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Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Clive Barker’s ‘The Forbidden’ – The Humble Beginnings of the ‘Candyman’ Franchise

When it comes to big-screen adaptations of his literary works, Clive Barker has an inconsistent track record to say the least. 

The Midnight Meat Train is a pretty decent stab at representing the first story from his celebrated anthology, The Books of Blood. Whenever the Liverpudlian author has had a direct hand in shaping a film, such as 1990’s Nightbreed, the end result is usually alright too. 

But then we also have embarrassments like Rawhead Rex, which missed the mark so spectacularly that one can only assume it was the main reason Barker chose to personally oversee his next cinematic project, Hellraiser. Much like with Stephen King, certain aspects of Barker’s writing are frankly difficult to visualize, and this can lead to a lot of things getting lost in translation. 

However, Candyman is that rare instance of a movie that is commonly hailed as being superior to its source material (entitled The Forbidden). Those who delve into the short story afterwards are often surprised to learn just how much the film invented – with it creating its own unique backstory and adding to the complex themes. Not to mention, it also benefits from an elegiac musical score by Phillip Glass, establishing a haunting mood that you just don’t get from the printed word. 

While Candyman might have overshadowed The Forbidden in the long run, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give Barker’s version a try. On the contrary, it is still a chilling read in its own right and you can use it to trace the humble beginnings of what would later become a lucrative, four-movie franchise.

In terms of story, Candyman radically expands upon nearly every aspect of The Forbidden (more on that later), but none of the original text is left out. In fact, much of the dialogue was retained for the film’s screenplay and the (living) characters are all basically the same. It’s just that certain parts have been developed a lot further. 

As such, the narrative will be immediately familiar to fans of the movie and there won’t be too many unexpected differences here. Like in the movie, our protagonist is a grad student named Helen, who is using a local impoverished neighbourhood as the basis for her upcoming thesis. 

When we first meet her, she is doing preliminary research for this paper, wandering the desolate streets of Liverpool and reflecting on how she has “seldom seen an inner city environment so comprehensively vandalized”. Indeed, everywhere she looks there are signs of strife, with overthrown fences, busted streetlamps, and cars that have been set ablaze. 

Yet it is actually the ubiquitous graffiti that has drawn Helen to Spector Street in the first place. Despite only being three years old, the residential area is already totally covered in vulgar obscenities, sexual boasts, and what appear to be gang markings. She is here to catalogue the most interesting samples for use in her dissertation, which she hopes will be a trailblazing study on the “semiotics of urban despair”. 

Naturally, Helen’s presence does not go unnoticed by the council estate’s tenants, who regard her with suspicion from afar. Yet one of the residents – named Anne-Marie – is less distrusting and approaches to make friendly conversation. She subsequently invites Helen deeper into the neighbourhood and takes her on a tour of some of the more interesting spots. 

Eventually, they arrive at a deserted maisonette that promises to be rife with gripping research material. From the doorway alone Helen notices that the rug is soaked with urine, that the windows are all boarded up and that the furniture has been torn apart, seemingly by a crazed lunatic. Decorated wall to wall in graffiti, this is exactly the kind of place she has been looking for.   

One specific piece of art that catches her eye is a nightmarish face that has been meticulously illustrated on the plaster, framing a door so that it resembles a gaping mouth. To Helen, it looks like the extravagant paint job that you might see on the exterior of a fairground ghost train. She is mesmerized by how this unsettling image – depicting a man with jaundiced skin, red-rimmed eyes, wiry hair, patchwork clothes and sharpened teeth – has been created with such fine detail, suggesting that it must have been inspired by a real-life encounter.  

The rest of the story revolves around Helen’s obsessive investigation into the mythic Candyman and a string of killings that took place in the nearby area. Everyone she interviews gives her a slightly different version of events, but the gruesome level of violence remains consistent across each telling. The murder weapon is usually either a hook or a razor blade and the victims are always savaged beyond recognition. For example, one man is said to have been slashed to ribbons and had his eyes gouged out, while another was brutally castrated in the public toilets.

Helen’s interest is purely academic at first but, as she heads further down the rabbit hole, she becomes increasingly convinced that this is more than just an urban legend. And with this being a Clive Barker tale, she inevitably gets way more than she bargained for. 

The Forbidden is less overtly about Candyman (who doesn’t even appear until page 31 of a 37-page narrative) and more about the hysteria surrounding him. While the cinematic adaptation has a loose slasher-movie structure, this plays out more like a classic ghost story, with top-heavy build up, plenty of mystery, and a supernatural reveal that only arrives at the very end – ala The Turn of the Screw or Whistle and I’ll Come to You

The 1992 film captures a similar tone in its first half, but here that sense of creepy ambiguity is maintained throughout. So, if you were hoping for a constant stream of grisly deaths and suspenseful chase sequences here, you are going to be disappointed. 

What you get instead is a thoughtful meditation on how urban legends mutate over time and why people even tell these macabre stories in the first place. On that note, so much of The Forbidden is about the major inconsistencies between all the different accounts of the Spector Street murders. 

Helen’s university peers speculate that the residents are simply improvising an elaborate fiction, which is why there are so many holes in the reports, but our protagonist has a different theory. Rather, she posits that the tale is being embellished with each narrator’s own repressed urges, and that everybody adds a piece of themselves when they tell it. 

Through his protagonist, Barker seems to be concluding that urban legends are a socially acceptable way for us to confess our hidden desires. That we tell these stories because, on some unconscious level, we want to vent our darkest thoughts. It is an idea that is equal parts troubling and fascinating. Not to mention, it also neatly ties into the rest of the author’s works, especially those featured in the Books of Blood

Another theme that runs throughout The Forbidden is class divide. The residents of Spector Street are not explicitly identified as Black (like the Cabrini Green tenants in the movie) but it is still a poor metropolitan district. One that is largely neglected by the government and police. 

Helen flatters herself into thinking that she is different and has a greater degree of empathy for those who live here, as well as a keener understanding of their plight, but deep down she still regards them as others. Navigating the various alleyways and cul de sacs of the neighbourhood, she is intimidated by them and their way of life. 

She is accustomed to classy restaurants, sophisticated parties and the company of those who have been published in reputable journals. This is not her regular crowd at all and at one point she even likens herself to “an anthropologist amongst an alien tribe”. At least she doesn’t regard them with outward contempt like most of her colleagues though, who feign liberal attitudes at the dinner table but are really just elitist snobs underneath all the moral posturing. 

While there is certainly a lot of thematic depth to unpack with The Forbidden, that doesn’t automatically mean that reading it must be a dry, intellectual exercise. After all, it is still an unsettling horror story for those who just want a good scare and it is very fluently written.

Speaking of which, Barker has a firm command of the English language and an expert talent for choosing the right words to get under your skin. This enables him to conjure a thick atmosphere of dread, even when nothing particularly frightening is happening. Furthermore, his descriptions are among the most evocative that you will ever find in the genre, with an attention to detail and expressive vocabulary that ensures certain images will stick in your mind until long after you have moved onto the next short story. 

On that note, if you haven’t dipped into any of the Books of Blood (the fourth volume of which contains The Forbidden) then you should rectify that immediately. Bursting with imagination, populated by disturbing characters and backed up vivid prose, they are must-reads for genre aficionados.   

Of course, as we mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Candyman took the basic premise of The Forbidden and expanded upon it greatly. Like the residents of Spector Street, director Bernard Rose embellished the story with new ideas, subplots and an entire middle act that isn’t present in the source material at all. 

He also migrated the action from Liverpool to Chicago, beefed up the kill count and imbued the titular villain with an all-new backstory. The most significant change made in the transition between page and screen though is obviously the fact that Candyman is Black. In case you were not aware, this is not in the book and there is no interracial love affair either, nor was he the victim of a lynch mob.

In fact, you do not really learn that much about the revenant in Barker’s short story, given that his appearance is so late in the game.  What we do know is that his name derives from the sweet aroma that heralds his arrival; that he still has a hook for a hand and that bees have nested in his ribcage. Plus, he seems to possess that same hypnotic quality that Tony Todd so memorably exudes in the film.

Otherwise, everything else about his motivation, origin and even the summoning ritual of repeating his name in the mirror five times, is an invention of the movie. As such, if you come to the short story fresh after a viewing the film, it weirdly feels like a lot of stuff is missing. 

Nevertheless, The Forbidden remains an effective little ghost story on its own terms and, at just under 40 pages, you can easily get through it in a single sitting. You should definitely give it a chance if you haven’t already, if for no other reason than to see the inspiration for one of the greatest horror movies of all time. 


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