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Literature / The Thief of Always

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The Thief of Always is a fable written by Clive Barker that may read like a children's book, but it's just as enjoyable for adults. It deals with temptation, growing up and mortality, and it has a few good helpings of horror, as expected of Clive Barker.

Ten-year-old Harvey Swick is unsatisfied with boring, day-to-day life; he is sick of dealing with school, homework, nagging parents... Until a shady figure named Rictus appears in his room and offers him a stay at the "Holiday House", a paradise where kids don't age or ever have work. There are four seasons a day, every night is Christmas, and the House grants any wish, all made possible by a man called Mr. Hood.

Harvey quickly befriends the incumbent residents of the house: two other kids named Wendell and Lulu, kindly caretaker Mrs. Griffin and her seemingly sentient cats, and two of Rictus's "siblings". However, some sinister hints are dropped, such as the collection of children's clothes in the attic, the foreboding lake with child-sized fish behind the House, and mentions of a fourth member of Rictus's family called "Carna". Above all, who is Mr. Hood and where does he get his power from? Eventually, Harvey's curiosity and growing suspicions about the House lead him to discover some unpleasant truths...

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This work provides examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Due to Hood's magic, only children can find the house. When adults try, all attempts to find the House fail.
  • Animorphism: For Halloween, Harvey is transformed into a vampire by Marr. A real one.
  • Bad Future: The first time Harvey escapes, it's revealed that a year passed for every day spent at Holiday House. Harvey disappeared for 30 years and returned to his parents as a 10-year-old boy.
  • The Barnum: Hood gains immortality by luring in gullible, greedy, lazy or just plain lonely children to the Holiday House and then taking their souls when they've spent enough time there.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: The book's premise as Harvey wants to escape the responsibilities of growing up but finds getting all his wishes comes at a heavy price at Holiday House.
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  • Big Brother Is Watching: The House itself is listening to you.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The heroes escape Holiday House, but they have to go back to their separate time periods. When Harvey encounters Lulu again outside the House, she's already grown up and engaged.
  • Body Horror:
    • Lulu's gradual transformation into a fish.
    • The descriptions of Hood's minions. Rictus has an unnatural, shark like grin, and Marr is described as grossly obese. Marr has an extra helping of Body Horror in her demise, where she melts from her own transformative powers. The book also comes with a lot of drawings, some of them featuring said body horror.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The Ark is seen and referneced several times throughout the story, and features as part of Harvey's final attack on Hood.
  • Cheshire Cat Grin: Rictus is always sporting one of these, looking rather like a shark.
  • Cool Old Lady: Mrs. Griffin, who is herself a prisoner ( the first one, in fact), takes care of the children and tries to provide them with as much happiness as she can before their end. She also helps Harvey escape the first time around.
  • Dark Is Evil: But it's hard to spot the darkness at first...
  • Deal with the Devil: Mrs. Griffin, Hood's first victim, accepts a deal for immortality with him because of her fear of death after her first cat died. Hood later offers Harvey a deal as well, and Harvey accepts in order to trick Hood into exhausting his magic as a proof of his power.
  • Death Seeker: Mrs. Griffin, made immortal as part of her Deal with the Devil because she feared death, has now lived so long and seen so much that she welcomes death in the end.
  • Delicious Distraction: Harvey doesn't fall for it, but Wendell does.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: At the end of the book all the children who were tapped at Holiday House return back to their own time periods. Lulu being older than Harvey is an old woman by the time Harvey is just the same age.
  • Disney Villain Death (doubles as Karmic Death): Hood is killed when he falls into the lake and is pulled into a swirling vortex, which agonisingly destroys him.
  • The Ditz: Wendell. He doesn't care about much of anything, and just likes to loaf around. He isn't very bright, or brave, or strong willed, but somehow always manages to stay out of danger, especially during the final fight, to which he is completely oblivious.
  • The Dragon: Carna is more beastly and monsterous and acts as Mr. Hood's more serious enforcer compared to the other members of his Quirky Miniboss Squad.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Harvey and Wendell manage to escape from the House halfway through the book. However, they both have lost a lot of years of their lives, and had to leave Lulu behind, for whom it was already too late. They decide to return and fight Hood for their lost time, which leads to the actual happy ending.
  • Easter Egg: In the illustration of the Halloween masks, one of the masks is of Pinhead.
  • Epiphanic Prison: Besides the wall, the House also creates illusions that trap children inside their own minds. It takes a strong will to resist these illusions, and see things for what they really are (if only glimpses). Wendell, however, is weak willed, and easily falls under Hood's sway again on his return.
  • The Faceless: Mr. Hood does make a "body" for himself from the remains of Holiday House, but his true face is never seen.
  • Fantastic Fragility: To defeat the Big Bad, Harvey wishes up a real, live ark, then an impossible feast, then for every season at once, under the guise of a soon-to-be apprentice testing his master's power. This ends up destroying the House and draining the Big Bad's power.
  • The Fog of Ages: Mrs. Griffin is Really 700 Years Old, as she struck a deal with Hood for immortality. Not even she knows how old she really is.
  • Foreshadowing: Harvey's transformation into a vampire for Halloween
  • Giving Them the Strip: Harvey is grabbed by the back of the jacket, so he slips out of his jacket to escape.
  • Growing Up Sucks: Played with. It's definitely a theme in the beginning of the novel.
  • Happy Place: Holiday House, and the book name drops the trope title. Combines with Epiphanic Prison to form a Lotus-Eater Machine that traps children inside.
  • He Who Must Not Be Seen: Mr. Hood, for the majority of the book
  • Hoist by His Own Petard:
    • Marr, who Harvey forces to reshape herself into her dream appearance. Unfortunately, she dreams of nothing.
    • Jive, wanting to demonstrate that the food is not poisoned, eats it. The food is really dust, however, which reminds his body that it, too, is dust, upon which he turns to dust himself.
    • Rictus stole a bit of Hood's magic as insurance. However, he gloats about this right on top of the ruins, which promptly reform into Hood's hand, and forces him to release the magic, leading to Hood's One-Winged Angel form.
    • Hood, eager to please Harvey so he will accept his Deal with the Devil, ends up draining his own magic to do so, and destroying his first form with Harvey's final wish.
  • Hyperactive Sprite: Jive is described as this: "Every muscle in his body seemed to be in motion: tics, jigs, and jitterings ... Even his hair ... seemed to hear some crazed rhytm."
  • Immortality Immorality:
    • Hood, who stays immortal by stealing the souls and life force of children.
    • Downplayed for Mrs. Griffin, who struck a Deal with the Devil to become immortal. She is still very kind-hearted, though, and her deal was motivated purely by a fear of death.
  • Impossibly Delicious Food: Every night is Halloween, then Thanksgiving.
  • Involuntary Shapeshifting: When Marr is hoisted by her own petard.
  • Jedi Mind Trick: Hood's illusions can be very persuasive for the Weak-Willed.
  • Kid Hero: Our main character Harvey Swick is a young boy.
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: Mrs. Griffin, who has three cats. This also plays a pivotal role in her backstory.
  • The Little Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday: Only specific children can find their way to Holiday House or have to be lead there by one of his henchmen. When Harvey and his Dad try to go looking for it, they are unable to get there.
  • Loners Are Freaks: Wendell believes that Lulu qualifies for this trope, but once Harvey gets to know her she's quite nice. Unfortunately, there's a reason (see Body Horror) why she keeps to herself...
  • Lotus-Eater Machine: The House functions as one. Hood uses illusions and magic to keep children happy, making them want to stay.
  • Master of Illusion: Hood, who uses illusions to trap children in his House, in order to steal their souls.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Marr, Jive, Rictus
    • Mrs. Griffin, who acts as a protector of children.
  • More Teeth than the Osmond Family: Carna is described as having hundreds of teeth, which she apparently likes to steal (some were stolen from Marr). Rictus is also described as having a huge, sharklike grin with a lot of perfect teeth.
  • Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Carna, invoking carnage. Rictus and Marr also count if you get the Meaningful Name.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Harvey, particularly for becoming a vampire. During the Halloween night where he is transformed into a vampire, he really enjoys the experience, is tempted to attack Wendell for a moment when the latter offers him as a much better victim instead (not knowing it is Harvey, and never finding out, for that matter), and is saddened once the spell is taken away. Later, when he feels he has been defeated, he fervently wishes he could just be a vampire again.
  • Not So Different: See Title Drop.
    • Strictly speaking, Hood is completely correct in this assessment; they've both stolen things that make a person what they are — things that should never be taken by anyone. Hood has stolen the souls of the children lured to his Holiday House, while Harvey has stolen the lives of Hood's illusory minions The difference comes in why they did it — Harvey did it to lure out Hood so he could defeat him and save the children trapped there, while Hood has merely done it to extend his warped existence and feed his unholy hunger. The difference between heroism and villainy sometimes isn't in what you do, but why you do it. Not the sort of thing you tend to see in a children's book.
  • Older Than They Look: The residents of the House have come from various different points in time. However for every one day at Holiday House, a whole year passed in the real world.
  • One-Winged Angel: Hood. His first form is the House itself. After his first defeat, he becomes a giant built out of the wreckage of the House.
  • Our Souls Are Different: Losing yours apparently causes you to turn into a fish.
  • Our Vampires Are Different: Harvey turns into something more akin to classical vampires, with a red throat, black fur, and leathery wings under his arms.
  • Pleasure Island: At the Holiday House there are four seasons a day, every night is Christmas, and the House grants any wish, all made possible by a man called Mr. Hood. Eventually though, Harvey's curiosity and growing suspicions about the House lead him to discover some unpleasant truths...
  • Powered by a Forsaken Child: Hood's powers are fueled by the souls of children, which in turn he uses to lure and trap more children.
  • Quirky Miniboss Squad: Rictus and his family function as this to Mr. Hood's plans.
  • The Renfield: Rictus is revealed to be one for Hood, acting as his lackey. Jive is also said to function as this.
  • Reset Button Ending: At the end of the story, all children are sent back to their own times, having only lost the few months they spent at the House as children.
  • The Reveal: Several, most notably the real nature of the House, and Mrs. Griffin's mysterious backstory.
  • Right Behind Me: After Hood is seemingly defeated, Rictus reveals that he had secretly stolen some of Hood's power for himself. But then a hand reaches out of the ruins of the House and grabs him...
  • Ripple Effect-Proof Memory: [ When everyone returns to their own times, they all retain their memories of what happened, even though the Bad Future for Harvey and Wendell is erased.
  • Title Drop: In a Not So Different moment, "Vampire King" Hood tells Harvey he is a "Thief of Always" just like him.
  • Trapped in Another World: After Harvey and Wendell escape the first time, they end up in a Bad Future where the world has moved ahead by decades, and their parents have grown old without them.
  • The Trickster: Rictus appears to be this at first, but later on it's shown that Harvey fits the heroic variation.
  • Visual Pun: Lulu has a doll's house occupied by her pet lizards, who are lounging around on the furniture, making them literal Lounge Lizards. The accompanying image makes this even clearer.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: Played with. Marr has the ability to transform other people, she uses it to turn Harvey into a giant bat at his request. However...
  • Weak-Willed: Wendell isn't a very strong character in that when he and Harvey return to try and fight Mr. Hood, Wendall is easily brought back under the house's spell.
  • We Can Rule Together: Hood plays this straight with Harvey, offering him a Deal with the Devil.
  • What Year Is This?: Subverted, no mention is made of what year it is, currently or in the Bad Future, no one asks, and when Harvey asks Mrs. Griffin, they'd rather not say because it would be too painful.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Mrs. Griffin, after being granted immortality as part of her deal with Hood, has grown tired of it and has become a Death Seeker.
  • Year Outside, Hour Inside: For every day spent at Holiday House, a whole year passes in the real world.
  • You Have Failed Me: Rictus, who reveals he has betrayed Hood by stealing some of his magic for himself, and plans to become his successor. Hood promptly reforms himself into a new form and murders him for his betrayal.

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