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The Thief of Always

Clive Barker

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 12, 2012
Category: Children

“I never get scared by books,” the child said, “but this is really scaring me.”

From a kid who likes suspense. there’s no higher praise. And ours sets the bar high. Her idea of a good movie, we like to say, features at least 1,500 corpses.

What freaked her out about “The Thief of Always,” and in the best possible way? The scene in which 10-year-old Harvey Swick puts on a bat’s costume on Halloween night, flies high about Holiday House and has the uneasy feeling that there’s a bit of vampire in his soul. 

Not a feeling you usually find in fiction for kids.

That’s because “The Thief of Always” was written by Clive Barker, the English jack-of-all-trades who is, by turns, an artist, novelist and the writer-director of such horror/sci-fi films as “Hellraiser” and “Candyman.” The common element in his writing: what he calls “dark fantasy,” in which good and evil are blended to terrifying effect.

Too tough for kids?

I’m not the only one to say it: There’s almost no book more satisfying for a 9-to-11-year-old kid to read aloud with a parent. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

That’s because Clive Barker has written a story that works on two levels. One is an adventure story for kids, with a simple moral: careful what you wish for. For adults, the moral is more complex, more philosophical. The genius is not just in the simplicity of the story and its non-stop action, but in the pared-down language.

Clive Barker is very smart about this:

In creating ‘The Thief of Always,’ the vocabulary had to be simple. The structure of the sentences also had to be of a plainer style because I wanted ten-year-olds to be able to read it, but I also wanted to appeal to 40-year-olds in the same way that C.S.Lewis still appeals to me today.

And I remember as a little child I did not enjoy long descriptive passages in a novel. I liked reading a lot of action. And so when I write for children I try to keep in mind the memory of what the 10-year-old Clive Barker liked. I think the 10-year-old Clive Barker would have liked ‘Thief of Always’.

Here’s the kid version: Harvey Swick, age 10, is bored. The book starts with that: The great grey beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive. Here he was, buried in the belly of that smothering month, wondering if he would ever find his way out through the cold coils that lay between here and Easter. [To read the rest of Chapter 1, click here.]

A knock at his window, an invitation to visit a child’s paradise, and Harvey willingly goes with his strange visitor to Holiday House. Magic? Try this: morning is Spring, afternoon is Summer, it’s Halloween every evening, Christmas at night. Glorious food. No school. Heaven on earth.

Just one catch, which, of course, the children realize too late — you can’t leave.

Well, there’s another. The vampire who created this place doesn’t want blood. He collects souls. And he’s always on the lookout for new ones, because … but that’s for me to be spooked by and you to find out. Just as your voice may shake when you get to the end and you realize what Harvey must do not just to escape Holiday House but to return their souls to who-knows-how-many children.

This book comes with a lovely publishing story. When he wrote “Thief of Always,” Barker was well known as a frightmaster He’d never written a book for kids. So…

I gave it to HarperCollins and said, ‘I realize you’re taking a huge risk with this, because here’s a children’s book coming from Clive Barker, and maybe nobody will buy it! So I’ll sell it to you for a dollar.’ Actually, they ended up giving me a silver dollar for it. And I did the illustrations and the thing went from there. It has since turned out to be a very successful book. It’s in a lot of languages around the world and it’s being taught in a lot of schools now, which is fun. I think we’re at 1.5 million copies in print in America, so it wasn’t bad for a book that cost them a dollar...

Millions sold. Taught in schools. Recommended by our daughter. And thoroughly enjoyed, night after night, by her aged parent as we read it aloud together.