Clive Barker
Abarat Cover

Weird and Wonderful


Clive Barker's YA novel Abarat (2002) began in 1995 as a series of oil paintings depicting fantasy images. His website says: "He began to think of them as the illustrations for a collection of 25 tales; a 'Book of Hours' which would describe all the emotions of a day, hour by hour (with an extra, mystical 25th hour)." This land of hours eventually became Abarat, an archipelago in the sea of Izabella, containing twenty-five islands, on each one it is perpetually a single hour of the day. However, Barker scrapped the short stories and ended up writing a novel about Abarat and the adventures of sixteen-year-old Candy Quackenbush that take place there. Abarat is a beautifully illustrated book, full of weird and outrageous creatures that populate the islands, the sea, and the sky. The size and the placement of the illustrations are wonderfully varied. Some are full-page portraits and others inhabit the margins of the page, like a medieval book of hours. Some illustrations have clear boundaries, and others flow with the text. The story is good, but the story with Barker's illuminations is better.

The world of Abarat couldn't be more different from this world than prairie-bound Chickentown, Minnesota, where Candy lives. Her father, an abusive alcoholic, has been fired from the chicken plant. Now he sits in his chair all day, drinking beer and watching TV. Candy, her mother, and her brothers tiptoe around the house hoping that he will not notice them. When Candy's teacher gives an assignment in which the students should report facts about Chickentown. Candy learns that the town was once called Murkitt, after a local family whose members have all died. The teacher berates Candy (because of her inability to follow the "party-line" of Chickentown propaganda). Candy stand up for herself and is sent to the office. Instead of walking to the office as she is told, Candy walks out of the school and down a street that dead ends into the prairie grasslands.

And she keeps walking until she meets a strange character named John Mischief. Mischief is a burglar extraordinaire from Abarat. Upon his head are two branching horns like a deer's. Hanging on the right horn are his brothers, John Fillet, John Sallow, and John Moot. Hanging on the left horn are John Drowse, John Pluckitt, John Serpent, and John Slop. The forms these brothers take are a small heads. (His portrait is on the right side of the middle row on the book.) Each brother has his own personality and opinions. Candy helps John Mischief escape from Mendelson Shape, the henchman of Christopher Carrion, the Lord of Midnight. Thus, her adventure begins as she decides to accompany Mischief back to Abarat and leave her less-than-desirable life in Chickentown behind.

As the first book in a series, Abarat sets the scene of the wonderful world of the archipelago and introduces the readers to its odd inhabitants: hybridity, anthromorphism, and monstrosities abound. Because the book is written in the picaresque style, Candy moves from dangerous situation to dangerous situation, pursued by the book's villains and aided by characters who the reader assumes will move in and out of her adventure through the next books in the series.

Barker creates three villains. The first Carrion lives on the island of Gorgossium, the midnight island/hour. He wants to bring the archipelago into complete darkness so that it is always midnight, always the witching hour. He sees in Candy something familiar and wants to possess her. He's unsure if she represents a glorious (in his terms) future for him or if her arrival is one of the first signs of his downfall. Even more evil than Carrion is his grandmother Mater Motley. She inhabits the Thirteenth Tower on Gorgossium and spends her time making stitchlings, creatures whose skins are sewn together patchworks of other creatures and whose insides are filled with mud--a bit of Frankenstein and a bit of golem. Carrion and his grandmother represent the traditional evil magicians in fantasy texts, while Rojo Pixler represents an interesting "modern" villain. He owns the island of Pyon, the island of Three in the Morning, and built Commexo City on it. He turned 3 am into a well-lit place of play and pleasure, a kind of Arabat version of Las Vegas. His company Commexo and its advertising icon the Commexo Kid sell Panacea, "for everything that ails you, from toe-rot to taxes" (160). Samuel Hastrim Klepp the Fifth tells Candy that Pixler wants "Control. Of all of us. Of all the islands. He wants to be King of the World. He wouldn't use the word king because it's old-fashioned. But that's what he wants" (164). Similarly, Klepp or one of his ancestors wrote in Klepp's Almenak: "Rojo Pixler has no interest in the past. He looks only toward tomorrow. A life lived in perpetual expectation may be a fine thing for a time, but it's a young man's game. Mister Pixler has apparently yet to be touched by the shadow of its own mortality" (Appendix xviii). Candy, for Pixler, represents his entrance to a new market, the Hereafter, Abarat's name for the Candy's world. He wants to sell Panacea there as well. The book ends with Carrion and Pixler each in pursuit of Candy, who has been separated from John Mischief. Mischief has begun his own quest for the lost hero Finnegan Hob with a group of Hob's friends. Each storyline offers infinite possibilities that I hope to experience in the sequels: Days of Magic, Nights of War (2004) and Absolute Midnight (2011). According to Barker's website, he's currently painting the images for books four and five in the series.

Abarat is smart and fun. Barker loves language; therefore, his writing is playful and interesting. Only occasionally does he stumble into sentences that seem to be saying "look what I can do." While following many of the formulae for coming-of-age and quest stories, Abarat is just original enough not to seem derivative. Its rhythms, plotting and characters are unpredictable, yet comfortable.