I remember just before I started university going to the local cinema to see a film I knew next to nothing about called “Hellraiser,” intrigued that it looked both horrible and unpredictable by its poster of a grimacing demon looking like it had been overdoing the acupuncture, holding something like a Rubik’s cube, and underneath the tag-line “It will tear your soul apart.” I emerged from the cinema a few hours later reeling from the film’s impact and power, it’s swirling orchestral score full of doom and foreboding, it’s vision of a very real Hell breaking into our world in the form of highly stylised sadistic demons, all mixed up with a kind of violent eroticism. I had never quite seen anything like it.
Later I read some of Clive Barker’s other works on the strength of this film, including the short story series “Books of Blood” from which this tale was culled (Hellraiser was based on the story “The Hellbound Heart”). One of my favourite of Barker’s other works was “Cabal” later made into the disappointing film “Nightbreed.” Cabal’s strengths included a fierce imagination, sympathetic monsters, human monsters worse than the visibly monstrous, and a touching portrayal of the devotion of human love. But It also shared the weaknesses of other Barker works I ventured, not all of which I finished. These included “The Great and Secret Show” and “Imajica.” All of the above books have powerful and imaginative openings that pull you in and promise much. But the books themselves can become baggy, too episodic, and leading to a false conclusion where the intention was to develop a trilogy or longer. But this, in all of the above cases, never happened.
The above strengths and weaknesses (apart from it not being the false start of a trilogy) are on show in Barker’s latest, “The Scarlet Gospel,” which takes the demonic protagonist of Hellraiser, “Pinhead,” and the protagonist of other Barker stories, the detective of the supernatural Harry D’Armour, and pits them against each other in a tale set both in Hell and Earth. Characteristically, we have a strong start, with a cabal of contemporary magicians in emergency congress as they are being slaughtered one by one for their arcane knowledge of magic by Pinhead himself. Pinhead crashes their party and engages in some imaginative slaughter and sadism before taking one of their number (the unfortunate Felixson) as his slave.
We then move to Harry and his world. Tormented by the memory of the grisly death of his detective partner at demonic hands, he finds that one of his dearest friends Norma Paine (she sees dead people) has a job for him in New Orleans. The job is a trap, a set up to get Harry to lay his hands on the puzzle box that summons demonic forces called “The Lament Configuration.” This brings Pinhead and Felixson (now sporting some imaginative hellish re-constructive surgery) and Harry has a narrow escape. He discovers that Pinhead is at war with Hell and wants total dominion over the infernal regions (and of course he won’t stop there). He wants a witness for his “Scarlet Gospel” that will tell his story and has chosen Harry because there is a delicious irony in Harry being a scourge of Hell in previous struggles, giving hope to the damned. A sequence of events has Norma dragged to Hell as bait by Pinhead and Harry, with his friends Kaz, Dale and Lana in tow (dubbed “The Harrowers”), gives chase.
This is a very physical and corporeal Hell. No extended metaphorical interpretations here. It’s a physical world and has at its heart a real solid city called Pyratha. This is a fusion of epic Byzantium and Roman epic structures with physical improbabilities that could be from the mind of Escher, and drab squalor, shanty towns settlements, Stalinist terror and poverty and politicking. There are forests and seas, although any life form is of course twisted and monstrous. The strength of this Hell as a narrative and imaginative creation is that it gives a tangible and visceral reality to the setting and story, and it’s entertaining to discover new regions and torments. As a weakness you can’t but help expecting something more from Hell.
The pace of the narrative always quickens when the Hell Priest Pinhead is at large and this is very much his story, as he takes on not only his own Cenobite order but Hell itself. Some of the most entertaining passages in the story are the various coups that Pinhead stages. In one grotesque sequence he unleashes a plague fog that mutilates anything it touches, causing new monstrous growths to form on bodies that it touches. In an imaginative flourish Pinhead also releases curse bearing paper birds fashioned by Origami! Then there are the concluding scenes in Hell as Pinhead battles a very Miltonic Lucifer, after dispatching various of Hell’s armies and generals. These passages relegate Harry and friends to the sidelines as horrified bystanders as various blows and mutilations are traded. The amount of false endings to the battles where one of the protagonists comes back from their demise in the style of 80’s cheesy horror sails close to farcical, but in my judgement gets away from it.
Less successful are the human protagonists. Their banter often does not convince and the playful profanities seem forced. The psychic detective that Armour represents feels a little overused now, witness various US series such as Angel, comic book heroes such as Hell-blazer. Lucifer himself seems too close to that as depicted in the “Sandman” graphic novels. And another main weakness in the book is the imaginative integrity of Barker’s world. On what is it based? It mocks Christianity but embraces some of its archetypes from its history, such as most obviously Hell, Heaven, Angels and Demons. And what kind of God would be mocked by its bored Angels? And how do the worlds of the dead and its ghosts work? Who gets to be damned? The role of magic is also not convincing, with its recipes and conjugations. In all, this is world-building where the parts do not constitute a convincing whole.
But it’s a wild and enjoyable ride of pulpy horror. Those expecting meta-physical greatness (as some were judging by the bitter disappointment of some Amazon reviews) will be disappointed. And it does not have the impact of that first Hellraiser film I previously describe. But as fast paced gory tale with demons it entertains. I listened to the audio-book and an honourable mention must go to John Lee for his splendid narration. I loved Pinhead’s sardonic tones.