism are justifiably punished by those who treat other cultures with a sense of superiority and contempt.
In Clive Barker’s extraordinary short story “The Forbidden,” the cultural tourism is based on class, not race.
Helen is studying the sociology of graffiti in a poor Liverpool housing development. As she happens upon women with tales of murders and a mysterious hook-handed attacker, her professor husband and his effete circle mock her concerns, declaring the gossip akin to folk legends. But when one of those women suffers the death of a child, Helen is drawn further into this tight-lipped community and the unfathomable, seductive figure that punishes those who don’t believe.
As horrific as the punishment is, in Helen’s death she willingly becomes a part of the tales she dismissed, finding it easier to fade into folklore than to struggle on, caught amidst the powerless poor and the unfeeling rich.
In the 1992 film adaptation Candyman, the setting is moved to Chicago, and Helen is studying urban legends in the notorious Cabrini-Green row houses. While the tale is first told by a White student, it is quickly localized to the poor Black community. Helen is coded as an ally by partnering in her research with a fellow grad student, Bernadette, a Black woman, and proves to be One Of The Good Ones when she engages with a baby in one of the apartments.
That being said, as the film diverges from the story and devolves into White Lady Fear Trifecta (Philandering Husband, Commitment to Asylum, Baby in Danger) there is a definite feeling of an opportunity wasted, particularly as the Candyman chooses Helen, the very Whitest of White Ladies to be his phantom bride.
While Tony Todd as Candyman has become an iconic horror figure, and Virginia Madsen continues to crush every role that she is presented with, I can’t help but hope for a more in-depth exploratio