Hallucinatory Queer British Paganism

On the haunted bridleway at Minions, Cornwall

This year’s Meltdown Festival, curated by Antony Hegarty, is going to be incredible. And very, very queer. Not only does it feature Diamanda Galas and Vaginal Davis (a drag performance artist I did the stage lighting for at San Francisco’s Dirtybird Queercore Festival in 1996) but Cyclobe, doing only their second live performance. Cyclobe are ex-Coil members Stephen Thrower and Ossian Brown. (One of their credits is providing music to The Dark Monarch, the Tate St Ives’ late 2009 exhibition on the occult in art, which was probably the best thing the gallery has ever done.) The Derek Jarman short film Journey To Avebury will be shown (amongst others), with a new soundtrack (the original was done by Coil). (I spent many, many hours in the Scala Cinema a couple of decades ago watching Jarman’s films and was lucky enough to see his house at Dungeness. Jarman was very ill from AIDS at the time and I have no idea if he was there, but it felt like sacred ground.) Plus countless other events. It’ll be hugely inspiring: one of the very few things that could tempt me back to the ‘vortex of bad energy’ that is London.

Meanwhile, back in the real world of fiction: Pieces is finally finished and I’m wondering where to send it to. I really want to start picking magazines that are are a bit more ‘out there’. Obscurity is something I’m happy with; invisibility is not. And, despite one of the golden rules of not having long story titles my new story is now renamed Darkworlds Pt. 2: Everything You Dream Is Real.

Clive Barker: a dark light

Wild rocks, Isles of Scilly

Clive Barker has been a huge influence, not just on my writing, but on the way I see the world, for about the last twenty-five years. Not that I’ve read much of Barker’s stuff in recent years, apart from parts of Abarat – I’ve been delving more and more into non-fiction antiquarian/spiritual/magick/witchcraft reference books – but I’ve gone through the Books of Blood in the last few months. Many of the stories are just amazing (In The Hills, The Cities, The Yattering and Jack, The Skins of the Fathers to name a few) and his cover illustrations compliment the writing perfectly but what I noticed, having an overview rather than getting and reading one book at a time, was how he was aiming at America even way back then (the mid-80s). So many of the stories are set there, and the language of even the British (mostly London, where he was living at the time) set ones are quite Americanised. I’d heard that his native Liverpool was too small (minded?) for him, but I hoped that London would give him what he needed. But he was always going to end up in the US. I was quite sad when he did leave for Hollywood – it seemed a clichéd thing to do, I knew it would be Britain’s loss and I knew his writing would change. He obviously loves it there. Endless photos of him with a huge cigar clamped between his teeth, really playing up the Hollywood director thing, prove he’s either completely immersed or has a good sense of humour. While he is still doing fantastic things – I will always be a huge fan – the phenomenal Clive Barker obscures the man somewhat. Success is a good thing – a man with the brilliant imagination of Barker, the ability to write strong female characters and his empathy with the weird and the strange (especially seen in the novel Cabal or Nightbreed, as the film version was called) needs to be read by the masses. But it feels to me like the merchandise is a distraction. Perhaps my own idea about being a writer is also quite clichéd – sitting in a small room, poverty stricken, scribbling away longhand on cheap paper. It could be seen as a romantic view but the reality is far from it; I’ve done pretty well in getting stories published but I’m always fighting to keep my head above water financially. But the solitude, the separateness, of writing is, I think, important. Dare I mention the word art here? I wonder how Barker shuts himself away from the bullshit when he writes. He returned to horror writing a few years back, after many years of dark and darkish fantasy, with a short novel called Mister B. Gone and I’ve just re-read a few reviews of it. I still haven’t got the book because I’m worried that it won’t be what I want it to be. Too many readers have called it ‘amusing’, even ‘whimsical’ and while there’s room for humour in horror it sounds like the book could be overly light; a missed opportunity. Of course Barker is much older now and has a different take on the world and that’s quite natural – an idea, an atmosphere, a situation, can be far more scary than blood and guts and there’s too much casual nastiness around – but I hope he still takes horror seriously. There are still a lot of monsters out there.

One of his hundreds of projects currently on the go is the re-make of Hellraiser. The original film was a favourite of mine for a long time, despite some real reservations: the soundtrack (Coil, who were friends of his at the time, did a wonderful soundtrack which was never used; a waste of a great collaboration, although the work was released by the band), the drifting of location (half of the film seems to wander from London to America), and some of the acting was terrible. I’ve read that Barker wants to be involved so as to make it as good as it can be, rather than being faced with a finished second version that he’ll hate, but it would be better either left alone now or returning to what it was intended to be first time round. The initial filmed scenes were reported to be very English, gothic, black and white. Despite the minimal budget – or perhaps because of it – it sounded great. A lot about the film is very good – the Cenobites are quite magnificent and the sado-masochist angle is there for anyone who even lightly scratches the surface. Pinhead has become a rather over-used, almost cartoon bogeyman figure, up there with the likes of Freddie Kreuger rather than with Frankenstein’s monster, where he belongs. The original concept of Pinhead is fantastic.

Barker came out as gay many years ago and it was around that time that I arranged to interview him on one of his trips to London. I didn’t want to talk about his sexuality – I knew everyone else would and I was more interested in talking about the horror genre and horror writing, and he was happy about this, I think. He read an article of mine (the last interview Queercore band Sister George gave before they broke up) and it was all looking good. I was doing the article freelance, as I usually did, and had spoken to Attitude, a rather dim witted gay boys’ magazine from London. Once I’d explained to them who Clive Barker was, they were keen to publish. And at the last minute, they stole the job from me, and had Paul Burston do the interview. I was devastated. I did get to meet Barker some time later, at a signing in the West End, and had a chat with him. He was very affable. It meant so much to me that I needed a brandy afterwards to steady my trembling hands. Anyway, since then he’s done film projects specifically with the lesbian and gay community and his photography is openly gay. He also fought tooth and nail to get his first novel with a gay protagonist (Sacrament) published. He seems in many ways to be very true to himself. Perhaps the opportunities and the money available in America were just things he was not prepared to refuse. Would he have been constantly frustrated if he’d stayed in Britain, fighting for the chance to make films?

And I really should read Mister B. Gone, because I’m very happy to have Barker return to the horror fold.

[Listening to: Diamanda Galas]