“I’ve heard a little good magic is always useful. Isn’t that right?"
- Mr. Swick
When I was twelve, my taste in books was driven by what I wasn’t allowed to read. It was a long list, as no one wants to be the parent who let their twelve year old kid read A Clockwork Orange, or even more unsettling work. But there were loopholes in the parental rulebook. Fun loopholes. Loopholes like authors they didn’t really know outside of maybe a few books here and there, or stuff I’d already read. At the time, R-rated movies and I were no stranger, so the rule felt a little weird, but there it was. And one of these loopholes was Clive Barker. This is, actually, the book that made me a Barker fanboy for a little while. I’ll get to the book that made me stop another day.
I discovered The Thief of Always on a spring day in the library at my middle school, a place where I was treated warily by the head librarian*. I was bored and wanted to find a new book, and somehow the name “Clive Barker” called to me. It may have been that I’d heard it before connected to horror movies of the decidedly weird kind. Or it may have been the Marvel Comics line in the early 90s, Clive Barker’s Razorline, which I always enjoyed. But no matter what it was, the author’s name and the blurb “a fairy tale for adults” on the back cover meant I walked out with the book and didn’t look back.
That was honestly one of the best decisions I made. The book took me a day and a half to read, and I was rapt all the way. When I was done, I took it back and then later took it out and read it again. The author illustrated it as well as writing it, and his creepy pen-and-ink drawings added something to the text, though it also outlined a glaring flaw I’ll get to later. The book is beautifully written, moves at a pace that seems leisurely yet almost too fast, and the emotions are genuine and evocative. This is a book that should be treasured somewhere, and it makes me sad when I realize I’ve only ever found three copies of it.
The Thief of Always is the story of young Harvey Swick, a boy who finds himself rather bored during the humdrum midwinter months and wishes for adventure and something interesting to happen. His prayers are answered by a small grinning man named Rictus who takes him to the magical Mr. Hood’s Holiday House, a place where he can have whatever he wishes and the weather is always pleasant and perfect for the season. Winter mornings, summer afternoons, halloween nights, and Christmas evenings happen almost every day but fail to get boring, and no one children ever leave because it’s far too perfect.
Except as you may have guessed, all is not perfect at the Holiday House, at least, not as much as it seems. There are horrors as well as delights (I’m not about to spoil them, but come on, you saw the “all is not perfect” thing coming a mile away because you are classy and intelligent people), and to survive them and escape the House intact, Harvey will have to call on all the power and cunning he can muster to confront Mr. Hood once and for all.
What really makes the book succeed is the mood Barker sets for the piece. The tone is bright and cheery when it has to be, with notable touches of melancholy when it calls for it. Harvey is exposed to the idea of loss again and again as the book progresses, and each time, the world he inhabits grows noticeably darker and sadder. That isn’t to say it’s completely without its beauty, as even at its darkest, the Holiday House has a strange, alluring quality to it. But it’s the growing feeling of melancholy throughout the book that drives home the tone and the message in the story. This progression makes it easy to feel what Harvey feels, creating an easily identifiable hero— we know why he does what he does because we experience everything he experiences and understand why we’d do the same.
Another way the book shines is in its images. Not just the pen and ink drawings, but the descriptions. This book is description porn in the best way possible. Everything is described in detail, from the food in the kitchen to the heavily-wooded lake to the roof where the house’s more eccentric residents make their home. The drawings accompanying each chapter (and occasionally the text) further aid one to imagine the various sights and sounds, giving a better picture of the house and its inhabitants. Barker has a certain way with evoking images, and he puts it to work especially well here, showing us both the good and evil of what goes on.
The book should also be applauded for its sense of loss. This is a book, after all, about growing up and losing innocence, of losing friends and loved ones, of seeing them move on. Every death, loss, and sad event serves to turn Harvey into the more mature, more capable boy we see at the end from the perpetually bored and slightly-surly youth we see at the beginning. The Thief of Always is a book about taking back what someone steals from you and dealing with the losses you cannot fix. In the end, while the specter of adulthood and Harvey’s future loom uncertain on the horizon, he seems to have dealt with his misgivings and become a stronger, more confident person.
And finally, there is the characterization. In a remarkable change for a “fable” or “fairy tale”, particularly one that seems to find its way into collections for young readers, the motivations of the characters are actually just as important as the actual characters. In the end, it’s not so much that Harvey fights as why he fights— he’s fighting to save his friends, the people he loves, and even himself. He’s fighting to keep from losing everything he’s ever had, and that makes what he does, be it the final duel that closes the book or his storming the House in the final third of the novel, right. It’s odd to see this sort of thing in a fable where usually the character lines are clearly drawn, but that Harvey fully adopts his role as a “thief” or a “vampire” makes his choice to do good that much more meaningful.
However, there is a major flaw that must be discussed. Barker has very little sense of pacing. While the book moves quickly anyway, instead of the slow build and the eventual shocking revelations and the horror of things, he starts building the creepy right from the moment Harvey enters the house and just keeps building from there. For the most part, this is mainly my reaction to reading the book multiple times and knowing what lies in store, but I felt after rereading it for this review, that things got a little sinister too fast, with the obvious hints a little too obvious and the occasionally unfortunate events a little too constant. The illustrations were no help here, either, the most obvious being the Christmas tree with the monstrous grin about six or seven chapters in, and the cover of the hardcover edition, which features a nightmarish face grinning below a picture of the titular house.
In the end, though, the book should be forgiven for its pacing and spoiling of rhythm. Why? Because it’s a fantastic book. It moves quickly, creates an interesting atmosphere, and its visuals continue to haunt and tug at one long after the book is closed. The final struggle is a question of if, not why, and is much better because of it— the chance that Harvey won’t succeed makes the battle all that more important. This is a beautiful book you should know about already, and if you don’t, you have no excuse now not to go out and find your own copy. Read it once. Read it twice. Pass it on to anyone you think would like it. I love this book, I cannot say that enough, and everyone else should, too.
- my LARPing article
- Stephen King
- The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker, as well as others by him.
- The Magicians and The Magician King by Lev Grossman
* But less warily than my high school’s head librarians, who talked to my parents about me because they thought I was reading too much. No lie. Thankfully, they weren’t long for the school come Junior or Senior year.