Clive Barker began writing THE BOOKS OF ABARAT series after painting a number of images inspired by dreams. The first book, Abarat, certainly possesses a dreamy, wonderland quality. I felt curiously aware throughout that I had entered a rather indulgent flight of Barker’s imagination. I didn’t buy the illustrated version of Abarat, (because, I admit, I didn’t know anything about it) but if I could go back I probably would. It’s a funny one because I usually like to make up my own mind about how an imaginary place looks. I get worried by detailed front covers as I suspect they are trying to plant images in my mind (and woe-behold any book with a television actress on the front). But when an author starts with a painting, his own painting no less, it seems only fair to take a look. The illustrations may also have proved helpful as I had some trouble visualising the Abarat – but perhaps that’s because it was always intended to be illustrated.
The premise of Abarat is simple (though the execution is anything but). Candy Quackenbush, a young girl desperate for adventure, stumbles upon another world in which she begins to discover she may have a greater purpose. We are introduced to Candy in the abysmally boring Chickentown where she lives with her meek mother and abusive father. One day, losing it completely, she walks out of school and into the fields on the outskirts of town. There she finds an abandoned lighthouse and meets one of the more memorable characters of the book, John Mischief, whose antlers sport the miniature heads of John’s seven brothers: John Fillet, John Sallow, John Moot, John Drowze, John Pluckitt, John Serpent, and John Slop. The Johns are on the run from a monstrous creature named Mendelson Shape and Candy is caught up in the chase which takes her to the very top of the crumbling lighthouse. Here, with the Johns’ help, Candy summons the Sea of the Izabella, the gateway to a parallel world called the Abarat.
Comprised of 25 islands, each one paused at a different hour of the day (apart from the 25th island which is clouded in mystery) the Abarat is as weird and wonderful as wonderlands come. Not only is the time different on each island but each one has a different culture, different inhabitants and changeable climates. Unsurprisingly it fast becomes clear that Candy is in danger in the Abarat. When the Lord of Midnight, resident of the horror-story island named Gorgossium, learns about her presence he is inexplicably drawn to her and determined to capture her for his sinister purposes. In her attempts to escape the Lord’s clutches Candy is aided, and often hindered, by a rambunctious cast of characters, ranging from fairly normal humans to bizarre creatures and magical flying machines.
There’s a lot going on in Abarat. Not one of the mysteries hinted at comes close to being solved in this first book and the story had barely got going by the time it finished. I sensed that a cohesive plot had been somewhat jettisoned for a chance to introduce the crowd of characters (again it felt as if Barker was indulging himself). This wasn’t all for the bad — it’s the characters of Abarat that really stand out, particularly the villains. Barker’s horror expertise simmers under the surface. The Lord of Midnight (née Christopher Carrion) is as vile as they come with his scarred lips (his grandmother once sewed them together) and a bizarre head device filled with liquid in which his darkest nightmares swim. Then, on a different tract altogether, there’s JoJo Pixler, the mastermind behind the flashy metropolis known as Commexo City. Where the Lord of Midnight is a pretty old-school monster, Pixler is a young, ambitious entrepreneur set to take over the world with consumerism. Pixler and his pervasive mascot, the “Commexo Kid” won the creepy stakes for me (but then I’m scared of technology).
Candy herself was a bit of a disappointment. The words unbearably cheerful spring to mind. I totally get that she hates her life at home but from the moment she steps into the Abarat attempts at her life are two a penny and her optimism in the face of this gets pretty annoying. I think we’d all understand if she wanted to have a bit of a moan.
I have other gripes with the story. The fact that so much was left unexplained felt like a cop-out. There were a number of passages and characters that (in my opinion) the story could have done without. Emitting them may have left time for stronger plot development and a greater exploration of setting. If you’re going to create a really wonderful fantasy setting I want to hear much more about it — but perhaps that’s where the illustrations come into play.
Nevertheless, even though I didn’t truly love Abarat I was impressed by it. It’s a jam-packed whirlwind of a book, rich in characters, mayhem and mystery (there’s not an “abarat-wiki” for nothing). There were elements I loved and other moments that felt all-too convenient, but I’ve never read anything quite like it before and I won’t forget it in a hurry.