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Abarat
Clive Barker
Joanna Cotler Books, 432 pages

Abarat
Clive Barker
Clive Barker was born in Liverpool, England in 1952. He is the author of numerous interstitial books including The Books of Blood, Weaveworld, Imajica, and his first book for children, The Thief of Always. He is also an accomplished painter and filmmaker, and he produced the 1998 Academy Award winning film Gods and Monsters. His influences include Ramsey Campbell, William S. Burroughs, Ray Bradbury, Christopher Marlowe, and William Blake.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by Matthew Peckham

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Sometimes the best things come in unassuming packages, at least to those of us who assume something marketed as "young adult" isn't worth our time. Clive Barker's Abarat is in many unintended ways a response to the J.K. Rowling books which, in spite of their trivial thematic regurgitations and archetypal clichés, still manage to incite millions of bedazzled readers to read them and then, zinged, reach for something more. But where Rowling's books are meant to go down easy, like ice cream and cake, Barker's second venture into "writing without sex or naughty words" is a dizzy flight into happy madness, a menagerie of exuberance and pastiche that charms without flinching from tangles of darkness and the disturbing. It has problems, yes, most of which lie in the syntax that can at turns be jarring in its sometimes quirky intermingling of prosaic and baroque, but this is also a story which began life as 386 individual paintings -- 100 of which are included in this first book (of four) in the series. The text, according to Barker, is the illustration.

The story's premise is simple, almost trivial. 16-year-old Candy Quackenbush resides in dreary Chickentown, Minnesota. Despite the town's unfortunate name (and her unwieldy surname to boot), Candy abides. The daughter of an abusive, alcoholic father, she is bored to tears with the offerings of a town whose industry is propped on the back of a chicken slaughtering factory. Candy lights out one afternoon after a botched confrontation with an acerbic schoolteacher over a series of doodles drawn compulsively -- instinctively -- in her notebook.

And they were moving. The wavy lines were rolling across the darkness inside her skull, rolling and breaking, the brilliant colors bursting into arabesques of white and silver.

Barker is unabashedly indebted to William Blake, whose Poetical Sketches (1783) was the first in Blake's series of conventionally published works which combined pictorial engravings with lettering. Barker, like Blake, is fascinated by the relationship of the visual to the verbal, but where Blake's was a world omni-penetrated by the divine, Barker's is a multiverse in which the distilled "fantastique" (the author's own terminology) is its own brand of sacred; pictures are conjuring tools, visions are keys with tangible heft. Candy's nigh psychic response to the secret forces converging at the town perimeter provides the catalyst that ultimately jettisons her from the drudgeries of social obligation.

Heeding a second compulsion to venture beyond the town's borders, Candy is lured by a golden cloud to a giant field of prairie grass and flowers, where -- minding that this is Minnesota -- a wrecked lighthouse stands empty and decrepit. Within minutes, she encounters the picaresque John Mischief, an enigmatic creature whose seven brothers' shrunken (but living) heads reside on knobby stalks erupting from his brow, each bearing their own peculiar names. Mischief, who has been hiding from someone in the tall grass, explains that the lighthouse is in fact part of a harbor:

"What harbor?" Candy said. "There's no harbor here. This is Minnesota. We're hundreds of miles from the ocean. No, thousands."

"Perhaps we're thousands of miles from any ocean you are familiar with, lady," said John Fillet, with a gap-toothed smile. "But there are oceans and oceans. Seas and Seas."

And almost immediately, we are submersed in classic Barkerian mystique, with its suppositions of riddles wrapped in enigmas; the notion that there is a skin to the world in need of a good peeling. Barker is preoccupied with a desire to reconcile the mundane and the fantastic in terms of the permutations which materialize at the axis of mysterious and commonplace. What occurs when one enters a world without binaries? How does the protagonist react, and what is the human capacity for reaction? For Barker, novels with established venues, where transformations are endemic to the strictures of the formulated reality, fail to arm the reader with a sense of how to bring knowledge back from the other side. Conversely in Abarat, transformations are defining moments, and mysteries beckon to transcendence.

Mischief enlists Candy's aid, giving her a strange "package" and introduces her to his pursuer, who has also crossed over to Candy's world: the unwholesome and degenerate Mendelson Shape.

He was twice the height of Mischief, and there was something spiderish about his grotesque anatomy. His almost fleshless limbs were so long, she could readily imagine him walking up a wall. On his back there was a curious arrangement of cruciform rods that almost looked like four swords which had been fused to his bony body.
Candy manages to save herself and Mischief from Shape's machinations by solving the puzzle of the lighthouse and summoning the Sea of Izabella. Faced with staying behind or following Mischief back to the islands, Candy chooses the latter, jumping into the sea and allowing the turning tide to carry her with it to the mysterious Abarat archipelago, where each island is its own hour of the day.

Arriving in the Abarat, we are engulfed by Barker's hyperbolic visions, a delirious potpourri of flamboyance and circus bizarre. Here Sea-Skippers play water polo in the middle of ripping ocean swells; an enormous city springs from the top of the Yebba Dim Day -- an island formed in the shape of its owner's head; magicians create flying vehicles of light from arcane glyphs; creatures with anatomical features that skitter across their faces like disembodied arachnids haunt the island of the ominous twenty-fifth hour; armies of stitchlings -- mud golems magically animated by their patchwork trappings -- gather patiently, waiting for a final declaration of war between night and day. Like Carroll and Baum, Ende and Swift tripping on supernatural crack, Barker's world is a kinetic stew of bubbling tropes and metaphors.

Candy assimilates all of this with uncanny speed, alluding to the possibility that she is more than she seems, freeing Barker to accelerate through the curves and bring us up to speed on the functions of several of the islands and their notorious denizens. Each island runs at a fixed hour, never changing, and is privy to its own unique "theme." There are twenty-four all told, plus an unexplainable twenty-fifth. Characters with names like Kaspar Wolfswinkel, Rojo Pixler, Malingo, and Samuel Hastram Klepp the Fifth litter the pages. The words sing or trip off the tongue, but they are unmistakably Barker.

Christopher Carrion is the tale's villain and lord of Gorgossium, the island of midnight. He is a ghoulish creature with intentions to raise monstrous sleeping titans from the depths of the Sea of Izabella by blanketing the islands in darkness. Even his servant, Mendelson Shape, is disturbed in his presence.

He had the most piercing eyes of any man Mendelson had met. They glistened in his bald, pale head. As always, he wore a collar of translucent material that resembled glass, which had been devised to cover the lower half of his head. It was filled with a blue fluid, which was now suddenly lit by the presence of several snaking forms. They flickered in their fluid -- some white as summer lightning, some yellow as sliced fat -- weaving bright patterns around the Lord of Midnight's head.
Carrion quickly surmises Candy's value as the bearer of the object Mischief passed to her (for which Shape had pursued Mischief to Candy's world). At the same time, she becomes the focus of his lunatic, twisted infatuation. The remainder of the book plays out as a series of over-the-top encounters and near-escapes as Carrion's minions pursue Candy from island to island, and we learn more about the role Candy will play in the remaining three volumes.

Abarat has its fair share of problems, places where the language seems to trip over itself for applause rather than servicing the narrative, or stumbles awkwardly during scene transitions. The reading level is clearly young adult, and one wonders what might have been, had Barker been left to tell his tale unfettered (it turns out Disney paid $8 million for the rights to the film, theme park, and multimedia rights -- watch out). In the final analysis, though, the book is a not-so-guilty pleasure piled high with darkly beautiful images and thoughtful meditations. Barker is a visionary whose powers lie in his ability to cull fresh images, ideas, and fictive theories of physical and otherworldly possibilities from otherwise tired themes. If you're looking for the next Oz, Narnia, Wonderland, or Earthsea with a dash of Time Bandits and heaps of Cirque du Soleil, this series is certainly off to a good start.

Copyright © 2002 Matthew Peckham

Matthew Peckham works for Union Pacific Railroad where he chairs the client technology committee. He holds an M.A. in English and scribes for PC Gamer and Computer Games Magazine in his spare time. His life goal is to write a Pulitzer-winning stream-of-consciousness epic series about the marginalized life of trashcan bacteria before it mutates and takes over the world.


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