There was a point early on in my writing career when I wasn’t sure what my writing was about or what it wanted to be. My work never really fit into a single genre, and for a while I wasn’t comfortable with that fact. As a result, my early fiction suffered from an identity crisis as I dabbled in different genres, trying to find the right way to tell my stories. Was it horror? Fantasy? Science fiction? Every story wanted to be all and none of those things at the same time, and it frustrated the hell out of me.
This frustration led me to Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show, and it’s here that I’ve paused because I’m honestly stumped about where to begin explaining this book. The Great and Secret Show is a novel of good and evil, about another reality we all visit three times in our lives when we sleep (once when we’re born, once when we’ve found true love, and once in our last slumber before death). It’s a book about one man’s desire to have that reality for himself—so much that he’s willing to sacrifice his humanity for it. It’s about men who become demigods and wage war with the nightmares and dreams of an unsuspecting populace. If any of that piques your curiosity, I urge you to stop what you’re doing and go read it right now.
Clive Barker is known for his horror and his fantasy, painting portraits of the most grotesque imagery in the most beautiful ways, but this book transcends those genre labels. Is it horror? Oh yes. Is it modern fantasy? Definitely. Is there some science fiction in its pages? I’d say so. And through the whole story is an underlying philosophy of dreams that is presented in a digestible way for the reader to understand. The Great and Secret Show was, I think, the first book I read that really opened my eyes to what’s possible in fiction.
I’m sure all the literary purists out there just rolled their eyes at my hyperbole, but I’m being honest here. Until that point, everything I’d learned about genre involved its boundaries: if you write horror, your story must contain this and this, but not this. You can do this, but never that. The same went for any other genre.
Some readers don’t care for Secret Show, saying it’s all over the place and hard to pin down, and I think that’s a fair argument. However, I also think the reason it’s hard to pin down is why it succeeds. The story is all over the place, with a cast of bizarre characters both endearing and sinister, jumping from one decade to the next, one locale to the next, always hinting at some unseen evil waiting to cross over into our reality but never quite showing the reader what they look like or explaining what they intend to do—and it works. It’s epic in scope, its characters come alive on the page, it offers something to a wide number of readers regardless of their genre preferences—and it does so without compromising its vision.
With one novel, Clive Barker broke all the rules I was taught to follow, and in the process, taught me an important lesson: There are no set rules when it comes to storytelling.
I’ve kept that lesson in mind with every subsequent writing project, disregarding the conventions of genre in favor of letting the story be itself. It’s an axiom that’s so simple and yet so easy to forget when you’re in the middle of constructing a plot that dominates your every waking thought.
Reading The Great and Secret Show reminded me that the writer’s obligation is to tell a story as it should be told. Figure out the genre later. Don’t compromise your vision because you’re afraid it won’t fit some predetermined boundary. You’re selling yourself short if you do that; worse, you’re selling your readers short, too.
I’ve written three novels since reading Secret Show, two of which became parts one and two of my own trilogy. In recent months I’ve found myself struggling with the final book of that trilogy, wondering if maybe I’ve lost my way. I think, perhaps, it’s time I go back and read Barker’s novel once again, if only to remind myself of how it can be done.
Todd Keisling is a writer of horror and speculative fiction, as well as the author of A Life Transparent and The Liminal Man (a 2013 Indie Book Award Finalist), and the bestselling short fiction series Ugly Little Things. Born in Kentucky, he now lives with his wife and son somewhere near Reading, Pennsylvania. He still has a day job, he’s awkward and weird, and if you were to live next door to him, your grass would probably die.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.