The 13th Floor

Clive Barker’s THE THIEF OF ALWAYS Nailed Young Adult Horror-Fantasy First

In 1998, J.K. Rowling’s youth novel HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE was first published in America as HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE, earnestly kicking off not just a mega-successful book and film franchise (Rowling is said to be worth about a billion dollars these days), but the Young Adult (YA) Fiction trend in earnest.

Novels that appeal specifically to younger audiences go back, of course, to the the early-to-mid-19th century (we’ve all read some combination of THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, OLIVER TWIST, THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, etc.), and they were defined in earnest in the early 20th century (Winnie-the-Pooh and so on), but commercially speaking, YA novels experienced a massive surge following Harry Potter’s introduction into the cultural lexicon. All of a sudden, hopeful after hopeful imitated the Harry Potter formula: Disenfranchised young person finds him/herself to be “The Chosen One” in a fantastical alternate universe, wherein they must be primed for combat against dark forces.

The books in this YA New Wave (which is still going on) were always fantasy-based (weepy romances like THE FAULT IN OUR STARS notwithstanding), often featured a painful “whom-do-I-choose” nonsexual romantic element (introduced by Stephenie Meyer’s TWILIGHT), and were sometimes set in a dystopian future (popularized by Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES).

A lot of the aesthetics of these books were cued by previous fantasy novels like A WRINKLE IN TIME and THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but the volume had simply increased. All of the books mentioned so far have been, or are going to be, adapted into movies.

The formulas are familiar… just check out this comic strip:

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Many famous fantasy authors also began to skew toward younger audiences following the juggernaut of Harry Potter. Neil Gaiman, for instance, published CORALINE in 2002 as a dark fable for younger readers, and even the venerable Clive Barker tried to get in on the game with the epic project ABARAT (which we previously covered in detail here).

But all of this, it seems, was predicted way back in 1992 with the publication of THE THIEF OF ALWAYS — a book that is proving, more and more, to be the template of what the world of YA fiction has become.

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THE THIEF OF ALWAYS was Clive Barker’s first attempt to write for a younger audience. The author had previously written epic sex-soaked fantasies and extremely bloody horror stories for adults, and he wanted to explore the world of youth-friendly fables a little more closely.

The story he came up with followed a young boy named Harvey Swick, who was lured away from a boring February afternoon to a mysterious haze-shrouded house in his neighborhood that had previously gone unnoticed. Once inside, he finds — very much like in HANSEL AND GRETEL — that all of his angst will be massaged away by a magical unseen caretaker who overfeeds him and grants his wishes. He gets to engage in crafts, every morning is Christmas, and every night is Halloween. He’s also granted limited shape-shifting powers. But he is never allowed to leave the grounds surrounding Holiday House.

Harvey eventually learns the House is stealing away his life — and that time is moving more quickly outside of the property. Worse, the caretaker — a thing called Mr. Hood — has been consuming children for many, many years, and Harvey must outwit the creature to escape.

This is all the stuff of very basic fantasy, of course, and has been inspired by generations of folk stories and fairy tales given to children in the Western world as part of their preschool curriculum: Evil entity wants to eat children; children outwit said entity. It’s all archetypal to our modern ears… but while it’s clearly derivative, THE THIEF OF ALWAYS doesn’t feel cheap. Barker is imaginative enough to make the iconography and tone of the book uniquely his; it’s a modern fable in every sense of the word.

It’s also quite good. Those who have read it enjoy the foggy British tone of the book, and the descriptions of Holiday House are truly eerie. Harvey is a bit of a drag as a protagonist, but that’s a general quibble with Barker, who can create imaginative universes like a jackhammer, but isn’t so good at rich central heroes. Harvey has just enough character and just enough notable traits to make him function as a hero.

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But stop to analyze, and you’ll see that most every fantasy book to come after THE THIEF OF ALWAYS borrows a thematic or tonal element from it.

First of all, look at Harvey: He is a bitter little boy, 11 years old — just on the cusp of puberty — who seeks freedom from his boring life. While the ages of the protagonists in most New Wave YA novels differ, this angst and dissatisfaction is a key element of the character. They could be young and sad, or pubescent and bitter, but the exact brand of Harvey’s angst — and his need for “more” out of life — informs most YA protagonists. This isn’t the usual brand of Joseph Campbell claptrap positing that all heroes are implicitly the same; tonally speaking, it’s very specific to this trend. Harvey’s plight could describe Harry Potter’s, Katniss Everdeen’s, Tris’s, Percy Jackson’s, Bella Swan’s, and many others.

Much of the YA New Wave also contains elements of “anti-youth conspiracy.” The villains in these books are hardly ever other kids; they are usually uniformed or wicked adults who are suspicious of a new generation’s power. This taps into a lot of the ways teens fantasize about power: Teens often feel persecuted (see Holden Caulfield for a classic example) and fancy themselves as being intelligent and unique enough to break through the oppressive will of the adults. Alternately, they may fancy themselves as bitter, misunderstood genius martyrs in a world that will never “get” them. THE THIEF OF ALWAYS doesn’t highlight this alienation so much, but the story is about an evil anti-child force that wants to eat kids and has no regard for them beyond victims… and to play into an adolescent fantasy, it underestimates the power of a kid’s mind, so the kid is able to outwit/defeat it.

All of these books, while often ending in bloody conflict (how many people does Katniss murder outright in those movies?) often contain a powerful element of wish fulfillment — which may be the central appeal of the Harry Potter novels. If you are disenfranchised, you often cast your mind to a place where all your favorite fantasy novels are true: Harry Potter is taken from a dank closet into a magical world of wonderment and impossibilities and fun, weird creatures. Here, he can fly. Harry is living out his greatest wish: To escape into something magical. Barker’s protagonist Harvey, of course, not only escaped into another world, but his actual direct wishes are granted. He longs for a warm house full of celebration and activity… and lo, he gets it. He gets rich foods, Christmas presents, and Halloween powers. This is exactly what every 11-year-old wants. THE THIEF OF ALWAYS was granting wishes without having to construct complex “worlds.”

Also, what would a New Wave YA novel be without the promise of romance? Since all these books are about adolescents, sexuality is just beginning to enter the picture; as such, almost every single one of these novels features a prominent romance that will inform much of the action. Stephenie Meyer’s books even take that romance a step further by allowing her female protagonists to be fought over by two impossibly handsome men at the same time.

THE THIEF OF ALWAYS features a character named Lulu, who is a little older than Harvey, and who has been hiding out in the Holiday House for a long time. She becomes Harvey’s confidant and friend. Although romance is nothing but a future mist when one is 11, it certainly is present here, letting Harvey and Lulu develop at the very least a distant romantic regard. The book ends with a reunion between the two characters that can certainly be interpreted as tragically romantic.

Image Credit: Chris Odgers
Image Credit: Chris Odgers

The notion of the “Bad Guy” in these books having a team of indoctrinated teen helpers is also something that started with THE THIEF OF ALWAYS. Many more action-oriented New Wave YA novels feature scenes of kids fighting other kids in some capacity — the heroes are resolute and heroic, while the villains have been more or less “mindwiped” by adults to do their bidding. Draco Malfoy was in the distant employ of Lord Voldemort, for instance; Peeta was literally brainwashed in one of THE HUNGER GAMES sequels. These characters serve as a warning for the heroes: It’s possible that the Bad Guy can get to you and change you. In THE THIEF OF ALWAYS, we have Wendell, an obnoxious fat kid who doesn’t seem to have the willpower to escape, but also several servants of Mr. Hood, who have been convinced to remain at Holiday House and let him eat other children. Transformation into something grotesque is something Clive Barker writes about frequently.

THE THIEF OF ALWAYS was in the pipeline for feature film adaptation for many years (there was even a Henry Selick-directed stop-motion film proposed at one point in its life), but, like many of Barker’s film projects, it simply lived in Development Hell for too long before dying completely. The book remains obscure, usually only read by the author’s fans.

Meanwhile, the books that THE THIEF OF ALWAYS wrought are legion and successful. I don’t need to tell you about Harry Potter, of course, nor do I need to bring up the film version of Neil Gaiman’s CORALINE — a story that resembles THE THIEF OF ALWAYS incredibly closely. Indeed, one could say that all the cinematic energy that was to go into THE THIEF OF ALWAYS was drained into CORALINE — including the stop-motion element, and the involvement of Henry Selick. Whether Gaiman had previously read THE THIEF OF ALWAYS himself is a matter of conjecture.

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In fact, the question of whether any other authors behind the YA New Wave read THE THIEF OF ALWAYS may never be answered… but the template laid down by the book did somehow leak into the consciousness of the generation, allowing a very particular structure and character type to become part of all pop YA fiction.

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