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Clive Barker explores life's darker side


LOS ANGELES -- Clive Barker has one answer for any continuing debate about the cultural elite. Circumvent your "elitism" -- appear headed for the lowest common denominator, so that your work goes down easily. Then, when no one's looking, sneakily slip subversive subtexts into your work that will affect the unexpecting masses, perhaps without their even realizing it.

"The only way to have any effect is to pass yourself off as something else," Mr. Barker said. "One of the reasons I'm writing children's fiction and making pop movies is because I don't want lTC to be discounted as one of the elite."

Mr. Barker doesn't believe he's slumming when he works on such mass-market entertainments. He wrote the original story for and served as executive producer on "Candyman," not your typical headless horror flick. By setting this tale about a murderous urban legend sprung to life in a housing project overrun by gangs and despair, the movie, besides providing the requisite jolts and dollops of gore, tackles racial and class issues head-on.

Next month, Mr. Barker's first book for children, "The Thief of Always," will be released. It's a fanciful, only mildly scary, yarn about Harvey, a young boy bored with life and school, who agrees to move into a house filled with strange and subtly malevolent spirits.

Mr. Barker always has displayed an ambition rare for his chosen film genre. His first film, "Hellraiser," explored the labyrinthine connections between sexual pleasure and pain long before Madonna whipped "Erotica" into shape. His last best seller, "Imajica," was an elaborate Christian allegory set in a secular realm.

"I want to be a maker of stories for the people," Mr. Barker said. "That means I don't get good reviews from the New York Times, but it does mean I'm getting to people who are at the grass roots of the country. People who see 'Candyman' are people who are not even interested in the [family values] debate that we're having. But they will have something to bring away from the movie to think about. Hopefully, this [book] will find its way into nurseries across the country. That satisfies me deeply."

"Candyman" and "The Thief of Always," as well as Mr. Barker's "Hellraiser" film and other books, borrow, in different ways, from the Faust legend.

"It's the deal we do with life," he said. "It's the sense that never left me that you pay for everything. There's no such thing as a free lunch. Part of the interesting thing about Harvey is that he actually wins, unlike Marlowe's Faust. Harvey fights back and wins by taking on the attributes of the enemy.

"Hopefully, the book works on a lot of levels. It works as a fable for children about valuing the time you have and not frittering it away. But it also has a number of interesting things to say about the way that we imagine ourselves. One of the things that strengthens Harvey is that he accepts the darkness in himself."

Lest anyone think this may be too grim for kids, Mr. Barker pointed out that two of his biggest influences were children's writers Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl. "Both say that children are corrupt, dark, rotten-hearted little beasts," he said with a wry smile. "It's certainly my memory of childhood that it was a period of being rotten and mean and having a lot of people be mean and rotten to me. I was a bespectacled, short-sighted, overweight little boy who got kicked to the ground many a time, and wished terrible things upon my enemies. And if I had had the power to make those things happen at the snap of a finger, you can be certain that blood would have run in the playground."

Truth be told, for a master of the horror realm, Mr. Barker isn't as interested in shocks as he is in positing eerie atmospheres as reality. "I don't write scary books, I write weird books," he said. "You don't read my books and are scared in the way you are by a Stephen King book. Stephen's dynamic is very clever -- he takes people we feel very protective of and then puts them in situations of great jeopardy. I take people who are kind of edgy in the first place and then put them in even edgier situations, where they very often find they're not as unhappy as they think they are.

"What in a Stephen King book would be some unspeakable terror, in my book they say, 'Ah. OK.'That's what Helen does in 'Candyman.' She discovers that her other life is far more banal, far more morally dead than the life -- or death -- that Candyman offers. So her process is away from the warmth of the hearth, or the chill of the hearth, into something much more dangerous and illusive and ambiguous."

Mr. Barker loves to play with reality because, ultimately, he's just not too sure what it is and believes life is more intriguing that way. "Our sense of the real is so tenuous and finally, perhaps, so irrelevant that what is more important to my mind is embracing a host of imagined possibilities," he said. "Life after death, the imminent return of Jesus Christ, UFOs -- we'll make a list 1,000 subjects long -- 'Things I Believe,' and many of them contradicting each other.

"The worst thing you can do is constantly carve out little territories where this is true and this isn't, this is good and this is bad, this is useful and this isn't. It's so . . . Republican."

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