Clive Barker’s contribution to horror is difficult to understate. His invention of Hellraiser alone puts him in the horror hall of fame. Sadly, most people aren’t familiar with his other work. Outside a few tepidly received films like Lord of Illusions and Midnight Meat Train, his work is generally more of an undercurrent – informing countless other works, but remaining slightly low key on its own. His books are typically massive tomes, which can scare off readers. The Great and Secret Show is a fantastic book, but it is dense at 670-odd pages. Using the word “overwrought” to describe his books wouldn’t gather many arguments. As it turns out, his voluminous novels might just be meant to transition into comics.
The Great and Secret Show was adapted to a graphic novel by writer Chris Ryall (Zombies vs. Robots) with art from Gabriel Rodriguez (Locke & Key), resulting in an adaptation that far surpasses the source material not only in accessibility, but emotionally as well. It takes Barker’s story of a mystical war over the sea of dreams called The Quiddity and creates a narrative that is precise as well as creepy and powerful but profoundly disturbing.
The battle of The Quiddity takes place between a mentally unstable former postal worker named Randolph Jaffe, and burnt-out, drug-addicted hippy Fletcher. The opening pages make use of Rodriguez’s distinct ability to show the most disgusting traits of a person through simple smiles and conniving looks. He sets your teeth on edge from the get-go, setting up Jaffe as both a tragic story and a vile beast. Jaffe’s trek to discover the secrets of magic and, ultimately, find his way into the sea of dreams teams him up with Fletcher, and their partnership becomes a rivalry when both are granted powers that no one on Earth should have.
Surprisingly, the story does not entirely focus on Fletcher and Jaffe, but on their children who they produced by raping a group of women in hopes of continuing their war. Barker has always had a penchant for handling sex and rape in a way that glorifies the power involved in sex (consensual or not), while shaming the other half of the equation, all while trying to be titillating, something I have personally always loathed. Ryall manages to weave the atrocity that happens to the women with a sympathetic bent. The aftereffects that each women goes through are portrayed with a more malicious undercurrent in the book, while Ryall seems to hit on the reality of it. We see the human suffering and the attempts to contextualize something that has no explanation. It really is impressive to see.
That talent is what makes this collection one of the best I’ve read. The essence of Barker’s brilliance is there, but the bloat is torn away, and the most important parts are treated with respect and a fresh perspective. Rodriguez seems to be built for this type of story, and it is impossible to picture another artist creating a mood simply through background and color selection. His ability to capture the emotions behind the characters’ eyes is still impressive, even after reading Locke & Key numerous times. With such a rich world to mine, it would be easy for the book to feel overdone, or to add another 50 to 100 pages, but Ryall’s restraint serves the story in a way that not even the original author could manage.
Any fan of horror needs to read The Great and Secret Show. The same goes to fans of magic, or the concept of other levels of reality, or someone simply interested in seeing how well novels can translate into comic form. It really is a master class in comic adaptations and reminds us why each creator involved is considered to be at the top of their fields.