By Clive Barker (Harper Collins;1989)
Definitely an interesting and unique novel, but a complete success? No.
The 650-page GREAT AND SECRET SHOW is enlivened by Clive Barker’s smooth, erudite prose, which as always is a joy to read. His imagination is also as fertile as ever, even though THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW contains many overly familiar elements from Barker’s fiction: young lovers in danger, obsessive madmen and an alternate universe filled with a plethora marvels and horrors (all of which are present in THE DAMNATION GAME, WEAVEWORLD, IMAGICA and this novel’s 1994 sequel EVERVILLE).
That seriously wonky title adequately encapsulates this horror/fantasy epic’s charms, and its shortcomings as well. THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW is the most monumental of Clive Barker’s early (pre-1990) novels but also the most cluttered, lacking the leanness of THE DAMNATION GAME and WEAVEWORLD. Those books may have been expansive, but they were also concise, something THE GREAT AND SECRET SHOW isn’t.
It begins in riveting fashion with Jaffe, a dissatisfied man harboring grandiose ambitions sent to work in the dead letters office of Omaha, Nebraska, effectively the center of the United States. There Jaffe, intercepting countless missives from all over the country, becomes privy to something The Art.
The Art allows its practitioners to bend the fabric of reality and open the pathway to a magnificent dream-sea called Quiddity, where every person swims three times in his/her life: at birth, upon first falling in love and at death. Jaffe’s ambitions are stoked by this knowledge, and he grows determined above all else to become proficient in The Art.
Jaffe’s quest takes him across the country to a place in Mexico, where he partners with a renegade inventor named Fletcher. The latter has invented a machine capable of molding reality in a manner much like The Art. This commences a lengthy struggle between Jaffe and Fletcher that somehow ends in a small Southern California town. It provides the setting for much of the remainder of the tale, to which the above was but a lengthy preamble.
What follows is perverse, grotesque and action packed, incorporating incest, transmutation, necrophilia, time travel and mass carnage. There are some great monsters on display, including vicious shit-creatures, some nasty beasties created from peoples’ base desires, and a race of vermin-ridden behemoths called the Iad Uboros, who are saved for the end (serving essentially the same function as the horrific Scourge who shows up in the final third of WEAVEWORLD).
As for human characters, there are quite a few of them (so many I had trouble telling them apart), but the only one who really resonates is Jaffe. Also on hand is an apparent comment on Hollywood culture, as represented by the So Cal setting and a mid-book party attended by a bunch of celebrities, but whatever Barker was trying to say on the subject is drowned out in the tumult that overtakes the narrative around page 400…and doesn’t let up until the end.