Fantastika Journal

‘There was no pleasure in the air; or at least not as humankind understood it’

November 01, 2022 Michael Wheatley (@md_wheatley) Season 3 Episode 3
Fantastika Journal
‘There was no pleasure in the air; or at least not as humankind understood it’
Show Notes Transcript

This podcast is part of the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Symposium.
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: Michael Wheatley

‘There was no pleasure in the air; or at least not as humankind understood it’: 
Clive Barker’s Weird Extremes

Weird fiction is traditionally viewed through two chronologies: the ‘Old Weird’ of the 1880s to the 1940s, and the ‘New Weird’ of the 1990s to the present. Yet, from these distinctions, many authors of the decades between have been excluded from the Weird canon. One such figure, Clive Barker, is perhaps best associated with movements such as body horror and Splatterpunk. Yet, alongside
writers such as Kathe Koja and Poppy Z. Brite, Barker pushed the Weird into new explicit extremes, recentring the mode around the body and the limits of sensation.
This paper considers how Clive Barker reframed the traditional Weird tale in the 1980s, foregrounding the ‘New Weird’ grotesquery that followed. The Weird tale fundamentally centres around insight; knowledge or understanding which, once found, upends reality and destroys the mind of its discoverer. Barker’s works follow a similar trajectory, yet the quest for knowledge is supplanted by a search for sensation – “a pleasure dome where those who had exhausted the trivial delights of the human condition might discover a fresh definition of joy” – shifting the focus from the psyche to the psychosexual. such discoveries prove equally annihilating.
Drawing on elements of Queer Theory and Genre Theory, this paper analyses how Barker rewrote the limits of the Weird tale by embracing alternate sexualities, violating the sanctity of the human body, and revelling in the transgression of sexual taboos (‘Sex, Death and Starshine’ combines necrophilia with thespianism; ‘Pig Blood Blues’ critiques religion through bestiality). Close reading stories from Barker’s Books of Blood (1984–1985) alongside his novella, The Hellbound Heart (1986), this paper thus intends to reinsert Clive Barker into critical discussions of the Weird.

About the Author: Michael Wheatley is a practice-based researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, whose work explores weird fiction in the age of climate crisis. He lectures at the University of Worcester and edited The Horned God: Weird Tales of the Great God Pan (2022) for The British Library and published the experimental short story collection, The Writers’ Block, in 2019.

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Welcome to the Bodily Transgressions in Fantastika Media Podcast Series. We hope you enjoy the series. If you have any questions or comments, we invite you to attend the digital symposium which will take place on 12th November 2022 via Zoom. The event will be free. Or drop us a line on our Discord Server. Details are in the podcast information, or can be found at under CFPS, Events, and News. That’s Fantastika with a K.

This podcast is a part of Panel 2: Queering Boundaries, which will take place at 3:10pm GMT.

This podcast is presented by Michael Wheatley, who is a practice-based researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, whose work explores weird fiction in the age of climate crisis. He lectures at the University of Worcester and edited The Horned God: Weird Tales of the Great God Pan (2022) for The British Library and published the experimental short story collection, The Writers’ Block, in 2019.

“There was no pleasure in the air; or at least not as humankind understood it.”

Clive Barker’s Weird Extremes.


The Weird is routinely described as a boundless form, an uncontainable mode, “a genre that dissolves generic glue, a category that defies categorisation” (Luckhurst, 2017: 1042). A hybrid composition of science-fiction, horror, fantasy and the Gothic, the Weird is both elusive and ubiquitous, an inflection in texts which might otherwise fit into (m)any of the previous categories. The inverse of the eerie, which Mark Fisher aligns with the capacious question of “why is there nothing when there should be something?” (2016: 12), the Weird is characterised by a presence where absence is assumed, “a signal that the concepts and frameworks which we have previously employed are now obsolete” (2016: 14). Famously, H. P. Lovecraft originally proposed that “the true Weird tale must have something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains. A certain atmosphere of unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present” (1973: 15). Yet, to read Weird criticism is to see the limitless limited, to find a fluid form chronologically confined to two demarcations. Comfortably consigned to the ‘Old Weird’ and the ‘New Weird’, Weird criticism has an issue of scope.

Far from being Weird itself, there is something decidedly eerie about the canon of Weird Fiction, curious absences where one would expect to find presences. The Old Weird, commonly associated with authors such as Ambrose Bierce, E. F. Benson and William Hope Hodgson, is suggested to span the years 1880 to 1940 (Joshi, 1990; Miéville, 2009; Wicks, 2018), comprising the initial commercial boom of the mode, the establishment of Weird Tales in 1923 and the death of Lovecraft in 1937. The New Weird, meanwhile, was coined as a phrase in 2002 by M. John Harrison but is considered to have emerged critically and commercially with the release of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000). Argued to originate in either the 1980s (Noys & Murphy, 2016) or the 1990s (VanderMeer, 2008), the New Weird extends to the present and is characterised by an engagement with or rejection of Lovecraftian tropes, as well as heightened genre-mixing, grotesquery and politicisation. 

As this overview suggests, these classifications create unavoidable contradictions and omissions in the history of the Weird; fittingly, for a mode that articulates and dramatises the paradoxical, contradictory, obfuscatory and indeterminate. Yet, rather than these slippages giving rise to equally slippery criticism, the critical desire for procrustean definitions proves inescapable, even as those definitions strive against their selves. S. T. Joshi, by way of example, contends that “the need to establish some kind of provisional hierarchy of post-World War II weird fiction—a hierarchy based not upon popular appeal but actual literary merit—is pressing” (2003: 340). That Joshi sees the need for works to be weighed on “merit” enforces value judgements, whittling the Weird to one critic’s conception rather than embracing all its possible variations. Keith Green and Jill LeBihan neatly contextualise these consequences. They suggest, “whether the approach to chronology and literary history is thematic, author-centred, genre-centred or period-centred, the dominant impulse remains the same: to homogenise the past” (2001: 106).

Queer Theory provides an escape from such “professional orthodoxies” (Ford, 2007: 484), resisting attempts at singular definition. The creation of a rigidly bordered chronology is an act of cultivation, a pruning of the edges in order to enhance complementary traits and omit any outliers. Historically, minority groups—gender, sexuality or race—have existed in such margins. In an echo of the Weird’s malleability, Annamarie Jagose argues that “it is not simply that queer has yet to solidify and take on a more consistent profile, but rather that its definitional indeterminacy, its elasticity, is one of its constituent characteristics” (1998: 1). Whereas the desire to conceptualise the Weird sustains, the cryptographic quest to document its existence, Queer Theory surrenders such efforts. Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird’s later definition might easily be read as encapsulating the preoccupations of the Weird:


The unremitting emphasis in queer theoretical work on fluidity, über-inclusivity, indeterminacy, indefinability, unknowability, the preposterous, impossibility, unthinkability, unintelligibility, meaninglessness and that which is unrepresentable, is an attempt to undo narrative entanglements and fashion alternative imaginaries. (2008: 4)


Categorising Queer Theory has universally been viewed as its death. To reduce its challenges to a heteronormative history proves to be almost taboo. Critics have warned and mourned such a possibility, from David M. Halperin’s belief that “the more it verges on becoming a normative academic discipline, the less queer ‘queer theory’ can plausibly claim to be” (1995: 133), to Judith Butler’s proposal that “normalizing the queer would be, after all, its sad finish” (1994: 21). Yet, the Weird has seen no such impulses; still, it is dragged under the microscope as a scalpel is taken to its tentacles. By embracing the critical possibilities of Queer Theory, Weird Fiction might be allowed to be Weird again. As Michael Moorcock suggests, “Weird? We’re clearly comfortable with a term covering pretty much anything from absurdism to horror, even occasionally social realism” (2012: xi).

The Weird, then, might be considered as an inherently queer mode. Not regarding an explicit homosexuality—although, it has enabled such pieces, from ‘The Man Who Went Too Far’ (1912) by E. F. Benson to Poppy Z. Brite’s ‘His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood’ (1993); Caitlín R. Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl (2012) and Paul LaFarge’s The Night Ocean (2017), which explores Lovecraft’s own alternative sexuality—but how it exists beyond boundaries, beyond binaries. The Weird is a perversion of other literary forms and genres; it consumes elements from other works to construct its own gruesome body. It is Frankenstein’s monster, a Cronenbergian creation, frequently threatening to collapse in on itself. Much as ‘Queering’ has become an accepted term for “the rejection of all categorizations as limiting and labelled by dominant power structures” (Kirsch, 2001: 33), so too might ‘Weirding’.

Instead, Weird critics and practitioners attempt to enforce flawed categories, often in their efforts at definition. In The New Weird (2008), Jeff VanderMeer suggests that “the New Wave of the 1960s was the first stimulus to the New Weird”, while the second stemmed from the “unsettling grotesquery of such seminal 1980s work as Clive Barker’s Books of Blood” (2008: x). Yet, he neglects to include either movement within the Weird canon, stressing in the recommended reading that “this list includes some material that might be considered ‘stimuli’ to the New Weird rather than New Weird itself” (VanderMeer & VanderMeer, 2008: 406). VanderMeer insists that the New Weird “entered the literary world in the gap between the end of the miniature horror renaissance engendered by Barker and his peers and the publication of Perdido Street Station” (2008: x). Consequently, he attempts to camouflage its lacunae, maintaining a division between the Old and the New by conscientiously excluding the interstitial works.

Thus, while undeniably complex, adopting a more wholistic view of the Weird canon is a crucial endeavour for two reasons. It considers not only what comes after the Old Weird, but what comes before the New Weird, arguing that such designations are ultimately born from marketing—the heteronormative sphere of concise classification—rather than useful analytical terms. This is not to suggest that analysis of any one period of Weird Fiction is an unproductive exercise; quite the opposite, only through detailed consideration of specific decades can the development of the mode be charted. The issue lies instead in the blanket homogenisations and oversights that these current concepts create. The focus of this paper is therefore less on the creation of a rigid canonisation than on embracing, critically speaking, precisely the queer, anti-rigid and canon-defying protean energies of Weird as such.

Such an interrogation, rooted in the field of Genre Studies, initiates this paper due to its subsequent echoes. Clive Barker, the subject of this consideration, is one such author that has been excluded from the canon of the Weird due to these false constraints; a marginalised voice whose contributions have been silenced. Anne-Marie Wicks argues that, by concluding analysis of the Old Weird at the 1940s, and taking Lovecraft’s “Weird tale ideal as a sufficient definition of the genre” (2018: 166), Weird critics exclude the female authors who followed, such as Daphne du Maurier, Octavia E. Butler and Shirley Jackson. Such is certainly true, but might also be extended to queer writers such as Barker and William S. Burroughs.

Likewise, Barker’s mutability echoes that of the Weird and of Queer Theory. His works have been labelled as horror, anti-horror, Gothic, Splatterpunk, body horror, and, his own favoured term, the dark fantastique. Sorcha Ní Fhlainn explains that “as both an author and artist, Barker enjoys crossing generic boundaries and expectations, borrowing, blending and manipulating motifs … to achieve his vivid and very particular vision” (2017: 208). For the third time, heterogeneity is foregrounded within a body of work. This paper does not intend to add to these various designations, nor suggest Barker to be a Weird author beyond all else; he is all of those things; he is, perhaps, none. This study seeks only to reflect his experiments, as with almost all forms, within this field. When these contributions are considered, Barker emphasises the physical body where the Weird had previously focused on mental instability, alongside new explicit extremes of alternative sexuality. Barker therefore provides a crucial example of how the Weird might be, or might already have been, queered.

Clive Barker’s contributions to the bloody landscape of horror are almost universally recognised. Darryl Jones describes the six-volume Books of Blood (1984–1985) as “the most important work of British horror fiction of the 1980s. Together, the stories … are often cited as revolutionising modern horror” (2017: 25). Stephen King, with only a slight alteration, famously described him as ‘the future of horror’. Yet, the generous praise received by Barker perhaps pigeonholed him into a particular vision. As Kevin Corstorphine explains, “Hellraiser … cemented Barker in the public imagination as a purveyor of transgressive, sexually charged horror fiction. This perception, driven by market forces and fan culture, partly obscures the content of his early work, which is more varied and widely interesting than is often credited” (2017: 42). Indeed, Barker’s Books of Blood feature everything from Faustian farce in ‘The Yattering and Jack’, feminist fable in the story, ‘Jacqueline Ess: Her Will and Testament’, and a retelling of Poe in ‘New Murders in the Rue Morgue’. Courageous in their exploration of taboo, these stories also tackle necrophilia in ‘Sex, Death and Starshine’, bestiality in ‘Pig Boy Blues’, and frequent prostitution, pornography and sexual violence.

Looking beyond the Splatter with which he became synonymous, buried between the supposed frameworks of the Old Weird and the New Weird, Clive Barker’s ‘stimuli’ were in fact rewiring the very foundations of the Weird. Repeatedly, Barker turns to timeless Weird strategies for purposes uniquely his own. As Ramsey Campbell introduces, it is “not that he’s necessarily adverse to traditional themes, but they come out transformed when he’s finished with them” (1988: x). Tales such as ‘The Book of Blood’, ‘The Midnight Meat Train’, ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ and The Hellbound Heart (1986) each adhere to and subvert expectations of the Weird. This paper thus turns to Barker’s early works; well-plumbed, perhaps, but with David Bruckner’s new Hellraiser film just released—one which, by casting a trans actor as Pinhead, reasserts the base text’s explicit queerness—and a TV series in development, these fictions remain as relevant as they ever were.

Throughout its history, Weird Fiction has consistently unsettled what it is to be human and the limits of anthropocentric thought. Connecting these texts is a consistent undercutting of the human “by thematising the insufficiency of science and human reason to comprehend the universe” (Weinstock, 2016: 182–183). Weird tales are thus marked by frequent quests for forbidden knowledge, a probing of reality to determine its limits. The thirst for knowledge becomes an act of consumption. Sceptics and scientists abound, whether Dr. Raymond, the instigator of much of Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894), who argues that “all these things … are but dreams and shadows: the shadows that hide the real world from our eyes” (2022: 22), or Leon Kaufman from Barker’s ‘The Midnight Meat Train’, who, upon finding the cannibalistic guardians of New York City, is positioned as a witness to the Weird sublime: “he could not look away. Not that terror froze him as it had at the window. He simply wanted to watch” (1988: 31).

‘The Book of Blood’ initially follows such a formula. Dr. Florescu, with the assistance of a so-called medium, Simon McNeal, seeks to test the limits of the universe, exploring those “tantalizing hints of voices from another world” (1988: 2). Together, they scrutinise Number 65, Tollington Place, a house “no-one could possess … for long without insanity setting in” (1988: 1). David Punter suggests that in Weird tales, “protagonists are more likely to run the risk of being … ‘blinded by insight’: there is a kind of euphoria … of rapture” (2017: 45). Mick, one of two protagonists from ‘In the Hills, the Cities’, upon seeing the behemoth form of Popolac, a city erected out of its inhabitants bodies, faces this exact rapture as he seeks to join the city: “the earth was gone from beneath him. He was a hitchhiker with a god: the mere life he had left was nothing to him now, or ever. He would live with this thing, yes, he would live with it – seeing it and seeing it and eating it with his eyes until he died of sheer gluttony” (1988: 148).

Such a Weird sublime persists as Dr. Florescu’s research peels away the skin of reality: “the world was opening up: throwing her senses into an ecstasy, coaxing them into a wild confusion of functions. She was capable, suddenly, of knowing the world as a system, not of politics or religions, but as a system of senses, a system that spread out from the living flesh to the inert wood of her desk” (1988: 4–5). However, Barker’s deviations from tradition soon become apparent. The Weird frequently features apocryphal texts, works of pseudobibilia, whose very existence threatens their reader’s sanity; Lovecraft’s Necronomicon or Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, described as “this beautiful, stupendous creation, terrible in its simplicity, irresistible in its truth” (2010: 5). These works reveal the flaws in our reality, yet remain contained to their form. In ‘The Book of Blood’, such metaphysical texts are instead explicitly physical: “the revelation of life beyond flesh, written in flesh itself” (1988: 11). As punishment for mocking the dead, for deceitfully claiming to be in communion with spirits, Simon’s body is inscribed upon, as he becomes one such forbidden text:


He was one mass of blood now, from head to foot. She could see the marks, the hieroglyphics of agony on every inch of his torso, his face, his limbs … he’d be hanging in the air while they wrote on him from every side, plucking out the hair on his head and body to clear the page, writing in the armpits, writing on the eyelids, writing on his genitals, in the crease of his buttocks, on the soles of his feet. (1988: 9)


Clive Barker describes “sexuality as being this incredibly malleable, protean, changeable, wonderful, flowery thing” (1996: Online). Simon’s body likewise becomes malleable, simply a page upon which the exiled others can carve their silenced stories. Sorcha Ní Fhlainn explains that “the carved body marked by suppressed voices stands in not only for the ostracised queer body in the 1980s … but also reads as a revolutionary statement concerning contested subjectivities, obscene stories, and sexual narratives that refuse to remain hidden” (2017: 212–213). In this sense, Barker adapts the forbidden book into a record of queer existence; the unknowable other of the Weird is, with Barker, a violent intrusion of queerness upon our regular reality. They are “eloquent beyond words, their eyes spoke their agonies, their ghost bodies still bearing the wounds that had killed them” (1988: 6). Where before the metaphor was shrouded, queerness existing in the shadows, indeterminate and unformed, with Barker it forces itself into the foreground. Bodies, their bodies, our bodies, become inescapable; they become sites of violent resistance.

Moreover, Barker shifts the Weird narrative away from a desire for knowledge and towards a desire for sensation, once more grounding his work in physicality. As Dr. Florescu discovers, reality is revealed to be “a system of senses … that spread out from the living flesh” (1988: 5). Nowhere is this more explicit than in The Hellbound Heart, a violent Weird tale, rooted with themes of sadomasochism and incest. Here, the Cenobites—otherworldly beings which demonstrate the limits of sexuality—play the same role as Cthulhu, brutally revealing the bounds of human understanding. Only, instead of the truth of reality, it becomes the truth of pleasure.

The text opens with Frank Cotton, a man who had “exhausted the trivial delights of the human condition [and seeks] a fresh definition of joy” (2008: 46). Isolated, and performing a masturbatory ritual, Frank solves ‘The Lament Configuration’, a puzzle-box that doubles as a summoning tool for the Cenobites, “a means to break the surface of the real” (2008: 106). Barker positions this construction within a canon of transgressive literature, explicitly naming the Marquis de Sade’s, 120 Days of Sodom (1785). Once more, Frank evokes the Weird explorer, testing the limits of known reality. Through his experiments, he expects transcendence:


The doorway was even now opening to pleasures no more than a handful of humans had even known existed, much less tasted – pleasures which would redefine the parameters of sensation, which would release him from the dull round of desire, seduction and disappointment which had dogged him from late adolescence. He would be transformed by that knowledge, wouldn’t he? No man could experience the profundity of such feeling and remain unchanged. (2008: 6)


Only, upon their arrival, the “rending of the veil”, Frank’s anthropocentric attitude towards pleasure is revealed. The Cenobites possess knowledge beyond human limits; Frank realises with fear, and no small amount of excitement, that “there was no pleasure in the air; or at least not as humankind understood it” (2008: 16). Barker explains that “erotic appetites … are so often a source of bitter dissension and division. Acts that offer a glimpse of transcendence to one group are condemned by another. We are pressured from every side … to accept the consensual definition of taboo; though so often what excites our imaginations most is the violation of taboo” (1997: Online). The Cenobites offer transcendence, yet the price is not insanity, but the violent destruction of the body.

Frank realises that this world of pleasure, of bodily sensation, is far from what he had anticipated: “he had expected something different. Expected some sign of the numberless splendours they had access to. He had thought they would come with women, at least” (2008: 8–9). Frank’s desires reveal his heteronormative perception of pleasure; he hoped for “oiled women, milked women, women shaved and muscled for the act of love”. Instead, Queer bodies intrude, the Cenobites having “gender [without] any certainty” (2008: 7). George Batailles wrote that “eroticism is first of all the most moving of realities; but it is nonetheless, at the same time, the most ignoble … it is horrible, it is tragic, it is still inadmissible. Probably all the more so since it is divine” (1986). Indeed, the Cenobites are described as “hierophants” (2008: 6) and “theologians” (2008: 4), objects of “religious devotion” (Głowala, 2014, 169).

As with Dr. Fortescu, the removal of the veil is centred on sensation. Frank describes how “it seemed he could suddenly feel the collision of the dust-motes with his skin. Every drawn breath chafed his lips; every blink, his eyes” (1986: 12). This revelation does not peel away reality to expose humankind’s insignificance; still, it foregrounds the body. Frank states “there was more inside than out” (2008: 13). Frank simply cannot understand this dimension of sexuality: “they had overdosed him on sensuality, until his mind teetered on madness, then they’d initiated him into experiences that his nerves still convulsed to recall. They called it pleasure; and perhaps they’d meant it. Perhaps not. It was impossible to know with these minds: they were so hopelessly, flawlessly ambiguous” (2008: 48). In typical Weird fashion, Frank realises his anthropocentric failings; he realises that ‘His real error had been the naïve belief that his definition of pleasure significantly overlapped with that of the Cenobites.’ (2008: 48)

When placed in the canon of the Weird, Barker thus contextualises much. Embracing alternative sexualities, Barker laid the groundwork for works including Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, which opens with a sexual encounter between Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and Lin, an insectoid Khepri. Lin’s descriptions echo the knowing perversion of many of Barker’s protagonists: “her muscles were tight under her red skin, each distinct. She was like an anatomical atlas. Isaac studied her in cheerful lust” (2008: Kindle). Likewise, the placement of the body as a site of gleeful resistance echoes through M. John Harrison’s short story, ‘The New Rays’ (1982). These works are not distinctively ‘New’ but in fact continuations of Barker’s ideas, which themselves picked up on the Weird’s previous legacy. It is thus unjust to describe Clive as a stimuli, when he was a pioneer, a key figure in the development of Weird Fiction. Clive rewrote the Weird, revelling in the gruesome, chaotic and the queer. Perhaps, the same could be done for Weird critique.


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