Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Book Review - 'The Thief of Always', by Clive Barker

Clive Barker is a writer most famous for a particularly disturbing brand of horror. Much of his most well known fiction, over the years, combines disturbing and horrific imagery with an overt sexuality – often creating a tone that is as perverse and uncomfortable as it is potentially fascinating. (Long-time fans of the horror genre may recognise the Hellraiser series of films as being based on one of his stories, to provide an example)

Because of this, it makes sense that some of his fiction can make for distinctly uncomfortable reading. And he has, on occasion, shown a tendency toward going overboard with it all - most likely due to a continued desire to shock his readers, and a perceived need to constantly one-up himself.

With The Thief of Always, though, the author was clearly doing all that he could to avoid that. Here, Clive Barker was clearly trying to create something that held the same fascinating as his other worth, but without much of the accompanying unpleasantness. Why? Well, because The Thief of Always was intended as a book suitable for children.

Ten year old Harvey Swick is bored. With school, with the chores forced onto him, and with his life in general. He is desperate for some fun and excitement to break up to dull monotony of his young life. As if in answer to his silent prayers, he is payed a surprise visit by the eccentric and mysterious Mr. Rictus, who slips in through his bedroom window despite it being locked and on the second floor of his family's house. Mr. Rictus tells Harvey about the Holiday House – a place where children can have everything they desire, and where every wish comes true. A place where it is Christmas every day, and Halloween every night.

Harvey accepts the invitation to the Holiday House and, for a time, finds it to be everything that was promised. He meets, and befriends, Wendell and Lulu – two other children currently staying at the Holiday House. He is allowed to contact his parents, and is told by them that they are happy for him to stay there for as long as he wants. And, everything he could wish for seems to come true – all guided by the magic of the mysterious and absent Mr. Hood.

However, Harvey's curiosity about the true nature of the Holiday House leads him to discover that things are not all they seem, and that he and the other children may be in very real danger.

The Thief of Always is presented as something of a fable and, as such, has morals and lessons to impart to the reader. The first and most obvious, of course, probably being not to trust strange men who crawl in through your bedroom window.

Beyond that, though, it deals with temptation, and the cost of growing up – and, perhaps most importantly, with the importance of questioning the appearance of things. The one condition placed on Harvey, in his time spent at the Holiday House, is that he is not allowed to ask questions – but, it is only when he does so that he begins to see that things may not necessarily be all that they seem on the surface.

The Thief of Always is a novel that really deserves to be much better known than it is. In terms of theme and tone, it can be compared to work for younger readers by Neil Gaiman (Coraline and The Graveyard Book, for example), and arguably compares favourably to those same books in terms of quality as well. In fact, The Thief of Always seems to share number of elements with Coraline. Both feature a child forced to confront something powerful and mysterious, and neither are shy about using elements of horror fiction to tell the tale. It may have been written with a younger audience in mind, but it is still intended to scare. Like many of the best books for younger readers, though, it can also be enjoyed by just about anyone.

Though, in saying that, it would probably be a good idea to reiterate that The Thief of Always is something of an exception to the usual Clive Barker tale – especially for those who may be unfamiliar with him. This is a book suitable for younger readers, and he has since written other work for a more general audience – but, much of his work remains very unsuitable for children.

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