As a fifth-grader, I thought I was pretty hot stuff for having read Stephen King’s Night Shift and Salem’s Lot. So when a commercial came on the television for a King book-of-the-month club, I was taken aback when my father said, “There’s a guy that’s even worse than King”. Naturally, I snapped around in morbid curiosity, not realizing that the two words I was about to hear would shape my tastes so acutely in the coming years: “Clive Barker”. My dad (who is not a reader) told me that he was scarier than King, with a hint of dare flickering in his eyes, as though asking me to play chicken. Naturally, I had to seek him out, but it wasn’t until a year later that I read my very first Barker: the children’s book The Thief of Always.
The plot of The Thief of Always seems simple yet enchanting: bored out of his skull in the doldrums of winter, ten-year-old Harvey Swick wishes for fun. No sooner does he make his request than a tiny, smiling man named Rictus appears in his room, offering to take him to a place called Holiday House if he so chooses. Harvey goes with Rictus, where he finds a magnificent house staffed by a magnificent cook named Mrs. Griffin, as well as age-appropriate playmates Wendell and Lulu. The house seems to know Harvey better than anyone else: it gives him thoughtful gifts with impeccable detail, and changes seasons within a day. Something, though, isn’t quite right, and the quest for the truth behind Holiday House – including its elusive owner, Mr. Hood – may just lead Harvey and his friends down a path from which they can’t return.
At first, I wondered if this was the same guy – it didn’t quite seem to fit, especially in terms of the fear factor. A children’s book, written by the man who could supposedly out-scare Stephen King? I was baffled; surely, horror writers didn’t write kids’ books. I mean, adolescent literature was boring to me – it still is now. However, the first sentence of the book hooked me: “The great grey beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive”. I pounded through the book in a day, a massive achievement for a kid that suffered from slow reading. And truly, it left me both captivated and scared to look around the corner for the entire duration.
The gripping pieces of The Thief of Always are the hallmarks of children’s horror and fantasy rolled into one: it takes something ordinary and relatable and makes it into something so out-of-this-world that it’s seamless in its execution, effectively blurring the lines between reality and fantasy wherein we get to become the hero. When we first meet Harvey, he’s doing what any kid that age would: he’s muttering to himself as he’s being forced to clean his room on a rainy day. He wishes his life lacked boring parts; as an only child, he’s lonely. Right off the bat, we’re introduced to our lead that bears far more of a resemblance to us than King’s Ben Mears – this is someone who’s like us, who’s literally a kid like the children reading the book. The language Barker employs is not overly flowery, but enough to give a clear description of the action while allowing the reader to imagine the world of wonders. This quality helps place us further into the environment because we get to build the world along with Harvey – suddenly, it’s not just a pond by a house, but the pond that we the reader imagine we’d see. The trees are beautiful because it’s how we picture a tree on a summer’s day. We wait for Harvey to open his presents because we know that there’s something in the next room for us, just for us, something so personal and special that it couldn’t ever belong to another soul. It’s our world as much as his.
With that world comes the penultimate attribute: the hero child must engage in battle with horrors both real and fantastical, often combined to help us fight against what ails us as we grow up ourselves. It’s not just Harvey Swick fighting Mr. Hood or unraveling the mystery: it’s us standing there with Harvey. In some cases, you’d swear that you were wearing a Harvey mask as you trudge into battle (which, dear readers, if you’ve loved this book as much as I do, you’re tickled). Whilst completely rooted in fantasy, this act in literature seeks to comfort the child reader, as well as reassure the adult of battles won: we know that the good guy will prevail. We study the harrowing actions, we watch carefully and memorize how to beat the evil ourselves. We learn how to dodge and parry the blows that come our way, whether it’s a difficult choice or the fast thinking required in physical combat. It pays to be smart, it pays to have heart, it pays to believe in something that can’t be explained, and it pays to take notice of your surroundings – it just might save your life when you combine them all.
Curiously, this book has not translated well into other media. The early 1990s saw an attempt at creating a – escandalo! – musical animated film produced by Mr. Barker, which did not quite get off the ground (Clive, I would not have forgiven you if you had done that to Harvey. Queen Elsa he is not). In 2005, IDW Publishing released a three-part comic series of the novel. Seraphim Films and 20th Century Fox teamed up to develop a live-action, non-musical version of the film, but after 13 years in development purgatory, I think it’s safe to say that this one isn’t going to happen. And you know what? I’m actually quite glad for that. As much as this book begs for the big screen, I don’t think anyone could ever quite match the intimacy and wonder it offers. Therein lies the power of the book: just like Holiday House, reading the book creates something that seduces us, promising our own wildest dreams as we get swept up in the magic. And when that world becomes scary, the book and its protagonist – a sweet boy we’d be proud to call our friend, who we hope is more like ourselves than we dare to dream – give us the strength to face whatever comes our way, no matter how scary or supernatural in nature. The book is ultimately about strength, fortitude, and character as well as imagination and the capacity to love and believe in something larger than yourself. It’s empowering and thrilling. It’s everything a child needs to forge a stronger self, and everything an adult needs to remember about dreaming.
To this day, I have read The Thief of Always so many times I’ve lost count. I’ve literally broken copies from overuse, the spines completely busted while the pages hemorrhage out onto the floor. Last year, I bought the 25th anniversary edition, signed by Barker himself; it sits on a place of reverence on my bookshelf, out of reach of sticky, careless hands. I also received a copy from my partner with a wonderful note: “A copy for you to read without ruining the fancy one you have preordered… Or any other editions you may require”. The implication is one of loving premonition: this is by no means my last copy of the book. Every time I pick it up, I’m suddenly a child again, sprinting up to Mr. Hood’s Holiday House with the reckless abandon of Wendell and the spring in my step of Jive, waiting to see what jumps out of the shadows this time. That in and of itself is magic.