The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker (2015)

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This has been one of the most hotly anticipated books of this year among horror fans.  Clive Barker returns to the character that put him on the map, the cenobite Pinhead, who was made iconic in the film Hellraiser, which was adapted from Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart.  It seems like Clive has been talking about returning to that character for the past twenty years.  The concept of the book has been described by it’s creator as being about Pinhead, who he really is, where he comes from, his real name, and his eventual destruction at the hands of Barker’s regular character Harry D’Amour.  One of D’Amour’s stories was also made into a film in 1995’s Lord of Illusions.  The book seems like a dream come true for Barker fans as the ideas on display tie a lot of his works together, especially The Books of the Art series that D’Amour appears in.

Its important to point out this book takes place as a direct sequel to The Hellbound Heart, and has no ties to the film series or comics. From the outset of the novel, Pinhead kicks things off in a very violent fashion as he completely annihilates a group of black art practitioners, who have banded together in order to put a stop to his evil ways.  Pinhead also wants their secrets for his own purposes which he is playing very close to his chest.  Meanwhile, private eye and supernatural expert Harry D’Amour is doing a job that takes him to New Orleans and eventually sets him up for direct conflict with Pinhead.

My anticipation for this book has been fueled for years, and I flew through this book (which I received as a review copy from the fine people at St. Martin’s Press, for which I am very grateful) in under a week.  The first few chapters were magnificent and it was good to see Pinhead back in the hands of his master.  The Hellraiser franchise is interesting because it’s something that as Barker once said has evolved from a small book into a community project that has spanned almost thirty years now (I feel old).  The short-comings of the series is that it lacks any sure-fire “rules” to it’s universe, or even any real sense of doing something different.  Someone opens the box, Pinhead tortures them.  That’s basically the premise behind most of the stories.  As one Amazon reviewer of the old Epic published Hellraiser comic series said, “It’s like being told the same punchline over and over”.

The purpose behind that rant is to say this: The Hell in Barker’s book is not the psychological, surreal, maze that we’ve seen in other incarnations.  This is the Hell of Christianity, as Barker interprets it.  Which is fine, if he hadn’t already treaded these waters in the flawed but interesting Mr. B. Gone.  The promise of learning more about Pinhead, his order, true name, and origin that were promised by Barker are completely ignored.  The only thing we really gather about Pinhead is that he hates his nickname and saying it to his face is a sure-fire way to find your way to an excruciatingly painful death. This can be interpreted as Barker telling his fans to please stop referring to the character as Pinhead because it’s a stupid name.  But Barker never gives us anything else to call him by, except Hell Priest.

Mild spoilers below. 

The biggest fault of this book is that it’s central idea is ignored.  Pinhead wishes to use D’Amour to document Pinheads attempted destruction of the world and pen it as a gospel text (hence the name of the book).  Such an idea is powerful and if the novel was written from the perspective of notes by D’Amour, it could have made for a very compelling read.

But this never happens, and sets a constant trend in the book:  Barker will give us a very compelling idea that ends on a flat note. The purpose of a prologue is to set up ideas and events that will be revisited later in the story. Pinhead makes himself a daughter at the opening of the book who grows from infant to adult in a matter of minutes. Pinhead parenting a progeny is a great idea and would serve to seemingly continue the legacy of the character after his death; but we never see or hear of her again. Midway through the novel, there is big set piece where Pinhead goes to war with a being more powerful than himself and the result of the battle happens “off-screen”.

Then there is that damned finale.  Near the end Pinhead commits a rape.  Much like the film incarnations, Barker himself establishes his version of Pinhead as a very dignified character full of pride that considers even touching human flesh to be reprehensible. That he’d rape someone completely goes against the entire idea of the character. The rape happens and nothing else is ever made of it, except the victim tells D’Amour not to seek vengeance.  She wants to forgive, that’s great, but we as readers don’t want to see D’Amour do that.  It would serve no narrative purpose, and considering the relationship to Harry and what he goes through for her, it would stand to reason his need for retaliation would overcome her advice.  Nobody wants to see him listen to her on this point.

But it is what we get.

Given it’s two main characters coming from other books, little reference is made to any of the characters in those works, or the lead characters places in them. The Scarlet Gospels standing on it’s own is fine, but the book exists for the sake of fan service, and gives absolutely none.  D’Amour could be a character Barker made up on the spot for all the purpose his presence serves the story. If you want to read a book with graphic depictions of faces being torn out of assholes, this is the one for you.  Given what Barker is capable of it makes this book feel like cheap exploitation rather than Barker’s own version of Paradise Lost that he was hoping for.  Much like Pinhead, Barker’s reach exceeds his grasp and he fails miserably in his attempt.

And you have no idea how much it hurts me to say that. As it stands, The Scarlet Gospels is going to be one of the biggest ever disappointments to horror fans.

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