Wonderland in Metroland: Doyle, Blake, and Clive Barker’s WEAVEWORLD

WEAVEWORLD paperback cover

I just finished rereading Clive Barker’s Weaveworld, the 1987 fantasy which sees a world of magic, concealed for a century in an enchanted carpet, unleashed on contemporary Britain. It’s timely: I’ve been writing about the borderland between adult and YA literature lately, and I read the book when I was just starting high school.

Researching this post, I couldn’t find many reviews of Weaveworld online. It feels overlong, and probably isn’t the greatest fantasy novel of all time, but twenty years ago Barker’s novel blew me away. I’d been reluctant to read it, based on a preview in the back of Barker’s Cabal (the novella filmed as Nightbreed). I didn’t give it much of a chance: magic carpets seemed silly to my pubescent self, even when they didn’t fly. Even Cabal I’d only read because I liked horror, and the video game of the movie was kind of awesome, to a preteen fan of video nasties.

You don’t need to watch much of the dull Nightbreed game video below to realise how badly I was bewitched at this stage.

“Interactive movies”, where are you now?

One day I took my cousin’s copy of Weaveworld from his attic room. I must have finished all the Stephen King on his shelves. Weaveworld‘s pages are still thick with the smell of my cousin’s black cherry roll ups after twenty years.

Despite my bad experience with the Cabal preview, Barker’s book entranced me from the start. Our hero Cal Mooney lives with his dad and works in an insurance office. He sets off through Liverpool’s suburbs one day in search of a homing pigeon which has strayed. Finding it, he catches a glimpse of the Fugue, the world of magic which has been concealed inside a carpet. He joins forces with Suzanna Parrish, a sculptor who inherits the duty of protecting the Fugue from her grandmother.

Many seek to exploit or destroy the Weaveworld: vengeful sorceress Immacolata and her ghostly sisters; Shadwell, a creepy Salesman whose enchanted jacket promises you your heart’s desires; and Hobart, a remorseless police inspector who views all this supernature as an affront to the law.

Liverpool skyline
Liverpool Skyline by Flickr user Groovyhalo – CC licensed

Weaveworld is a nightmare of flesh and generation. The Fugue is made, unmade, and warped by a process of asexual reproduction. Villains are undone by their insistence on chastity, but our young heroes don’t become lovers because “we’re too much alike”. A kind of witchcraft draws on the female magic of the “menstruum”. Through the work of the corrupt and fecund Magdalene, our heroes’ own by-blows are turned against them in monstrous form. The uncompromising policeman who persecutes our heroes echoes “God’s Cop”, James Anderton, the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester who was renowned for his hardline tactics and clashes with the gay community in the 1980s.

It was all pretty heady stuff for high school me. But it probably did more to stimulate my imagination, and critical thinking, then sneaking off to show friends the exploding head bit from Scanners over and over.

Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights
Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

The novel features a fine moment where Suzanna and the policeman Hobart are trapped within a book of fairy tales. She assumes that she is being forced into the traditional role of maiden, and he the dragon, only to realise that the uptight villain is a virgin and she the monster who will devour him:

Suzanna becomes the Dragon in WEAVEWORLD
Suzanna becomes the Dragon. From Clive Barker’s Weaveworld

For me, the most compelling thing about Weaveworld is its seemingly effortless location of this dark fairytale magic within the suburban world of terraced houses, in-laws, and train timetables. (Cal twice thwarts the villains through two very different uses of the Liverpool railway schedule).

During a recent online discussion about Young Adult and “literary” fiction, Louie Stowell pondered the need for an “adult literature of joy” in an age when adult readers turn to YA books for escapism.

If we allow that to include something weirder and more wonderful, “joy” as Hieronymous Bosch would depict it…well, Weaveworld might not be the literature of that promised land, but perhaps its precursor. It does suggest that one day there might be a literary love child of Roddy Doyle and William Blake.

You can feel Doyle himself pushing at those limits in a 2014 Irish Times interview about writing for kids and adults:

[Writing for children] allows me to use a part of my imagination that’s closed – no, not closed, but not as wide open as it is when I’m writing for adults. There’s elbow room in a children’s story.

If I’m writing a novel about a middle-aged man with bowel cancer, the dog isn’t going to start talking to him – and I don’t want the dog to start talking to him. But it seems a shame not to allow dogs talk now and again. […] It would probably do him good if the dog started talking to him.

(In my dreams – and, I suspect, in Barker’s – the dog does talk to the man with cancer, and it’s a good thing. The boundaries between dreams and reality are more permeable than realist fiction would care to admit).

Barker’s magic carpet book for grown-ups begins by concealing the supernatural in attics and dull brick alleys. It reminds us that magic lives in the mundanity of metroland, as well as sites distant or dreamed – and in doing so, it binds its wonders to real concerns about identity and justice, anticipating the world where the poetics of Blake and Doyle could yet be yoked together.

Intrigued? You can find the original piece on transcending the boundaries of literary fiction on my site.

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