The Thief of Always by Clive Barker
This book has one of the best opening lines I have ever read:
“The great, gray beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.”
Having grown up in New England, where February is the punishment that God metes out for all sinners, I have decided that you can’t beat that.
Harvey Swick is ten years old, and like so many ten year-old boys, he is bored with his life. The interminable grayness of February, the drudgery of life – going to school, coming home, going to school again – and believes that, if his life became the tiniest bit more boring, he would most certainly perish.
Then he met a strange, smiling man named Rictus, who told Harvey of a wonderful place where boredom could not enter, and there was nothing to be had but fun and adventure. There is no better place for children, Rictus said, than Mister Hood’s Holiday House.
Thinking about it, given that Harvey was willing to follow a strange man to a mysterious house without much consideration for his safety, suggests either that Harvey is not very bright, or Rictus is extremely persuasive. Given the rest of the book, I’d bet on the latter.
The Holiday House is truly a place of miracles. The food is better than you’ve ever eaten and there are enough toys and games and costumes and masks to keep any child happy for the rest of their lives. And in every day there are four seasons – a perfect green spring in the morning, a blazing wonderful summer in the afternoon, an evening full of woodsmoke, pumpkins and fallen leaves, and every night is a white Christmas with a present for each boy and girl.
It is the best place Harvey has ever been, and it takes him about a month to realize that something is not… quite right. Why would the mysterious Mister Hood do this for children? And what happened to the children who had come before? And what’s the deal with that cold, deep pond full of big, creepy fish?
It’s a coming-of-age book, the kind that chronicles the transition from childhood to young adulthood. Ten isn’t exactly young adult territory, but it is a time when kids start maturing in the way they think about themselves and the world. Not for nothing that so many young adult novels feature a protagonist that is somewhere between ten and twelve years old – they’re still young enough to have an air of innocence (which inevitably gets torn away) but old enough to think for themselves when there are no adults around to think for them.
There is no end to this kind of book – Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Stephen King and
Richard Bachman’s Peter Straub’s The Talisman, John Gilstrap’s Nathan’s Run, and just about anything written by William Sleator are among my favorites in this genre. They represent a growing-up that we feel we ought to have had, but are happy to have missed. They deal with the concepts that kids have to deal with as they age, and do so in a manner that young people can understand – analogy.
The Thief of Always is a book about getting what you want. Anyone who’s spent time around children knows that they’re greedy little beggars. They are dominated by their id and don’t understand that there are concerns out there that might supersede their own. Harvey Swick is just such a boy. He is concerned with his own excitement, his own happiness, and, having a child’s limited view of time, believes that the boredom he feels in the grip of February is permanent. He wants adventure. He wants change and variety, a life that never slows down and never gets old.
As the old saying suggests, however, one must be careful what one wishes for.
In the end, Harvey learns a Valuable Lesson ™ – to let the future happen in its own time, and appreciate what you have now. Because once time is gone, you can never – or at least very, very rarely – get it back again.
It’s a very quick read, but a very good book. I pull it out every February, if only for that opening line. For those who think of Clive Barker as being a master of the gory, pin-headed horror genre, this book may come as a pleasant surprise for you. And if you have kids around Harvey’s age, leave this one lying around for them to find. I’m sure they’ll appreciate it….
“I only took the days you didn’t want,” Hood protested. “The rainy days. The gray days. The days you wished away. Where’s the crime in that?”
“I didn’t know what I was losing,” Harvey protested.
“Ah,” said Hood softly, “but isn’t that always the way of it?”
– from The Thief of Always