Clive Barker and I have a history of which he is unaware.
This is probably for the best. In grad school, one class had Books of Blood as a required (but replaceable)
text. Now, I’m pretty much willing to read whatever, since I believe that truth will out, and that all truth is connected, and that so-called “dangerous” ideas are mostly dangerous only to the status-quo. Re-examining the structure fo my life is good every now and then, and “dangerous” texts often prompt me to do that, so, aside from avoiding obvious pornography, I pretty much read whatever. I was warned about Books of Blood, and felt like I could at least give it a go and see. Many of my classmates found this work troubling overall, but generally ok, except for one particularly violent scene involving gay sex. (I think it’s interesting that out of everything in that book, that was the part they found most disturbing, but moving on…) My approach to the book was rather different. Instead, I opened randomly to different chapters or stories, and read a couple of pages of each. It did not go well for me. I found the images so profoundly disturbing that I declined to read further (and thus have never actually read the infamous sex scene myself. It may not even exist.). I am a little ashamed to admit this. I can handle postmodernism’s relativity and displacement of reality, and I can handle the idea that all we perceive around us is not reality, but is in fact a construct, a sort of self-perpetuating mass hypnosis. I really can. In fact, I can even go so far as to say that I love postmodernism, though many people I know have found it profoundly threatening. Similarly, my issue with Books of Blood wasn’t its ideas (to which, admittedly, I did not greatly expose myself); I just couldn’t take the gore. Since I’m part of a religion that believes in a Messiah that bled from every pore, and since I regularly symbolically eat his flesh and drink his blood, I think it’s a little weird that gore is the thing I have a problem with, but there you have it. Maybe “holy gore” is the exception.
So, with all that in mind, I approached Abarat with some caution. However, it was shelved in the YA section, and I remembered reading Barker’s own frustration at being pigeon-holed as the Books of Blood author. He complained that he’s written many other works, and that he’d come a long way and developed other ideas and artistic inclinations since writing Books of Blood. So, I said to myself, here is a different book by that author who claimed he wrote different things, and this book happens to have lovely cover art. At worst, I’ll just put it down again and go on with my sissy aversion to ickiness. So I read that book.
And it was great! It’s weird and beautiful and creepy and wonderful. It’s mysterious in all the right ways. The heroine is genuinely strong, and her obstacles are worth overcoming. I suppose this is a coming-of-age tale, but it’s no Judy Blume. In fact, I’m pretty sure that Candy Quackenbush (the protagonist of Abarat) could take down Margaret Simon without much trouble. (In my mind, they’re leg wrestling. Candy wins. I bet Candy would win at arm wrestling or chess, too, though.) Candy Quackenbush lives in boring Chickentown in a dysfunctional family. One day, events transpire to allow her to leave Chickentown and enter mysterious, magical Abarat. While reading this novel, I definitely felt that there was more going on beneath the surface than was readily apparent, and I’m sure this text would reward rereading. There are hints at interesting thoughts on time and divinity and destiny and choice and creation and all the rest of The Big Things In Life. If you’ve ever read/seen Neil Gaiman’s MirrorMask, Abarat feels very similar, if slightly more creepy. If Alice In Wonderland can be interpreted as a drug trip, then Abarat is one with the potential to go very badly. I appreciated the breadth of Barker’s imagination and how fully realized his imagined world is. It’s really a fine novel. I enjoyed it immensely and heartily recommend it to everyone (but be prepared for weirdness — in a good way).