Everville: Clive Barker
Reviewed By Joseph Sale
If I ever doubted Clive Barker was deep in the occult, and knew of the magical Path, that doubt has well and truly evaporated upon reading his masterstroke Everville. Originally published in 1994, Everville is the second book of the Art Trilogy and a kind of sequel to The Great and Secret Show. Whilst I do believe that you get the best reading experience tackling these books in their appropriate order, I don’t think it is necessary to have read The Great and Secret Show to enjoy Everville.
Everville starts by taking a leap into the past and delving into the strange and dangerous lives of the Settlers. His opening line, “It was hope undid them” is not only a dramatic powerhouse of an opener but also already hints at the occult knowledge buried in Everville’s heart, for any occultist knows that hope is treacherous; it is a passive state of fear that leads to inflated expectations – and thus disappointment. Rather, it is Will, Desire, and Belief that the occultist wields; these three underpin magical practice. From here on out, Barker describes the perilous journey undertaken by the Settlers towards a valley beneath a mountain. They go in pursuit of a dream of a promised land. But one by one, all are picked off and destroyed by forces both natural and supernatural. Eventually, it is only the little girl, Maeve O’Connell, gifted a talisman by her father Harmon, left to found a city they have spoken of in whispered dreaming to each other – a city called Everville.
But this is only the beginning, the prelude.
What astonished me about Everville is how fresh everything feels. Unlike many writers and Hollywood filmmakers, Barker does not feel the need to trade off nostalgia to make his sequel work. He understands that we saw that before, so now we want to see this, and he is all too keen to show us. He weaves a tapestry here of interconnected strangeness. We return to our heroes Tesla, Grillo, Raul, and one or two other familiar faces from The Great and Secret Show. It is only in the book’s third act that we are re-introduced to Harry D’Amour, who proves pivotal in the “turning point” of the book. He also introduces us to a host of new characters: Joe and Phoebe, two lovers, Seth, and Own Buddenbaum, the last of whom is perhaps one of the most interesting characters in the whole story – a shadow dancing through history, with one aim and one alone.
Doom pervades the narrative. There is a sense that whilst crisis was averted in Palomo Grove, it was only a delay of the inevitable, and once again the apocalyptic wheels are moving.
Once more, the fecundity of Barker’s imagination knows no bounds. We explore more of the Metacosm, and he unveils some of the deeper secrets behind his universe, such as the nature of b’Kether Sabbat, the city beyond Quiddity (the dream-sea), and more clues as to Ephemeris. We can see in the mere naming conventions Barker’s occult leanings. For example, “Kether” is the Hebrew word for “Crown”; the “Crown” is the first Sephirah which sits at the top of the Tree of Life. The experience of “Kether” is of Limitless Light, the majesty of an unveiled, yet unknowable, God. It is interesting, then, that it is in the city b’Kether Sabbat that one of our characters leaves their body in a moment of transcendental experience – one of the most powerful scenes in the whole book.
However, Barker isn’t merely dropping in “occult references” to sound clever. There is so much more at work, here. Like the fabled four-imaged talisman that shows the secret of The Art, Barker layers his symbolism because it contains meaning, and even if we do not consciously understand that meaning, subconsciously we do, so it works upon us like a spell. In a later scene in the novel, one of the divine “Jai-Wai” reveals that what seemed to be a cloak or robe is actually their flesh. They peel back the flesh to reveal jewels on the inside; these jewels are condensed empathy, outpourings of emotion. The concept of the “inner robe of Glory” is a Qabbalistic one. However, Barker uses this symbolism to show the divinity is stimulated by observing human suffering, although this is also a commentary on human emotions: we are also stimulated by suffering. These jewels are the pearls that form within us, hardened from emotional trauma, much like a diamond is formed from the violence of compression.
Everville is full of moments. Incredible moments. Moments that take the breath away. Moments that make you question everything you know. Moments that make you feel like Barker is peeling back the layers of reality and allowing you a glimpse of something beyond it. It is by no means perfect; nothing is. The middle of this novel is a little slow, and it takes a while to set up all the dominos to make these moments land, but once you reach the fourth and fifth act of this novel, the latter forty-percent, it is a relentless series of visions, twists, and dizzying emotional highs and lows, veering between delirium and despair. Barker rewards patience. He is one of the few writers who can, truly, describe the indescribable. What is even more astonishing is that in all this madness, he does not lose his characters. Tesla Bombeck in particular remains a rock that grounds the narrative in a human mind we can understand, or at least relate to. At the same time, each character, including Tesla, goes on a tremendous arc. Some of these are immensely painful. Barker’s fantasy is not one that precludes suffering.
Everville has many themes and an almost overabundance of ideas, but its one unifying current is the idea of human yearning. Barker has a bit of a reputation for writing about sex a lot, and there is undoubtedly lots of sex here for those who are fans of his erotic scenes, but he explores yearning in virtually every facet imaginable. We open with the Settlers, who yearn on a prosaic level to simply survive the winter, but at a deeper one, to build their dream of a magical city. We follow Phoebe and Joe, who yearn to be reunited. Raul, who was once an ape but due to the Nuncio became human, yearns to evolve, to become something greater than the sum of his parts. Grillo yearns to find the truth about Quiddity.
Opposite this idea of healthy and human “yearning”, must, by necessity, be unhealthy yearnings: for power, for control, for the fulfilment of baser desires. On this theme, there is a disturbing undercurrent of paedophilia running through the novel. Ted, the painter who produces a biblical image of D’Amour, sleeps with fourteen-year-old girls. Maeve O’Connell, as a little girl, witnesses a divine sexual act, which she interrupts with dire consequences. As a child, she is solicited by handsy old men. It is implied she has sexual relations with a creature from another dimension before she is “of age”. The outcome of this is arguably what catalysts most of the “evil” in the book. It is intriguing then that perhaps one of the noblest and beautiful scenes in Everville is when a child (a baby, in fact), is saved in a surprising act of self-sacrifice – one of the most deeply affecting deaths in the whole book. Barker always weighs the horrifying, the bodily, and the taboo with the sacred and holy. This again is an occult principle, for every force has its oppositional one.
Tesla Bombeck’s yearning is perhaps the most interesting of all, because she hides it from herself, and even the reader to an extent, for most of the novel. At the end, we come to understand what she has, deep in her heart, been searching for this whole time. This also links in with Everville’s relationship with Christianity and Christ. On the one hand, it would be easy to read Barker as a sceptic at best and a critic at worst, and certainly, through the mouthpiece of Harry D’Amour, he wields some pretty damning vitriol towards the religion. But, we return to the image of Christ time and time again. The demonic horrors of Quiddity prefer to kill their victims via crucifixion. Harry D’Amour’s friend Ted paints Harry with his foot treading upon a serpent. The idea of wounds that cannot heal, that continually bleed, is laced throughout the entire novel. There is even a scene where Tesla meets a man walking on water, with scars all over his body, in the dream-sea and knows, intuitively, that she is seeing Christ. At the end, she experiences a rebirth, rising from the dead, and uttering the hair-raising line, “I am born here and now.” Barker understands that Christ, whether literal or not, is a symbolic truth. And he wields Him to devastating effect. We all yearn to be reborn, to transform, to rise from the death of our sleepwalking existence and live truly.
Everville is perhaps my favourite work by Barker, at least of those I’ve read so far. It is a heart-breaking masterpiece that asks us to believe in something bigger than the rational veil we see before us: to yearn, to seek, to find and not to yield (to quote Tennyson). In Barker’s own words: “All his adult life, he’d asked why. Why God? Why meaning? Why love? Now he realized his error. The question was not why; it was why not?”
Joseph Sale is a novelist, and writing coach. His first novel, The Darkest Touch, was published by Dark Hall Press in 2014. He currently writes and is published with The Writing Collective. He has authored more than ten novels, including his Black Gate trilogy, and his love-letter to fantasy: Save Game. He grew up in the Lovecraftian seaside town of Bournemouth.
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Great review, perceptive and detailed; and Barker is clearly a major writer. Thanks.