Book Review: Sacrament by Clive Barker

Sacrament by Clive Barker
Sacrament by Clive Barker
HarperCollins 1996

Like many of my generation, I went through a Clive Barker phase when I was a teenager. The Hellraiser movies, Nightbreed, Candyman; his novels, The Great and Secret Show and Imajica. He defined dark and edgy for me, and he was much cooler than Stephen King.

Sacrament was the first new-to-me Clive Barker novel I’d read in over two decades. It wasn’t what I expected.

Because of his early work, Mr. Barker is too easily dismissed as a horror writer, albeit one who incorporates a greater portion of magic and fantasy than most. This has never been entirely fair—his best novels have always been more than just horror, as fantastical as they are horrible, works of unfettered imagination.

Sacrament casts off any chains previously tying Mr. Barker to the horror genre. There’s darkness in it, and danger, but it’s definitively not a horror novel.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what sort of novel this is. I’m not even sure that’s the right question to ask. Perhaps magical realism comes closest.

Like much of his work, Sacrament is fascinated by the relationship between reality and illusion, between the mind and dreams, between perception and meaning. Ultimately, it’s obsessed with the relationships people have with each other, and the power these relationships have to define our world.

However, compared to his earlier work, Sacrament is more explicitly grounded in real, present day issues (present day for 1996, when it was released). Mr. Barker is concerned here with environmentalism and gay culture. He clearly wants to make a statement about our responsibility to the planet and to each other.

This book is overtly spiritual—it’s a clearer expression of his Christian faith than his previous work.

Mr. Barker’s writing style tends to be rather florid. As I get older, I find I have less patience for over-written stories. Too often, authors resort to overwrought language in an attempt to present their work as more significant than it really is.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Mr. Barker’s writing style didn’t bother me. Indeed, his floridness is somehow perfectly appropriate to the story. His vision is so complete, so clear, so compelling, it needs no help to achieve significance. His language comes across not as a crutch, but as an honest attempt to describe that vision as accurately as possible.

Ultimately, though, Sacrament isn’t his best work. It won’t sit on the shelf next to Imajica or The Great and Secret Show when people assess Mr. Barker’s literary legacy. Which is too bad, because I get the feeling that Sacrament may be one of his most personal books. I think he wanted this one to really mean something.

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