The thief of always

The thief of always / Clive Barker. First published 1992.

The thief of always is somewhat difficult to classify in that “unabridged fairy tale” kind of way. It’s a horror novel that features a ten year old protagonist, but it’s not exactly an “adult” book, nor is it really a children’s book. Originally published in 1992 and illustrated by the author, there was a graphic novel adaptation by IDW in the early 2000s. It’s one of the more well known books in a genre that’s surprisingly underpopulated. I’d guess that authors are hesitant to write straight-up horror geared towards both children are adults. It would be astoundly easy to write a book that is too “adult”, making it difficult to publish and market as well as inviting the outrage of upset parents, but it would be just as easy to write a book that’s not adult enough, that ends up too elementary for older readers. The thief of always walks that line very well.

Plot summary

Harvey Swick is the 10 year old spiritual descendent of Milo of The phantom tollbooth. Dissatisfied with his life, he dreams of being whisked away to somewhere more interesting. To his surprise, this happens when a thin man with an improbably large grin arrives to take him to Mr. Hood’s Holiday House, a paradise for children where Christmas happens every night. Harvey quickly realizes that all is not as it seems, and when he starts to become homesick discovers that returning home is harder than he expected.

So how is it?

The thief of always is one of my favorite children’s books. It’s engaging, disturbing, but still accessible to a wide variety of readers. It has that same dark fairy tale feel that Disney worked so hard to expurgate. Thematically it is similar to The phantom tollbooth – a young boy wishes his life was more exciting, gets his wish, and gains wisdom and maturity. The thief of always lacks much of The phantom tollbooth’s silliness, exchanging it for a more serious tone.

The thief of always is a horror novel for children. I first read it shortly after it was released when I was in elementary school. I liked it, but it made me feel uncomfortable for reasons I couldn’t quite figure out at the time. It’s a book I reread every few years and while my attitude about it changes somewhat, I still enjoy it every time.

Bookstores seem to have trouble figuring out where to put The thief of always. Sometimes it’s in the children’s section (the bookstore where I worked before grad school put it there), sometimes it’s in young adult, and sometimes it’s with the “adult” sf/f. It works in any of those places, really, and that’s the great strength of it.

The thief of always is a book about the dangers of wish-fulfillment, but equally important is what it says about time. Harvey finds the parts of his life in-between major events nigh unbearable, but when he comes to a place where all the best parts of the year are condensed into one day he discovers that they start to loose their meaning.

This book has some personal importance to me, so I’m somewhat biased, but it’s nice to get a horror novel that isn’t incredibly racist, sexist, or excessively violent. It also has the advantage of kitties.


It’s a good read for fans of horror fiction, and anyone who enjoys fairy tale-esque stories about childhood and growing up.

It has a wide appeal, and it’s kind of a go-to recommendation for people looking for something darker but less “extreme” than Stephen King or some of Barker’s other work. People expecting a really gruesome or  violent reading experience will definitely be disappointed though.

Here are my cross-recommendations:

The phantom tollbooth / Norton Juster & Jules Feiffer
Lockwood & co. : the screaming staircase / Jonathan Stroud*
Locke and key / Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez*
We have always lived in the castle / Shirley Jackson
The dream cycle of H.P. Lovecraft – In my opinion, the dream cycle stories are Lovecraft’s best work by far. This is my favorite collection of Lovecraft’s work, as it doesn’t include any works by other authors and most of my favorite stories are here.


*These will have reviews in the relatively near future

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