Pleasure and pain, indivisible: happy anniversary, Hellraiser

This week sees the 30th anniversary of the release of Hellraiser in the UK.

Back in 1987, anticipation for the film was high. Clive Barker’s short stories were groundbreaking in many ways – not only did they contain some wonderful writing, but the horror world had its boundaries pushed. About time, too. Female characters had depth. Gay characters were in evidence. Neither were used as figures of hatred – I can’t have been the only person inspired to write horror, knowing there was someone out there who didn’t treat the Other as the enemy (Barker was not out as gay at that time) and feel that there might just be space for me in the genre I loved so much. This was Barker’s first proper film as director (if you’ve seen Rawhead Rex, you’ll know why he prefers to forget its existence); much was expected. To the point where I hurried along to a venue near Tottenham Court Road station in London for a Hellraiser exhibition before the film’s opening. I still remember gawping at the lifesize Chatterer model when it moved – it was actually the actor in full make up. Luckily I managed to stop from screaming and just ran for it.

The film itself was almost excellent, although a few bits didn’t make sense to me. I had a feeling of disorientation – it was set in North London but as the film went on the location, and the accents, drifted towards North America. Some of the acting was appalling, too, but it didn’t really detract from the idea of the film, and the power of Barker’s imagination.

Because of my obsession with the band Coil, I was aware that they were friends of Barker’s, and I’d heard that Coil were originally commissioned to provide the soundtrack. This, and the fact that the film was going to be in black and white, would have combined to create a very different Hellraiser, less commercial, more arthouse. These things were lost with Barker going to America for financial backing (to be fair, he found it next to impossible to get backers in the UK). An American composer was imposed on the film and American accents were dubbed onto some of the characters, causing the disorientation as to the setting. Coil released their own soundtrack, which I’ve always preferred and Barker admitted to the things he hated about the film (the fact that wheels can be seen on the monster in the wall, for one). Still, it was a steep learning curve (in the ways of Hollywood as well as in direction) and Lord Of Illusion and Nightbreed were far superior. Hellraiser came out on VHS and my sister went to a signing session, again in Central London. She asked for an extra copy of the sleeve to be signed and dedicated to me, even though she wasn’t buying two videos and the shop wouldn’t like it. “They won’t,” he replied, “but fuck ’em!” and signed one for me anyway. A nice bloke.

The way Pinhead captured people’s imagination was something that always amused me. Inspired by magazines lent by Sleazy (Coil), the figure was head sadist in a film clearly based on sado-masochism (although much of it was non-consensual, breaking SM’s most basic rule) but Pinhead became a kind of hero in the same way Freddie Kreuger and Michael Myers did, which just goes to show how many horror fans need to evolve somewhat. Horror in general still has a long way to go in terms of diversity and, with the spate of torture films in recent years, I wonder if the genre is not actually going backwards in some ways. I’m not going to go into the Hellraiser sequels, which I don’t think Barker had much involvement with, or the re-making of the original, although if it has to be done (which I’m doubtful of) then why not go back to the original idea and have a super-Gothic black and white version? It’s enough for me that this film was released when I was 20, a few years before I began writing horror fiction, and it made a huge impression on me in terms of what could be done. As much of Barker’s art has. Would I be writing fiction at all if it wasn’t for him? I might be – there are other writers/artists who have been incredibly inspiring. But it would be very different. I would be very different. I haven’t watched Hellraiser for some time, but I still raised a glass to the film this week. While the Cenobites aren’t heroes to me, they’re iconic horror figures from a film that was a landmark in many ways.

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The manifestation of a divine being to a mortal

Lots of news. Yesterday I had an email from Dark River Press, a UK based outfit, accepting The Ferocious Night (an extract from which I’ll be reading at the Penzance Lit Fest) for their next anthology, Tales From The River Vol 2. It’s due to appear around August 1st on Kindle. The Falling Man, of course, should be published in Storylandia in October(ish). So that’s two stories out late summer/autumn. I’m happy to now have everything that is in a fit state to publish either in print or accepted. I’d left Pieces – the tattoo story – aside for a while as I wasn’t completely happy with the opening line but wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it. That has now fallen into place and after one more read through it will be heading off to a very gay-friendly publisher. As for Darkworlds Part Two, its current title is Theophany. It may change again! It’s now in novella territory, having more or less hit the 10,000 word mark and a long way from finished. Ideas and imagery are just pouring out and I need to focus and make sure it all gets written down. It’s tempting to stop writing longhand and just rip through a lot of it on the computer, but I’m sticking with pen and paper for as long as I can.

Tickets for Slip Into Something Uncomfortable are now available, and hopefully the site will include some information about both Rosanne and myself. I’m reading the extract as often as I can bear to, and I’m getting a bit better at it. As a wise man said to me, “It’s about the words, not you.”

Midsummer seems to be passing without me noticing it as much as I should (and I’d certainly never be able to do so as eloquently as Phillip Carr-Gomm did a few days back). Jim Causley (a very talented Devon folk singer) played in town this week and I was too ill to attend. Tomorrow is Mazey Day – the climax of the Golowan Festival – and I’m not sure how much of the day I’ll see, but if I can get to one of the processions, then I’ll be happy. I’ve lost a little of my enthusiasm for it since two of the local witches were banned from appearing. More fool the Golowan powers that be: part of the witches’ task is to get good weather for the day!

Apart from some newish folk music (King Creosote’s John Taylor’s Month Away and June Tabor) I’ve been re-connecting with Coil circa the Hellraiser period. Many of the tracks on the vinyl release of The Unreleased Themes to Hellraiser did not appear on the cd release and I’ve been trying to hunt them down. There’s also some pieces on Stolen and Contaminated Songs that are from the era, one of Coil’s best.

Clive Barker pt. 2: power to the imagination

Lydford Castle, Devon

First of all I should say that I’m glad to be writing about a novel of Barker’s, rather than a posthumous tribute. He nearly left us in January after contracting toxic shock after a visit to the dentist. He was in a coma and wasn’t expected to recover, but had ‘too much to do’ to go just yet. Thankfully. Too many inspiring souls have gone in recent years.

A lifetime or so ago, I went to an exhibition relating to the soon to be released film Hellraiser. In a smallish upstairs room near Tottenham Court Road station (in the same building where, many years later, I was to finally meet Barker) were photos and props from the film. I remember the excitement, the anticipation, of what Barker’s first ‘proper’ film would be like. It was all quite low key and underground; this all happened before the Hollywood Barker industry began. He was even still living in London. One of the props – a full size model of Chatterer Cenobite – was especially fascinating. Wires pulled the lips back to reveal the Cenobite’s teeth and gums. The detail was incredible. I got close up, face to face, to study it properly and the ‘model’, who was, of course, actually an actor in full make up, moved a bit. It scared the wits out of me but come the film’s release you couldn’t keep me away.

I finished Mr B. Gone a while back, and since the novel was several years old when I got hold of it, I doubt there’s many out there with any interest in horror/dark fantasy/Clive Barker who haven’t read it and in the light of what happened to Barker in January it seems almost unimportant to write what I thought of it so I’ll keep it brief. I wonder if anyone else thought the opening section was reminiscent of Nick Cave’s And The Ass Saw The Angel? I was immediately reminded of it – first person narrative by a bizarre, misshapen creature who is inevitably going to meet a bad end. The biggest criticism of the book by others – the continual insistence by the protagonist that the book be burned – is a reasonable one. By the middle of the novel it became seriously frustrating to still be reading it. There is a whimsical air to the book as well in places and there were a few times I nearly stopped reading because of it, but then Barker would deliver some amazing prose, a piece of brilliance that made the book worth buying. Barker can still write horror, of that there’s no doubt, it’s just that in this novel he’s chosen to play with his protagonist, and therefore with the reader, instead of taking things much further. The fact that for at least half the book there appears to be no real story, just a demon running away from a series of enemies, is my biggest criticism. Barker has the talent and the wit to write the most amazing horror stories if he chooses to. Perhaps he’s grown away from the genre (and his recent illness might have a huge effect on his writing). Time will tell.

Far more interesting, and pertinent, than Mister B. Gone is an interview conducted in the middle of March, which appears on Barker’s website. The first part is entirely about his horrific near-death experience, which began on 10 January and from which he is still struggling to recover. I’ve only just read it myself and it shocked me to think how close we all were to losing him. It hasn’t changed my views about Death, but how one makes one’s way there is certainly something to feel cautious about. The second part of the interview changes tack and discusses the next Abarat and Clive’s absolute love of dogs throughout his life. Inevitably, perhaps, the loss of such beloved companions comes up, something I and many of us will certainly be able to relate to. So even if you have no huge interest in Barker’s books, I’d recommend reading the interview. All power to you, Clive, get well soon. And please dazzle us again with the kind of horror only you can write.

Back to the stars they go: Jhonn Balance, Peter Christopherson, Lisa Cook

 

With the death of Jhonn Balance seven years ago, in a fall at his home in Somerset, came the end of Coil. And with the end of Coil, a band/project inhabited by many over the years but with Balance and Peter ‘Sleazy’ Christopherson at its heart, came a loss that becomes ever more evident with time. Coil created what I’ve always thought of as dream soundtracks, but that barely describes the depth of what they did. Some gothic, Industrial beginnings led to the original score for Hellraiser, to some dark ambience, to meditative and mind-expanding ‘moon musick’. Balance explored the occult, Death and What Comes After in much of his work. It was his attitude that initially attracted me to the band, his proud, defiant sexuality and interest in magick kept me hooked even when I wasn’t so keen on the music (Love’s Secret Domain, with its acid-house tinge, was really the only album that didn’t completely enthrall me). Although that voice, that beautiful, golden voice, was always irresistible. Balance has been described as a ‘musical alchemist’ but I’ll remember him most for his spiritual and magickal exploration. His relationship with alcohol and his often fragile mental state perhaps doomed him to an early death; at 42, he still had so much more to do here, and it’s still difficult to think of the world without him. But he has moved on – to whatever comes after – and perhaps its more our loss than his: Barbara Erskine wrote in Daughters of Fire, “…like the Celt, I also believe in a form of reincarnation… that the soul, on occasions, splits into three parts on death, one part to reincarnate, one to go to the Blessed Isle and one part to enter another life form – perhaps a bird or a shooting star.” The Woodland Trust memorial to him, situated near Bassingthwaite Lake in the Lake District, is in a place he loved and is a beautiful, fitting tribute.

Sleazy was the quieter, more stable half of Coil, though no less gifted than Balance. After Balance died he somehow carried on and managed to complete the band’s last studio album, The Ape of Naples, in 2005. He relocated to Bankok, continued making music and began to enjoy life again. A few months before his death (in November 2010) he posted a short film on Myspace, apologising for having cancelled a gig due to illness. In the film he claimed it was ‘nothing serious’, but somehow it didn’t ring true, and this quote, from 31 July 2010, seems to bear that out: “We are all only temporary curators of our present bodies, which will all decay, sooner or later. In a hundred years or so all the humans currently alive will have died. I take great comfort in knowing, with certainty, that thing that makes us special, able to enrich our own lives and those of others, will not cease when our bodies do but will be just starting a new (and hopefully even better) adventure.” He passed away in his sleep, in his own bed at home and no cause of death has been officially announced. I have my own theories but he and his loved ones deserve their privacy. With him gone, the void left by Coil has become immeasurably bigger, The Ape of Naples even sadder and more difficult to listen to. Coil were with me for around half my lifetime, their influence on every part of my life immense. I doubt any ‘band’ can take their place and perhaps I shouldn’t even look for someone to do so.

Sister George, London, circa 1994

 

Lisa Cook played bass guitar in Sister George, the leaders, as such, of the British Queercore scene of the mid-1990s. I got to know her after doing an interview with the band (which turned out to be their last) in guitarist Lyndon Holmes’ flat in Walthamstow. I’d seen them for the first time at a pub in Camden, North London, a couple of weeks after I came out. Gay punks! I was smitten. I played pool with Lisa, went to a few gigs with her and Lyndon and then girlfriend Yas (guitarist in Mouthfull), including Huggy Bear’s last gig. She was interested in my writing and made me promise that, should I ever make a film (a version of The Guinea Worm was being discussed at the time), she could play a zombie, whether or not the story included one. After Sister George broke up, she and Lyndon formed Kidnapper, a short-lived but brilliant pop band. She gave me their demo tape; it was full of promise but the band had serious personal problems and split up after releasing one single. I saw her at Club V (queer/indie club, late 1990s) but then she left London and I lost contact with her. She had a partner at the time of her death (in January 2008, of cancer) but my attempts to get more details have come to nothing, but she was far too young to leave us. We were friends for a time and Sister George were a truly great, feisty band that made it easier for me to come out. I’ll remember her with affection and sadness.

Brentor/Dartmoor, 8 November 2011

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]