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 for me 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.
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 our desires. 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.
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