I last read The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker back when I was a teenager. I loved it then. I wasn’t sure how I’d react to it as an adult.
I’m happy to report the writing holds up really well. It stands the tests of time and experience. This novel is still staggeringly imaginative, exciting, and moving.
What makes this novel unique—what makes many of Mr. Barker’s novels unique—is a narrative structure built on an escalating series of crises and climaxes. The conflict that opens the story would be the climax of an entire novel in the hands of a lesser writer. For Mr. Barker, however, it’s just the beginning. Then he ramps up to another conflict and climax, and another, and another—building tension and emotional investment to a fever pitch.
His vision is so sweeping, so huge, so detailed and encompassing, he needs multiple crises and narrative climaxes in order to hold it all and do it justice.
His imagination works on a grander scale than the rest of us. It impresses me as much now as it did when I was younger.
Unfortunately, there’s one aspect of The Great and Secret Show that doesn’t work for me as an adult:
The love-at-first-sight romance between Howie and Jo-Beth is a lot harder for me to accept this time around.
I know it’s supposed to reinforce a sense of Fate that’s central to the mysteries of the story, and it’s necessary to fuel one of the major conflicts between characters. On that level it works fine.
But Howie’s actions demonstrate a painfully adolescent concept of love. I can’t find the same emotional power in it that it wielded when I was younger. Indeed, I’m a bit embarrassed to recall how moving their relationship was for me when I was, myself, adolescent.
Mostly, though, as an adult, what I see in Howie now is yet another man who thinks it’s romantic to ignore when a woman says no and to bull through every attempt she makes to set limits. Yet another man who’s certain that he knows what she wants better than she knows herself. Yet another man whose concept of persistence blurs the line between romance and stalking.
It made me deeply uncomfortable. I suppose, though, I should be impressed that Mr. Barker remembers so clearly what love feels like as a teenager and depicted it so accurately.
Otherwise, I found this book to be just as enjoyable now as it was when I was teenager. It was a most welcome discovery.