The first part of a feature on work written and/or inspired by Clive Barker that originally appeared in Black Static #53:-
Stephen King may have overegged the pudding when he said of a young writer from Liverpool, “I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker”, but there’s no denying that Barker has been one of the most innovative and influential practitioners within the genre during the last thirty years. While recent work might not have reached the creative heights of his early books, there is no doubt that any new fiction from Barker’s pen is a cause for celebration to many, including this reviewer. And no book has been more keenly anticipated than that which has long been trumpeted as containing the great showdown between two of Barker’s most popular characters, the psychic detective Harry D’Amour and the Cenobite demon known as Pinhead.
At the start of THE SCARLET GOSPELS (St. Martin’s Griffin pb, 368pp, £10.95) we learn that somebody or something is killing the world’s most powerful magicians and stealing their power/knowledge. The few remaining practitioners of the dark arts gather to formulate a survival strategy, but all they do is make themselves a sitting target for the Hell Priest (Pinhead to you and I, though best not call him that to his face). Harry D’Amour travels to New Orleans and the home of a deceased occultist at the behest of his spirit medium friend Norma Paine, his mission to remove all magical artefacts from the premises before the man’s relatives discover them, but Harry has been drawn into a trap by Pinhead, who sees the psychic detective as a possible threat to his plans. When Harry survives Pinhead changes his mind and instead decides to coerce Harry into the role of his biographer, penning the Scarlet Gospels of the title, and to this end he kidnaps Norma and takes her back to Hell. Pinhead organises a coup against his fellow Cenobites in the Order of the Gash, and then sets off in search of the absent Lucifer, with Harry and a sturdy group of friends and accomplices in hot pursuit. After an arduous trek through the Wastelands they all variously arrive at an immense cathedral where Lucifer’s body lies in state, and the stage is set for a climactic showdown.
All Barker adulation aside, I have to admit to mixed feelings about this book. Yes, it is readable and for the most part quite enjoyable, and if it had been a first novel by a young writer I’d be mightily impressed. However, it’s not a first tentative step into the murky waters of horror, but the latest offering from one of the doyens of the genre, a creator whose work in text and film has been among the very best that the horror field has produced in recent times. And it’s also a book on which a lot of expectations are riding, given that it’s been eagerly anticipated by fans of the writer for at least a decade now. As far as that goes, I can’t help wondering if this long genesis is part of the problem, if the author’s inspiration and enthusiasm for the project dried up, so that completing it became simply a chore for him, one where the writer was running on empty, as the completed novel seems very uneven and the pace flags on occasion.
So what is there to commend to you in The Scarlet Gospels? The early scenes, with Pinhead taking on the magicians and Harry’s entry into the house where a Lemarchand box is waiting for him are both examples of Barker at the top of his game, the author of The Books of Blood showing what he is capable of. One scene is littered with gore and horrific effects, while the latter gradually cranks the tension up, with Harry escaping by the skin of his teeth, and both reveal that reality is nothing like our conception, that it is both more wonderful and more terrible than we know or can imagine. In fact most of the scenes with Harry on earth are well done, the battles he has to fight and the larger than life characters he deals with, while there are some potentially fascinating possibilities in the figure of Norma Paine and her ability to talk with ghosts, the way in which they employ her to take care of their business.
Things go awry when we arrive in Hell. Pinhead is no longer the sinister, bloodthirsty demon we all came to know and fear courtesy of Hellraiser but instead transformed into a megalomaniac along the lines of Ming the Merciless, with nails in his head to offset male pattern baldness. He isn’t so much the monster of our worst nightmares, tearing bodies limb from limb with his chains, as a CGI generated figure of fun (in parenthesis, I felt the horror of the Hellraiser movies was similarly diluted as the budgets grew bigger and the sfx moved centre stage), and we don’t really get anything other than a random desire to pay house calls on Satan by way of motivation for his sudden aspirations to become lord and master of all he surveys, while his change of heart regarding Harry’s role is similarly puzzling, more random plot convenience than anything else.
Hell itself, which given Barker’s oeuvre I expected to be a visionary triumph, is little more than sketched in, with a few stone buildings scattered willy nilly about the landscape and little or no information about how its denizens go about their lives. Compared to other infernal iterations of recent times, specifically the depiction of Hell in Simon Kurt Unsworth’s The Devil’s Detective, it all feels lacking in detail and vaguely dissatisfying. Harry and his motley crew trekking through the Wasteland in Pinhead’s cloven footsteps seem like nothing so much as a slightly jaded facsimile of the Fellowship of the Ring, rebels without a quest.
The novel picks up again in the end game, the great cathedral in which Lucifer is interred tweaking our sense of awe with its cyclopean scale and non-Euclidian architecture, and with an epic battle between Lucifer and Pinhead, one which swings first one way and then the other, and again back on earth with the revelations about Harry’s new role, but by then it all feels like a case of too little, too late.
Don’t let me be misunderstood. This isn’t a bad book, but it’s mostly a by the numbers CGI fuelled fantasy with a dash or two of gore rather than genuine, scare you shitless, make your stomach turn horror, and it’s certainly not the great book many of us were hoping for. Fans of Barker are going to want it, that’s a given, but those who are not familiar with his work should probably start elsewhere.
(TO BE CONTINUED)