First published back in November of 2013, Clive Barker’s ‘First Tales’ contained two of the author’s very first stories, penned from when the author was just seventeen-years-old, and now published here for the very first time.  The book was released in a number of very limited hardback formats as well as a general release ebook, all of which were lovingly presented with original illustrations for ‘The Wood On The Hill’ and appendices on select editions.  An audiobook version was also made available for free download at the time of release.

The book contains the following two stories:

The Wood On The Hill - 17 pages
The wood that was situated on top of the hill had been there since before mankind first walked upon the earth.  Indeed, it was as if it had always been there.  It was old, and with its age came strength and many many memories.

Near to the woods, within the close-running valley, there’s a large white house which is home to the Duchess and her thirty-one servants.  A most-dislikeable and vain woman, who would host extravagant parties in here home four times a year.

However, late one September, whilst deep in thought, the Duchess strayed further away from her home than she had ever been before.  And that is how she came upon the wood on the hill for the very first time.  In a moment of inspiration, she turns to her aged-servant, Michael, and declares that she wishes to hold her next party – her Grand Halloween Ball - in this very woods.

Knowing something of its lengthy heritage, the old servant tries to put the Duchess off the idea – but she cannot be swayed.  Even during the preparations, when the old sorcerer who’s responsible for the evening’s fireworks tries to dissuade the Duchess, his warnings fall on deaf ears.

But when the night of party finally arrives, the trees are waiting.  Above the guests they whisper a language of old.  Whispering of a vengeance planned.  A vengeance for that very night…

For something that was penned when Barker was just seventeen or so, the sheer storytelling skill of the piece is impressive in itself.  Indeed, the short reads very very well, with a good pace and flow to its delivery, as well as a choice atmosphere attached to its overall tone.  It’s very much a fable-esque style of child’s folk story – commencing with the immortal “Once upon a time..” and ending with a suitably grim moral lesson.

Although short in length, Barker crammed in many branches to his whimsical yarn; always building up to the time of the Duchess’ Halloween Ball when the thoughtless aristocrat and all her tiresome friends get their unsurprising comeuppance.

And to be honest it’s an absolute joy to read.  The story just bounds by, with the reader swallowed up in the whole fantastical atmosphere of the story.  From start to finish, it’s nothing but a pleasure to be immersed in Barker’s imaginative world away from everything else.

The Candle In The Cloud
- 118 pages
It was an evening like any other when Graham Bedford was asked by his mother to take the potato peelings down to the bottom of the garden to be thrown onto the compost heap.  However, as the young boy made his way through the bramble patch, he notices a pair of eyes staring out at him from the shadowy darkness.

Reacting to the sudden appearance of Graham, the intruder – a scared old man – darts out from the bramble patch, dropping a white candle to the ground as he desperately tries to get away.  Clambering off into the adjoining field, the old man darts off out of sight into the white mist of snow.  And as he does, Graham is convinced that he glimpses two horsemen galloping off across the field after the old man.

Following his bizarre encounter with the strange intruder, Graham meets up with his friend Colin and his sister Gwen.  Graham tells the story of his odd encounter and shows them the candle that the old man had dropped.  A candle with three eyes elaborately shaped within its wax.

After being shown the candle, Colin and Gwen manage to convince Graham that they should light it together.  Begrudgingly, Graham accepts, and later on that day the three children go to Woolton Woods where they light the candles wick.

However, upon lighting the candle, the three children are plunged into a deep sleep, to later awaken in a different world.  Within moments of waking from their slumber, they encounter a strange old man who introduces himself as Darach the Wise.

Together with his friend, Michelmas Wake-Robin, the two men escort the children to Darach’s cottage whilst they discuss this new turn of events.

However, the children have already noticed the cloud that writhes as if full of maggots, and is so vast and dense that the sun cannot penetrate it.  A hideous unmoving cloud that overshadows everything – swallowing up the land as it expands out from behind the horizons mountainous range.

But as time passes by, the children become restless within the safety of Darach’s cottage, and eventually Colin convinces his sister and Graham to go down into the nearby valley.  And it’s there, whilst playing in a field of buttercups, that they are seen by one of the horsemen.  And with that simple mistake, the cloud knows that they are here in this world and it will come for them.

For the horsemen form Elz-raal-hiam’s guard.  Dark and loathsome creatures who will stop at nothing to obtain the candle so that they may destroy it.  And the time has come for the children to act upon the threat of the vast plague cloud.  The time is upon them to cross into Desolation and bring the light to the Darkest Places…

Completed during the summer of 1971, ‘The Candle In The Cloud’ was Barker’s first full-length novel, which he had been working on for some time; sharing it with friends as he wrote it, to gauge how the story should progress.

The end result is a tale, rich in imagination and submerged in fantasy, which transports the reader to another world.  Indeed, this notion of disappearing into a world-within-a-world is a recurring theme for Barker; and something that can be witnessed most notably in the likes of ‘Weaveworld’ (1987), ‘The Great And Secret Show’ (1989), ‘Imajica’ (1991), ‘The Thief Of Always’ (1992) and (is perhaps most closely-linked to) the ‘Abarat’ (2002) series.

Furthermore, Barker was clearly inspired by J.R.R. Tolkein’s ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ (1954) trilogy, with much of the basic storyline drawing particularly close similarities to Tolkein’s tale.  The horsemen in Barker’s story closely resemble Tolkein’s Black Rider’s, the children’s mission is almost identical to that of Frodo and Samwise’s, and The Black Wolf, Lord of the Northern Marches is pretty much a replacement for the corrupt character of Denethor.

However, it’s the similarities with Barker’s own ‘Abarat’ novels that are by far and away the closest.  Along with the children transporting off into another world, the particular inclusion of a Beacon Tower is an aspect that Barker revisited, adding the lighthouse/beacon as a key element within his ‘Abarat’ books.

The novella keeps together a good pace, with plenty of surprises and sudden twists in its plot.  Yes there’s obvious inspiration from ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ (1954) in there, but Barker’s own take on this style of fantasy story has its own ingrained charm.

Barker’s writing skills were at this stage at something of an infancy, and it does show when held up against his later work.  Nevertheless, the way that the novella flows, and the overall atmosphere and reasonably vivid descriptions throughout, make for a very engaging and compelling read.

To see the early work that Barker (as an author) blossomed out from makes this essential reading for any fan of his writing.  Furthermore, both stories are incredibly enjoyable pieces of imaginative fiction, that it’s just a pleasure to immerse yourself in the wonderfully colourful stories of utter escapism.

The book runs for a total of 144 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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