Clive Barker and [In]Human Sexuality Writ Large
When you think about Barker’s horror you probably remember the scenes of extreme BDSM and the potent release that physical pain can supply; while I would never dismiss the interest of that subject, for this article I want to concentrate on Pie ‘oh’ pah and what that character says about a wide spectrum of human experience.
Pie ‘oh’ pah is an androgyne, a mystif, who comes from a race of people who change to reflect the desires of the person or persons they are with at any time. In Clive Barker’s Imajica, Pie ‘oh’ pah is most frequently referred to using the pronoun “it”, but this is interchangeable with “he” and “she”. Pie is a magic mirror, always reflecting back what a person wishes to see. From the moment I first encountered Pie in a trailer park where it/he/she was living and working as assassin and prostitute I knew this was the loneliest and most pitiful creature of literature. I knew that because Pie was me.
It is impossible to know how many people subtly (or less subtly) adapt themselves to suit friends and partners, but from conversations with others I realise I am not alone in this strange compulsion: the urge to curtail elements of my personality and amplify others to fit more comfortably into a space that was never designed to contain me. I suspect that Barker has felt its pull. “‘I gave you what you wanted,’ Pie said.”
There is no maliciousness involved, for how can self-sacrifice be malicious, and yet it is a destructive tendency that can weaken our sense of who we are. “If it had a self, perhaps this was its face: split by wounds and doubt; pitiful; lost.”
I refer to this sublimation of self under the umbrella of sexuality because it can be at its most insidious and pernicious in sexual relationships, although it also happens outside of them. Many of us round off our edges to avoid upsetting others and, for me, Pie is the ultimate expression of that. In Imajica Barker allows us to hope for the mystif. When the main protagonist, Gentle, falls in love (again) with Pie he glimpses the creature beyond the illusion. However Gentle is an exceptional being, and most of us will have to learn to share ourselves or risk never being seen and understood.
Pie isn’t the only character in Barker’s stories whose sexuality seems to be one of self-erasure. I cannot think back to the Books of Blood without remembering Jerome from “The Age of Desire” and his need to mate with whomever or whatever he encounters until he wears his member down to a bloody stump - “if he could only mate with brick or tree; he would gladly suffer the agonies of conception.” Am I the only one aroused by reading those lines?
One of the things that sets Clive Barker apart from other horror authors (although in truth I see him more as a fantasy author) is his understanding of sexuality, however deviant, dark or hidden it might be, and his willingness to hold it up to scrutiny. Part of the reason I love horror and dark fantasy is that it allows us to explore these darker recesses of the human psyche and learn how to protect against or maybe even love our own monsters. Whether it is the tearing of flesh when chains tighten and hooks drag, or pounding genitals into holes in walls (aka - anything can be a dildo if you’re brave enough), or losing pieces of yourself as you try to become the perfect lover for someone who fails to see the real you, sex in Barker’s world is frequently used to debase rather than elevate. The desire to lose oneself completely in another, forgetting for a time the restrictions of society, letting go and knowing temporary peace is common to many. Through loss of individuality synergy can be found, but only perhaps if the two (or more) are individuals rather than mirrors. That is the tragedy of Pie ‘oh’ pah, a beautiful, loyal and magical being who is fluid and unfixed, an ocean rather than a continent to explore.
[written for Kendall Reviews' Clive Barker retrospective]