Although I love writing I simply have to be reading at least one book that I can pick up at any given moment. I try to read a range of books, all types of fiction, biographies and, in particular, history. Over the years I’ve read some brilliant novels, some of which have inspired me in my own writing, others whose stories I cannot shake years after reading them. Compiling a list of my favourite books has proven a tall order but I have come up with what are currently my Top Ten Novels. I’ve stuck with fiction for this list as I may produce a similar one for non-fiction books I have had the pleasure of reading in the near future. The wonderful thing about books is I never tire of trying to find new masterpieces. I love the ten featured here but I wouldn’t be disappointed if ten more great novels came along that bettered them, though I think it’s unlikely to happen to all of these titles.
Clive Barker – The Thief of Always (1992)
Clive Barker is most famously known for his works of adult fantasy and horror such as The Hellbound Heart (1986), Cabal (1988), Galilee (1998) and The Abarat Quintet (2002 – present). Films such as Hellraiser (1987) and Candyman (1992) are also from the author, but his outstanding novel is surprisingly a children’s fable, though one that is just as accessible to adults. The Thief of Always blends all the wonders and desires of childhood into a perfect day but beneath the surface is darkness typical of Barker that is waiting to disrupt the serenity.
The novel follows 10 year old Harvey Swick who is bored with everyday life, particularly school, and longs for the holidays and having fun. The chapter title, “Harvey Half Devoured,” offers some semblance of Harry’s state of mind at this point. Longing for escape he is visited by the mysterious Rictus who informs him of a paradise for children known as the Holiday House. Having to pass through a cloak of thick mist, Harvey soon reaches the Holiday House where he becomes friends with two other children, Wendell and Lulu. Harvey finds that the Holiday House is indeed a paradise for children, squeezing all the seasons of the year into one day. Spring takes place in the morning, Summer in the afternoon, Halloween every evening and at night it is Christmas! Everything that children enjoy throughout the year is part of a daily cycle at the Holiday House and it is the kind of escapism that Harvey has longed for. However, Harvey soon realises that something isn’t quite right particularly when his friend, Lulu, disappears.
The Holiday House makes one nostalgic for many elements of their own childhood. Being out of school where summer seems like a lifetime, trick or treating in some very scary costumes and the excitement of the run up to Christmas and the mountains of presents you have to open. Barker taps into all the ideals of being children that many of us will be familiar with and creates an absorbing paradise. Being a fable we know that there are lessons to be learned and the book is reminiscent in particular of Pinocchio where the boys sent to Pleasure Island are punished for their destructive nature by being turned into donkeys. The punishment in the Holiday House is not being able to leave which, considering the paradise offered to the children, doesn’t seem too bad but the owner, Mr Hood, has other plans in mind for the children that are enjoying the hospitality of his home.
As entertaining as Clive Barker’s fable is there is his trademark touch of darkness haunting the Holiday House. Harvey enjoys the seasonal days and playing with friends, Wendell and Lulu, until his wanderings lead him to the lake near the house, the one with strange fish swimming in the depths. Something seems haunted about the place that brings Harvey out of his dreamlike state and back to the reality of his usual self, the one that questions the environment around him and is not afraid to stand tall in enforcing his convictions. The other children, Wendell and Lulu, are also crucial in helping Harvey discover something is amiss with the Holiday House. Wendell is completely lost in the paradise and wants to have fun but Lulu begins to change until the day she is no longer there! The lovely Mrs Griffin who lives in the Holiday House and cooks for all the children is the one that tells Harvey there is no escape from Mr Hood’s Holiday House. Only by luck do Harvey and Wendell manage to find their way through the magical mist that surrounds the Holiday House but with each day in Mr Hood’s paradise costing them a year in the real world, the two boys’ only means of survival and recovering these lost years is to bring an end to this childhood idyll. The unmasking of Mr Hood allows Barker to deliver his skill at putting horror onto the pages and having it leap out at us. The description of Mr Hood and his array of powers is one of the novel’s many highlights and Harvey’s final battle with him is spectacular.
The Thief of Always can be read as an exciting adventure from a child’s point of view but adults will be drawn to the many lessons. Harvey begins as a bored child, wishing time away and wanting the next holiday to be upon him so he can have fun. At the Holiday House he has everything he wants but in the end Harvey learns you can have too much of a good thing and there is always a price to pay for having everything your own way. The novel won’t take long to read, particularly as it is accompanied by some excellent illustrations by Barker, but that makes the development of Harvey all the more remarkable. Over a few months at Mr Hood’s home, Harvey changes from a grumbling child to the biggest threat Mr Hood has ever faced to his magical prison for children. How does it all end though? Does Harvey defeat Mr Hood? Do he and Wendell reclaim the years they have lost in the real world? As I always say, you’ll just have to read the book for yourself.
The Thief of Always is one of the few novels I have managed to read in one day – Atonement (2001) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971) being the others I can recall – and that speaks volumes about what an absorbing read this is. Clive Barker is notable for his graphic horror and dark fantasy and although some of those elements find their way into The Thief of Always this remains a universal book, one I would have read to my children, had I decided to have any. It’s a book you could read as a child and later read as an adult and find the experience to be very different. Barker has written some excellent novels in his illustrious career but none better than this one.
Top Ten so far:
5) Clive Barker – The Thief of Always
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