It all sounds like the start of some hackneyed horror film, doesn't it? Clear out of the blue, a bunch of studio executives all get a call from the agent of a famous (some might say infamous) horror writer. These Hollywood types all get invited up to the author's mansion to see something ... mysterious.
So what do these studio heads find? Literally a gateway to another world.
For all your "Hellraiser" fans out there: No, the key to this amazing "other dimension" wasn't some strange, occult cube-shaped puzzle box. And, no, the studio execs - as punishment for their misdeeds - weren't all dragged down to Hell by Pinhead and his minions. (Which - when you think about it - probably was a missed opportunity. Oh, well. Maybe next time ...)
No, the way one entered this wonderful new land was through looking at paintings. Over 200 oil paintings, to be precise. Some canvases as large as 13 feet by 9 feet. Which filled the mansion with these wondrous images of a mysterious archipelago known as ... Abarat.
And who was the host of this most unusual event? The same gentleman who painted all the canvases that were on display in the manse, noted horror writer and film-maker Clive Barker. Ah, but this time around, Barker wasn't out to create another Candyman. He was after bigger game: A story for children. An epic tale in the style of C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia." A story that - sure - would have its share of frights. But plenty of wonder and magic as well.
According to Barker, this radical departure from horror writing "... is closer to my heart than anything I've done. In 15 years of publishing and movie making, nothing has excited me more."
Why was Clive so excited? Because Barker felt that the Abarat story - with all its colorful characters and locations - was just too grand to be confined inside the pages of a mere book. He felt that the images that he'd put up on these oil paintings (which Clive created just so that he could truly come to know the fantasical characters & settings that he'd be using in his "Abarat" books) told him that this four-volume-set could be so much more. A series of movies, perhaps. Or a theme park attraction. Hell, maybe even a whole theme park full of attractions. Interactive computer games. Toys. And so much more ...
This is why Clive decided to to invite all of these studio executives to his home. Before he'd even written a single word of the story. To see if these hardened Hollywood types could "get it." That they could see the inherent possibilities in the "Abarat" saga. That this tale could be so much more than a book.
So Barker would walk his guests through his mansion. And - speaking off the cuff and using his paintings to illustrate key moments in the story - told them all the tale of "Abarat."
To be honest, the story's set-up does borrow a bit from L. Frank Baum's "The Wizard of Oz." For this tale also starts out with a young girl growing up in America's heartland. But - instead of Dorothy Gale of Kansas - our heroine is 16 year-old Candy Quackenbush of Chickentown, MN. Candy hates her life as the daughter of an alcoholic father and a depressed mother. She yearns to escape her life of "boredom, violence and tears."
But then - one day in school - young Ms. Quackenbush is assigned to do a report on Chickentown. In doing research for her paper, she undercovers all these mysterious secrets about her little town. Like - for example - how the dull little burg that Candy lives in had once supposedly sat at the edge of a magical inland sea: the Sea of Izabella.
Intrigued by this factoid, Quackenbush skips out on school one day and hikes across the prairie - determined to find some proof of this allegedly mystic but now missing body of water. What Candy finds instead is a tumbledown lighthouse with a mysterious creature hiding inside of it: John Mischief, a man with antlers growing out of his head. (If that weren't strange enough, Michief's antlers have seven talking heads growing out of them. And these seven talking heads are actually John's brothers ... Anyway ... )
Quackenbush and Mischief have barely been introduced when they're confronted by a dark huntsman, Mendelson Shape. Shape calls John a thief, then threatens Candy. So how do these two escape? By plunging into the magical Sea of Izabella.
Sounds pretty strange so far, doesn't it? Wait. It gets weirder.
Candy now washes up in the archipelago of Abarat, a string of 25 islands - one for every hour of the day. (Yes, you read that right. 25 islands for 24 hours. Which means there's an individual island for every hour that you find in a day. 1 a.m., 2 a.m., etc. Plus a mysterious 25th island, which is for "time out of time." Whatever that means. Anyhow ... ) Where Quackenbush soon finds herself caught in a battle between Rojo Pixler, the greedy ruler of 3 a.m., & Christopher Carrion, the dark Lord of Midnight, for control over this bizarre land.
During her adventures, Candy makes some friends (I.E. the loyal if sloth-like slave, Malingo) as well as some powerful enemies (I.E. The evil wizard, Kaspar Wolfswinkel). Quackenbush also learns that Christopher Carrion is desperately searching for her. Why? Because her arrival in Abarat has reportedly been foretold. And should Candy ever fulfill her destiny ...
Ah, you don't want me to give the whole story away, do you? I thought not. To learn more about Candy Quackenbush and her adventures in "Abarat," go pick up a copy of the first book of Barker's new four volume series. Which now on sale at a bookstore near you.
Anywho ... Getting back to Barker's elaborate sales pitch: Clive walked all these Tinsel Town types through his home and give them his "Abarat" pitch. And we're talking some of Hollywood's heaviest hitters, people. Steve Spielberg & Jeffrey Katzenberg from Dreamworks SKG. Harvey Weinstein from Miramax. The folks from Fox as well as Warners.
And these folks did see that there was more to this story than just a mere book or movie. So they all bid fiercely for the "Abarat" project. But - in the end - it was the Walt Disney Company that won the day. Why? Well, as Clive has explained, "(Disney) said 'We want to exploit this material in in every medium we're in. From theater through parks through toys, whatever. And that was my dream for this material."
What really nailed Disney's bid for Barker? Made him agreed to sell the film and ancillary rights for "Abarat" to the Walt Disney Company for $8 million back in April 2000? Disney's reps (Who knew that Clive was a big-time Mouse fan from way back. How so? The author has often been quoted as saying that two of the films that made the biggest impression on Barker when he was a kid was Disney's "Fantasia" and "Pinocchio") said the magic word: theme park. As in: the folks from Walt Disney Studios reportedly promised Clive that the Imagineers would build an "Abarat" island at Disneyland for him. Oh ... and for us, too.
Anywho ... Barker was reportedly ecstatic at the idea of Disney theme park rides & shows being based on his book. He was quoted as saying that he thought that "it's tremendous to think that I'm going to walk down Disneyland's Main Street into Abarat Land in maybe five years time. It sounds pretty cool."
Michael Mendenhall, Walt Disney Studios President of Marketing & Synergy seems to think that this acquisition was pretty cool too. He described the "Abarat" books as being a real coup for the company, "a combination of Harry Potter and a contemporary 'Wizard of Oz," but even richer in character and setting."
According to Mendenhall, the real reason that Disney played its theme park card while pursuing "Abarat" is that "for us, this (project) is a way to develop creative content (for our corporation) for years to come. Clive clearly has a creative direction that's very in line with our studio's." Michael went on to say that he envisioned Disney as eventually going on to produce "... 'Abarat' themed interactive games, TV animation, live-action TV ... music, (even) reproductions of the art from the film."
But that's all somewhere off in the future, folks. For now, Disney's just concentrating on producing an "Abarat" movie (Which - according to my sources - will actually be based on the first two "Abarat" books. Which, provided that the first movie is a success, should be the start of a trilogy of Disney films that would be based on the "Abarat" series). Which the Mouse hopes to have out in theaters by 2005.
Though - at present - there's been no decision yet about which format this film will be made in (I.E. Traditional animation, CG, a mix of live action and traditional animation, live action, and CG, etc.), the folks at Walt Disney Feature Animation are still the ones who are currently riding herd on adapting Barker's books to the big screen. I'm told that they've already got a number of Clive's paintings up in a room on the third floor of the WDFA building in Burbank. I've also been told that these canvases (which are kept under lock & key, by the way) are absolutely amazing to look at.
If you'd like to get a look at some of Barker's paintings, that's another good reason to go pick the book version of "Abarat." Over 100 of those Clive's canvases have been used to illustrate this 400 page fantasy.
That's where you can catch a glimpse of John Mischief and his antlers full of talking heads. Or Wolfswinkel, the evil wizard (who has his own strange set of headgear. Six squashed hats that crammed down around his ears). Characters that - providing that the Walt Disney Company actually lives up to its promise to Clive Barker - may soon be strolling down Main Street U.S.A. in an "Abarat" themed parade.
Which is a somewhat scary way to end this story, don't you think?