Clive Barker: Nightbreed


I’ve just heard that there’s a conference on Clive Barker in Dublin this summer (details here). I’m a huge fan (especially of his earlier work – I’ve found his most recent stuff less taught and kind of lacks restraint) and I’d love to be able to attend if only I had the time. Sadly I don’t so, in place of a presentation, here’s a foreshortened version of something  I cooked up a while ago while trying to think through how Barker’s sexuality might be expressed in his writing. It’s on his book Cabal (1988), which made an ill-fated transition to screen in 1990 (starring David Cronenberg!) and which, I try to show, represents Barker’s engagement with the notion of gay and lesbian identity and manifestations of the gay community around the end of the 1980s.

Beasts, Visions and Everything: Clive Barker’s Queer Ethics

Chances are, you walk into any bookshop on the high street and Clive Barker’s books won’t be in the gay and lesbian section, in spite of the fact that he is openly gay and has, it’s said, a “particularly loyal gay reading audience.”[1] To find his work, it’s more likely that you’ll have to push past the hirsute, be-speckled men and women huddled around the fantasy and horror section[2] but though his work is more often found alongside the likes of King and Koontz rather than Maupin and Waters doesn’t mean that his books ignore the reality of living as a gay man. It’s my contention that his work consistently displays a consciousness of, and a willingness to deal with, those political and cultural currents which changed and are still changing the face of sexuality and the sexual subject as we know it. Play, short story and novel engage, albeit obliquely, with an ethical responsibility to explore these issues while providing signposts which point towards a new future for gays, straights and all those in-between…

Barker’s 1988 novel Cabal: The Nightbreed is a very queer narrative which simultaneously celebrates past incarnations of gay and lesbian identity while looking towards the future of queer identifications and their influence on mainstream society. The story’s hero is Aaron Boone, a guy who’s always known he was different from those around him: a “beast”; a “monster.” He goes in search of Midian, a city of monsters on the outskirts of society, talked about only in myth. Finding it, he finally learns to be at peace with the beast inside but his girlfriend, Lori, follows him and soon Midian attracts the attention of the local police chief, who sets about destroying it. When he succeeds in doing so, Midian’s citizens are scattered but its original founder bequeaths the responsibility to Boone (renamed Cabal), to create a new Midian out in the world. Its former occupants expectantly look to the coming of Cabal and the new Midian.

From the outset, Cabal is coded as a gay text in the coming out mode, beginning with the trope of this “unhappy young man,” Boone. Sexually inept in his dealings with women (“women had given up on him, unforgiving of his failure”[3]), we are told he finds himself living a “half-life,” (28) feeling out of place in mainstream society. As a result of his abnormality, he’s full of self-loathing and riddled with guilt at the “obscenities” (31) in his mind. This makes him susceptible to the suggestions of his psychologist, Decker (a murderer and official villain of the piece), who convinces him that his inner urges are pathological and murderous. Shown photos of murders he is supposed to have committed, homosexuality in particular (homophobically invoked as “shit eating”) is conflated with murder: “he tasted his breakfast in the back of his throat or the meal the night before rising from his bowels against nature. Shit in his mouth like the dirt of this deed” (19). All this leads to his severe depression and attempted suicide.

While he’s recovering in hospital, however, this increasingly unhappy young man suddenly finds himself buoyed by the possible existence of others like him and the unveiling of a whispered subculture:

He’d heard the name of that place spoken maybe half a dozen times by people he’d met on the way through […] When they called on Midian, it was a place of refuge, a place to be carried away to. And more; a place where whatever sins they’d committed-real or imagined-would be forgiven them. (31)

When he is accepted into Midian as Nightbreed, he quickly assumes his new identity and becomes comfortable being among others of his own kind. The elders of the city begin to teach him his history, the history of the beasts and the dead of Midian. Decker witnesses the full transformative power of the subculture when he encounters Boone in the cemetery: “This was the scapegoat, yet not. So much not […] No scapegoat’s voice this, hushed with guilt. It was a yell of fury” (119).[4]

Cabal sees Barker emphatically equate Midian’s subculture to gay/lesbian subculture of the 1980s: the police chief, for instance, equates the living dead of Midian and homosexuality “Zombies belonged in the late movie like sodomy on a lavatory wall. They have no place in the real world” (179). However, one of the stronger – but less explicit – elements which appears to link Midian to gay/lesbian subcultures is Barker’s own brand of “reverse discourse,” that procedure, famously outlined by Foucault in The History of Sexuality, whereby the category of homosexuality, initially utilized to determine and denigrate deviation from the norm, mutates into a site of collectivity and empowerment.  The monsters of Midian are each different from another, both in appearance (compare, say the “dog-headed painter” with the machinic beasts “running up the wall on calliper legs” (136)) and philosophical outlook (Rachel and Babette, for instance, have very divergent views on the place of Lori in Midian). Yet, by their being labelled monstrous by the dominant society, they are given a name to inhabit, coming together as a community and founding a place where they can live and whence others of their kind can come. They have learned to embrace their beastly identity.[5]

Yet here also lies the heart of what I consider to be Barker’s project: much as the transformative and beneficial properties of the Midian subculture are emphasised, the place is ultimately presented as restricting. Those who ostensibly belong in it are cut off from the outside and are forced to reject past ties. Further, it is exclusive and impenetrable to the uninitiated. The fact that the citizens of Midian have embraced wholeheartedly their beastliness and monstrosity has led to the reification of boundaries and binaries which cause this exclusivity. It draws a beast like Narcisse who gives Boone a foretaste of this: “ ‘[Monsters], they’re the only ones welcome in Midian’ Narcisse explained ‘if you’re not a beast you’re a victim. That’s true, isn’t it? You can only be one or the other’ ” (35). It engenders a monster like Peloquin, who reiterates: “You’re not Nightbreed. You’re meat. Meat for the beast”(52). However necessary the policing of boundaries may be for the survival of Midian, it simply recreates the ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy prevalent within mainstream society and it seems clear that nothing is solved or changed by their maintenance of an ‘up there’ / ‘down here’ binary. It is a rule which almost results in the death of Lori at the hands of Decker because of their reticence to venture outside: “they’d not endanger their hermitage for a human life”(115). In this hermitage they can hide away from the assaults of the world but close themselves off too, restricting themselves and ultimately propagating the binary which initially oppressed them.

This problematic is evident in debates about queer subculture and lesbian and gay identities dating from around the time Barker wrote Cabal. Discomfort with the kind of “strategic essentialism” exemplified by the Midians prompted critics like Dennis Altman to write:

[At the end of the seventies] the push in the Anglo-Saxon world for protection from discrimination is in effect an attempt to redefine homosexuals as a legitimate minority group. Such a definition, for all the immediate benefits it may produce also has the effect of reinforcing the popular prejudice that homosexuals are a distinct and recognisable group, rather than the realisation of a potential open to all.[6]

Just three years after the publication of Cabal, Diana Fuss writes in her introduction to Inside/Out of a necessity to refrain from thinking in terms of binaries such as homo/hetero and outside/inside (and, here we might add, human/monster): “Many of the current efforts in gay and lesbian theory […] have begun the difficult but urgent textual work necessary to call into question the stability and ineradicability of the hetero/homo hierarchy, suggesting that new (and old) sexual possibilities are no longer thinkable in terms of an inside/outside dialectic.”[7] More recently, Alan Sinfield reiterates Fuss’ comments: “We have to entertain the thought that ‘gay’ as we have produced it and lived it, and perhaps ‘lesbian’ also, are historical phenomena and may now be hindering us more than they help us.”[8] To this end, Barker articulates another vision: that opening up the subculture may be more beneficial than locking up the gates and this queer vision is articulated through the character of Lori.

If this is a text in which positive transformations are foregrounded, then I would propose that we consider Lori’s transformation to be just as significant as that of Boone’s. Through her encounters with the monsters, her world view undergoes a remarkable mutation. Barker’s narration lingers over these moments in order to demonstrate the assault on Lori’s preconceived notions of normality and naturalness that confrontations with the monsters pose. Her first encounter with the monster Babette forces her to consider the shaky ground upon which her normative notions are built:

Impossible, reason repeated. But somewhere in her gut, Lori had already given up trying to deny […] Every moment she wasted saying No to what she knew, was a moment lost to comprehension. That her world couldn’t contain such a mystery without shattering was its liability. (92-93)

But fear of the other causes her to reinstate the binary (isn’t this is what reifies the self/other dyad?), only to have it broken down again and again. Having encountered this other and having seen through her eyes, she can never return to thinking a world without these mysteries and so, following an arduous process (which Barker‘s narrative explores in detail) Part V: “The Good Night” opens with a depiction of her blossoming in the new knowledge she has gained. The tone is triumphant:

Some vital part of her, head or heart or both had made its peace with Midian and all it contained […] the monsters of Midian -transforming, rearranging ambassadors of tomorrow’s flesh and reminders of yesterday’s- seemed so full of possibilities […] She’d been touched by knowledge that changed her inner landscape out of all recognition. There was no way back to the bland pastures of adolescence and early womanhood. She had to go forward. (188).

If we are to consider the subculture of Midian to be directly analogous to gay and lesbian subcultures, then how do we interpret Lori’s transformation? It seems to me, that through the world of Midian, Barker seeks to challenge the system of the queer subculture as it existed at the time: he considers its position on the periphery of society as restricting, as the terminology used to denote a member of that subculture ( “monster,” for instance, hardly accurately describes Boone, future heir of Baphomet and the Nightbreed, when he first arrives at the gates of Midian). Looking at the change which comes over Lori, and the emphasis the author places on documenting the emotional minutiae of that change, I would argue that he suggests an opening up of the subcultural category i.e. what it means to be queer, so that queers and straights could find more room to maneuver within their sexuality and that both might work together to demolish the normative and the binary logic out of which it arises. This could result in the destruction of the subculture in the form in which it then existed, but it would be opened onto a future, as yet unthought and full of potential: the potential transverse “alliance of many”(245).[9]


[1]  “Lord of Illusion: Prolific author-director Clive Barker comes out,” Advocate February 21st 1993 available at: http://www.clivebarker.com/html/confess/nonls/advocate.htm

[2] I’ll be the Irish one, second on the left, poring over China Mieville’s latest emission by the way.

[3] Clive Barker Cabal: The Nightbreed (London, HarperCollins: 1996), 15. Subsequent page numbers in brackets.

[4] In some ways, however, the move from an urban centre to the countryside is a reversal of the usual ubiquitous trajectory that produces gay identity in the ‘coming out story’ genre. Usually it is in the move to the urban centre that the protagonist comes to terms with his sexuality. But, this is not a typical ‘coming out story’ in many ways. As we shall see, Boone, Lori, the monsters and the ordinary folk all, in a sense ‘come out.’

[5] It could also be argued, that Baphomet, the founder of Midian, who resides in suspended animation in the ‘Trial Fire’ is akin to Oscar Wilde, for many gay men, the ‘founder’ of a modern homosexual male identity and whose name will forever be indissolubly  linked to his trial for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895.

[6] “What Changed in the Seventies?” in Homosexuality: Power and Politics, 56

[7] Inside/Out, 1

[8] Gay and After, 5

[9] In many ways, then, Barker could be said to have explored a vision which would come to fruition in the Queer movement which began in the early nineties, exemplified in a leaflet entitled ‘Queer Power Now’ (1991):  “Call yourself what you want. Reject all labels. Be all labels. Liberate yourself from the lie that we’re all lesbians and gay men. Free yourself from the lie that we’re all the same… Liberate your minds. Queer is not about gay or lesbian – its about sex!” quoted in Gay and After, 8

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~ by schoolboyerrors on May 9, 2011.

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