Hellbound Hearts is an anthology of short fiction from a selection of contemporary authors working in the horror field. Each writer has based their story on the mythology underpinning the events of Clive Barker's novella The Hellbound Heart (1986) and its more famous film adaptation, Hellraiser (1987). This mythology is revealed when a man solves the puzzle of Lemarchand's Configuration, a lacquered box that can call upon the denizens of Hell, summoning demonic entities known as Cenobites. He had been led to believe that they will grant him eternal pleasure, but finds that they do not share his definition of hedonism, and subject him instead to unimaginable pain, ultimately dismembering him with hooks and chains. He manages to escape from the room in which they have imprisoned him by convincing a former lover to spill the blood of strangers upon its floor boards. Through this bloodletting he is able to slowly rebuild his body, hungering for the flesh of his lover's family that will complete his transformation and allow him to fully return to the earthly plane.
Despite their comparatively brief appearances in both the novel and film, the most memorable characters are the Cenobites. They are priests of pain whose appearances draw upon and reconfigure S&M fetishes to create a distinctive visual identity that combines scarification, chains, and leather with a demonic otherworldliness. Unlike the demons of Christian mythology, they are not personifications of an absolute evil; instead, they obey a power interested in the extremity of sensation to which the human body can be subjected to. Their iconic leader is often referred to as Pinhead due to his geometrical cranial and facial mutilation. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the authors in Hellbound Hearts had abstained from using Pinhead, which strengthened Barker's claim in his foreword that the source material centred on a mythological tradition, surviving retelling and reinterpretation, rather than on a single character.
Barker expresses some unease regarding the use of the term "mythos" being applied to his fictional creation, pointing out that it does not hold the rich narrative tradition of the pantheons of Olympus and Asgard. Drawing on Jungian psychology, Barker claims that he discovered the image of Pinhead in the collective unconscious, shaping past myths into a form that has since been taken and reworked by others:
Even though I am the man who had the good fortune to bring this image to a popular medium and therefore facilitate its dissemination throughout much of the world, I am not the creator of this mythology. In fact, I think the real creators fall into three categories. First, there are all those nameless men and women who over the last many centuries created the fetishes of clay, rope, bone, and nails, which are in some part the inspiration for the character called Pinhead. [ . . . ] The second creators are of course the special-effects men who have, over the course of many movies, variously interpreted and reinterpreted the appearance of the character. [ . . . ] Finally, there are people who see these movies, read these comics, and wear these tattoos who in conversing with one another [ . . . ] further enrich the complexities of the idea. (p. xiv)
Pinhead represents the mythology; his striking appearance signifies the complex interaction between pain, fear, lust, and control inherent in the condition of the Cenobites. Though he is intimately linked to the mythology, there is far more to the Hellraiser universe than this icon of horror cinema.
In an afterword, Doug Bradley, the actor who played the lead Cenobite, claims that the omission of this iconic figure stems from the authors' identification of the true source of the mythos's horror in the mysteries of the puzzle box that summons the Cenobites:
Consistently, though not uniformly, the writers have gone straight to the real heart of the Hellraiser "mythology," if such a thing exists. To the Lemarchand Configuration, the ever innocent puzzle box: and beyond that to what Lemarchand's plaything represents and points toward. The Labyrinth, the puzzle, internal and external, the riddles and enigmas. (p. 299)
Here Bradley has missed the driving force behind even the puzzle box: the power and trickery of desire. The box feeds upon those who wish to experience more than other mortals, either destroying or reconfiguring them into its demonic servants. The knowledge that the Cenobites are past victims of Lemarchand's Configuration, who have managed to reach a point of transcendence after an age of torture, lends the mythology a moral ambiguity that possibly accounts for its enduring appeal. Barker's Hell differs from the Christian version significantly, in that God appears to be absent and the victims of the Cenobites are not so much punished for their perversity as offered an enticement towards the destruction of their ego. The concepts of good and evil are largely irrelevant; the Cenobites represent a power that operates according to its own rules and rituals that celebrate pleasure through pain as the highest ideal and sensation. In Hellbound Hearts the authors provide varied, and often highly original, interpretations of the mythos, focused on the puzzles of the heart.
The first story, Peter Atkins's "Prisoners of the Inferno," makes for an inauspicious opening. The premise—exploring the secret history of a film called Prisoners of the Inferno, which features a diabolic device for transforming humans into Cenobites—is interesting, but Atkins fails to follow through with the requisite pacing and tension, leaving this reader unmoved. However, the disappointment derived from the opening tale is quickly dissipated by Conrad Williams's excellent "The Cold," which places the mythos in a Gothicized contemporary Manchester during winter, where the snow is blackened by grime, the sleet is biting and its inhabitants sit in miserable silence as they make their way to and from their places of work.
The story alternates between the first person voice of Detective Gravier and a third person omniscient narrator, creating the effect of simultaneously seeing the unfolding mystery through his eyes, whilst also allowing the reader an externalized insight into the demons that plague him. Gravier is working on a case involving a serial killer who murders female university students with the distinctive MO of cutting a deep vein and then masturbating over them as they slowly die. The bleak subject matter is punctuated by a humorous, one-sided antagonism from Gravier as he berates a colleague for being incapable of making a satisfactory cup of tea or coffee. The detective finds graffiti near each crime scene, consisting of literary quotations that use ice and snow as a device for discussing the sorrow within the human condition, clues that ultimately lead him to the mysterious Lady Ice. Williams is at home in the gritty world of dark crime fiction, lacing his tale with clues that lead to a supernatural conclusion that feels at home within the mythos, but avoids its clichés, a position that typifies the best stories in the collection.
The next story, Sarah Pinborough's "The Confessor's Tale," is set in a pre-18th century rural village in Russia, focusing on the life of a peasant boy as he comes into contact with the Cenobites. The opening paragraph invokes the violence of early folk tales, before their sanitization:
A wolf stole Arkady Melanov's tongue when he was ten weeks old. It crept into the village from the surrounding forest and followed the sound of his cries as if they were the scent of a fresh kill. [ . . . ] The source of the noise found, it tore Arkady's tongue free from his screaming mouth before disappearing out into the summer night, leaving only a bloody trail of silence. When Arkady's mother ran into the bedroom and found her mutilated baby, she couldn't bear the weight of her own guilt at leaving him to cry. She stood by the crib and hacked at her wrists with the pin from her hair until she bled to death. (p. 31)
This version of the events surrounding Arkady's mutilation and the death of his mother is contested by other, darker tales, and the search for the truth drives the early stages of the narrative. After Arkady's father died when he was just seven years old, the widow Samolienko and her son Sasha took over his family's bakery, allowing him to stay, though he had to work in order to earn his keep. The mute child is seen by the villagers as both eerie and unobtrusive, meaning that he leads a somewhat ghostly existence, allowed to come and go as he pleases because he does not know how to read or write, and therefore cannot reveal their secrets to others. After Samolienko gives him a wooden puzzle that belonged to his mother he is sought out as a confessor by those who wish to benefit from his inability to communicate. The attractiveness of this quality to an individual battling with guilt brings him to the attention of the local Boyar, who sends for him to be brought up to his castle, where Arkady learns secrets that transform him forever. Pinborough expertly paces the unfolding narrative, making the reader eager to discover the fate of this unfortunate boy, managing to balance horror with a transcendental character arc. "The Confessor's Tale" is possibly the best story in the collection and on its merits alone I shall be reading more by this author.
Tim Lebbon's "Every Wrong Turn" at first seems to take a more traditional conception of Hell. The unnamed protagonist is journeying into the countryside, having procured a map that will lead him to a maze behind an abandoned house, within which lies the gateway to Hell. He believes that Hell is where he belongs, driven by the contradictory urges towards self-harm and self-gratification. Lebbon creates a wonderful, fantastic dreamlike labyrinth in which the protagonist is confronted by hallucinatory images of his past atrocities and turns away in shame and disgust. From raping his wife when she was insensibly drunk to beating his young daughter to murdering an S&M fetishist for acting in a way that offended his sensibilities, the protagonist has followed a path of cruelty towards those who have trusted him. And yet, one cannot help but empathise with this man, who so deeply regrets his past actions that he is willingly seeking out an eternity of torment to provide some measure of atonement. Upon reaching the centre of the maze he meets a superbly designed Cenobite named the Gardener, who informs him that Hell will not accept one who cannot relish his past misdeeds. Deep down, he is driven by self-hatred and wants to suffer for his sins, reversing the hedonistic drives that lead many others to the Cenobites. "Every Wrong Turn" is another superb example of the mythology being allowed to grow beyond Barker's initial premise through the use of a differing perspective.
The majority of the authors prefer this sort of drastic reworking of the source material. Steve Niles's "A Little Piece of Hell," however, feels close to the atmosphere of Hellraiser, and even more so to Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988). The story has a cinematic, fast paced style at odds with the darker, introspective tone adopted elsewhere in the anthology. As in Hellbound, the puzzle box has fallen into the hands of a powerful professional who has sought to master its occult secrets only to be consumed by the entities that use it as a gateway into the earthly plane. As in Pinborough's story, the author ensnares the reader with an intriguing opening:
I know bad people when I see them, and Gordon Fuller was a world-class, evil scumbag, son of a bitch. He also happened to be my best friend. [ . . . ] I almost feel sorry that I personally lead him to Hell, but whatever. That's where he was headed anyway. (p. 158)
After falling on hard times the narrator, Ed, hears about a box that was found in an alley and then sold on by a pawnbroker for $10,000. When Ed relates this information to the aforementioned Gordon, the latter decides that they should track the box down. They obtain the address from the seller, who tells them that it was bought by Thomas Harden, a retired producer of lucrative horror films. Arriving at his house, they find it unlocked and the security cameras switched off. They are drawn to the living room, which appears to have been the site of an extremely violent evisceration, in the centre of which lies the puzzle box that summons the Cenobites. Whilst Gordon attempts to open Lemarchand's Configuration, Ed finds evidence of Harden's love of S&M, including some particularly cruel-looking implements with dried blood on them as well as stashes of illegal drugs and pornography, which he proceeds to steal. The contents of Harden's home recall the possessions of Dr Channard in Hellbound, suggesting that their owner was searching for ever greater sensations, leading him inevitably to the puzzle box. On returning to the living room Ed finds Gordon trapped by the Cenobites, who offer him the chance to take his friend's place, which he swiftly rejects. Believing that he has survived his brush with Hell's servants, the story provides a twist ending that satisfactorily pulls together the preceding events, leaving Ed in a thoroughly unpleasant predicament.
And there are some stories that don't add anything at all to the Hellraiser mythology. Conceptually, Mick Garris's "Hellbound Hollywood" is compatible with the sensibilities of the source material and it is fairly well-written. A once famous director, feeling that he now has to accept whatever work he can get, reluctantly accepts the directorial role on a horror film to be shot at a single location, which happens to be the house from Barker's novella. Arriving on site earlier than the rest of the crew, he decides to take a look around the property in order to plan out shots and get a general sense of the possibilities and limitations of working within its confines. As he makes his way through the house an unnatural lethargy overtakes the narrator, causing him to collapse, before waking in a room on the third floor. Here he is confronted by a Cenobite who tells him that his waning libido is the source of his misfortunes, encouraging him to take on a lover. However, after I read the description of the Cenobite I could no longer take the story seriously:
chains kept its voluptuous, pendulous breasts from hitting the floor, and crisscrossed its leering, dangling phallus in a relentless metallic strangle. [ . . . ] But worst of all was what passed for its mouth. It occupied most of its face, a long, vertical slash that roughly bisected its visage. If there had been a nose, it was long gone, replaced by this gaping hole that resembled nothing more than, okay, I'll say it, a huge, loose vagina. Its vertical lips were wet, hungry, horrid. And there was a row of teeth on either side, barely concealed by the labia majora: worn, round nubs, they looked like nothing more than miniature human heads trapped in a forever scream. (pp. 50-1)
I honestly wouldn't know whether to feel scared by this creature or to fall about laughing, as its very excessiveness serves to make it a caricature of a sexualised demon. It is about as far removed from the stately weirdness of Barker's original concepts as possible, embodying an overly Freudian interpretation of symbols of sexual fear and lust. In contrast to the heavy-handed horror of "Hellbound Hollywood," Simon Clark's "Our Lord of Quarters," is a superb tale about a demon who offers to bring wealth back to a fading empire in return for a cut of everything that the emperor controls, unfortunately let down by a farcical ending. However, there is nothing beyond a throwaway reference to the demon's Cenobite masters that separates this from the Faustian tradition of the tainted bargain, causing me to question its inclusion in this volume.
Despite the occasional misstep, Hellbound Hearts serves as a testament to the visceral, otherworldly impact of the scarified, magisterial Cenobites and the seductive mystery of the puzzle box that summons them, which are used as archetypes robust enough to withstand extensive reconfiguration and reimagining. For the most part, these stories breathe new life into a well-worn franchise and serve to flesh out an as-yet barely explored mythology.
David is an English Literature graduate from Liverpool who has returned to his home city for an MA in Science Fiction Studies. He has also reviewed for the Interzone website.
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