I believe I read a Clive Barker novel about fifteen years ago, but I have no idea what it was. It was not Imajica. A few years ago, I read some of his short stories, and this reinforced the conception I had of Barker as a horror writer, which isn’t really my thing.
Still, Imajica came up on my radar for some reason, and I decided to give it a go.
Wow. I’m so glad I did.
It’s going to be fairly difficult to describe anything about this book. It’s very weird, but in a wildly inventive and wonderful way. There are some gory images here and there, but I’d most certainly not classify it as horror. It’s more of a surrealist examination of spirituality. I’d liken it to Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain.
I’ll try to set up the premise to give you an idea of the bizarre-ness, though, the whole point of the novel shifts by about 1/10 of the way through.
There are Five Dominions. Earth, as we humans know it, is the Fifth Dominion. We’ve never seen these other magical places.
There’s a longtime conspiracy of people (I use this term lightly) making up a secret society to keep the Fifth Dominion separate from the other four. There is a way in though.
The novel begins with a man who is so in love with a woman, Judith, that he hires an assassin to kill her after she breaks up with him (obviously, so she can’t be with anyone else).
He has second thoughts and contacts Judith’s ex, Gentle, to stop the assassin. Gentle miraculously succeeds in doing this. The assassin, Pie, is a being from one of these other dominions that doesn’t really have a gender. It becomes basically whatever its lover wants to see in it.
Pie seduces Gentle by appearing to be Judith. Gentle learns of what it did, and Pie takes Gentle into the other dominions. They gradually fall in love.
Also, a billion other things are going on by this point, so don’t think that’s “really” the story. It’s about revelation, separation, unity, isolation, love, sex, power, God, redemption, finding meaning, culture, and on and on.
Clive Barker’s Writing
The novel isn’t done in a way that tries to be about everything and ends up being about nothing. I hate when that happens.
This novel really tackles the big questions in a focused and metaphorical way. It just so happens that these big questions encompass all those other things.
Here are some things I think the book does really well. There is a gigantic amount of information hidden to the reader: the conspiracy, how these other dominions run, the cultures there, the background on the conflicts, why the Fifth is separated, and so on.
Barker manages to slip this information to the reader in gradual and subtle doses over 600 pages or more. This means the novel stays story-centric and engaging with almost no information dumps.
It’s actually kind of brilliant how he does this. Often, you will hear things that make no sense. This causes you to reconcile your view of what’s going on with your existing theory. It’s only after you’ve done this many times that the full picture comes into focus.
Another thing I didn’t expect was how good the prose was. I expected genre horror writing full of stock prose: nothing bad but nothing great either. Instead, I found excellent execution of register shifting (often thought to be the most advanced and subtle techniques of prose style).
Register shifts refer to changing the type of language used to adapt to a situation. For example, if you’re hanging out with some friends, you might say, “‘Sup?” This is an informal register.
If you’re at a job interview, you might say, “Hello. How are you doing? It is very good to meet you.” This is a formal register.
The thing that makes this so difficult in prose writing is that the context of the scene must determine the proper register. When you first try to do this, it will probably be overdone, and this will change the voice. It must be done with enough subtlety so the voice remains consistent and only the register of the voice changes.
Most people will never notice if a writer has done this well. It is usually obvious when a writer doesn’t do it or overdoes it. We tend to say the writing fell “flat” in an absence of register shifts (a great term because there weren’t any up or downshifts in register).
Clive Barker uses this technique in Imajica by having the register reflect the dominion we’re in. This is because as the dominions get closer to the First, the people get closer to God. The register shifts up to indicate the formality and ritualistic nature of religion. Take an early scene.
Gentle took off his heavy coat and laid it on the chair by the door, knowing when he returned it would be warm and covered with cat hairs. Klein was already in the living room, pouring wine. Always red.
This is quite low. There’s even a sentence fragment. The sentences are simple and to the point. The descriptors are common.
Now take a midway scene in a different dominion.
Like the theater districts of so many great cities across the Imajica, whether in Reconciled Dominions or in the Fifth, the neighborhood in which the Ipse stood had been a place of some notoriety in earlier times, when actors of both sexes had supplemented their wages with the old five-acter—hiring, retiring, seduction, conjunction, and remittance—all played hourly, night and day.
This single sentence is almost double the length of the entire three sentences above. The structure is quite complicated: subordinate clause, appositive, etc. This is an elevated register.
The same sentence in a lower register would be “Whores could be found on the streets of the city in which the Ipse stood.” We could lower it even more or raise it to more formal levels than what was written. But it strikes a delicate balance of beautiful description in elevated voice.
I know it’s kind of mind-boggling to think that Barker did all this, but I noticed it early and then paid close attention. It is consistent throughout, which makes me think it is not some accident or coincidence.
Theme and Symbols in Imajica
The symbolism is amazing. It draws on, and reinterprets, many famous Biblical stories. I can’t get into it, because I don’t want to give anything away if you haven’t read the book. It is some of the best of this type of writing I’ve seen. It isn’t so direct as to be cringe-worthy, and it is all done in an inventive re-imagining.
One of the central reoccurring themes is also one of the oldest themes in literature. It has to do with power and corruption. The reason that Earth remains separate from the other dominions is that it hasn’t been “reconciled.”
There are humans on Earth that come close to finding out the truth. These are inspired individuals or scientists or whoever. But there’s a conspiracy to keep the Fifth Dominion pure and un-corrupted by magic.
These powerful people, in a sense, are running the universe and can, themselves, be corrupted. This could come across as tired and banal, but Barker manages to keep everything fresh with the inventiveness of the worlds and their politics.
Symbolically, Barker has chosen a brilliant profession for Gentle. Recall from above that Gentle is an art forger. What could be more indicative of Earth’s status as a dominion than pulling the wool over people’s eyes about the truth of a painting?
Gentle produces the exact type of trickery on other people on a small scale as the conspiracy he gets involved with does on a grand scale.
Gentle also has a bunch of different names coming from reinventing himself dozens of times over his life. This makes Gentle into a sort of microcosm of the Imajica.
Pie draws out themes of Yin/Yang, paradox, and prejudice. We first encounter Pie as an assassin and highly sexual being. As humans, our first inclination is to cast this character as debauched or immoral. But, over the course of the novel, we come to see Pie as an almost naively innocent being and totally pure.
If you’re an aspiring writer or just a lover of books, you absolutely must give this a go. It’s daunting in size, and the name Clive Barker or “horror” might scare you off. You shouldn’t let these things have control over you.
Imajica is excellent and an example of how literature can transcend ordinary story to get you to think about deep important topics in a new light. I think what I’m trying to say is that it is a true work of art.
You might also like my article on Roberto Bolano’s 2666.