Remember when Clive Barker mattered?
Time was, he stood shoulder to shoulder with Stephen King and his kith and kin as one of the heavy hitters of popular horror. In the late '80s and all through the '90s, his seamless weaving of the stuff of sex together with the inevitable perversity of death led to a string of critical and commercial successes including Weaveworld (1987), Cabal (1988), Imagica (1991), and Everville (1994). But over the years, the man became a brand. The macabre amalgam of visceral violence and exotic erotica that had set his narratives apart from the pack at the start had, by the time of its samey culmination in Coldheart Canyon (2001), diminished his fiction. Barker was about to lose his bite—such that it was a relief, really, when he changed gears completely.
Capitalising rather smartly on the Harry Potter phenomenon, he set about building The Books of the Abarat: a series of phantasmagorical fantasies featuring a chipper chosen one called Candy Quackenbush. These were to appeal to younger readers, and thus they had to be free of the finery most foul that Barker had practically trademarked. This casting aside of the naughty and the nasty meant that Barker’s storytelling had to take up the strain: his plots and characters and scenarios had to stand for something in and of themselves—something more meaningful, at least, than the preamble to some sudden act of savagery or sexual sadism. At bottom, The Books of the Abarat made Barker a better writer because they left him nothing to hide behind.
But there’s bad news too. Instructive as it was, the process proved painfully slow—and it’s ongoing. Only three of the five planned Candy Quackenbush books have been released in the fifteen years between Coldheart Canyon and The Scarlet Gospels. Excepting the minor experiment in metafiction that was Mister B. Gone, Barker has been gone from the genre so long that it’s moved on. A new breed of authors—not least Adam Nevill and Alison Littlewood, Caitlín R. Kiernan and Robert Shearman—have taken his place at the side of King, the so-called Dickens of our day. This, then, is a novel of no small significance: a homecoming to horror that stands to give Barker his bite back. Yet instead of implementing the central lessons it looked like he’d learned in the course of crafting The Books of the Abarat—instead of making use of that forward momentum—The Scarlet Gospels gets it absolutely back-asswards, picking up precisely where its author left off a decade or so ago, alternately neglecting the fundamentals and leaning oh so laboriously on the crutch of yuck that became Barker’s marque.
In fairness, his focus on the fucked-up is fun for a few pages, and the prologue in particular is powerful. Herein we watch as a Circle of sorcerers attempts to raise one Joseph Ragowski from the grave, the better to bolster their desperate defence against this milieu’s many aggressors, only to be interrupted by the arrival of their late leader's melancholic murderer: a man, or a monster, of many monikers. Some call him High Priest; others say Hellraiser; plenty prefer the Prince of Pain; yet none of the remaining magicians dare utter the name you and I know him by. For good reason too, as the author articulates in this biting aside:
Whatever torments he had planned for these last victims—and his knowledge of pain and its mechanisms would have made the Inquisitors look like school-yard bullies—it would be worsened by orders of magnitude if any one of them dared utter that irreverent nickname Pinhead, the origins of which were long lost in claim and counterclaim. (p. 14)
The Circle’s civility does them no favours, I’m afraid. No matter how they plead or prostrate themselves before Pinhead in his gleaming PVC, not to speak of the weaksauce wards of protection they clumsily conjure, he’s come to kill them—"more for closure than the hope of revelation" (pp. 14-15), really—and kill them he will. What follows, here and there and everywhere the Prince of Pain meets with the slightest hint of resistance, is body horror as cruel as it is crude:
Whether his victims fell to their knees and begged salvation, as one did, or tried to outrun the pursuing hooks, as did two more, or simply attempted to go against his enemy as he would any other, with sword and dagger, as did the many, all were lost. The hooks found their eyes, their mouths, their asses, their bellies; and finding them, the hooks dug deep and tore hard, reducing their victims in a matter of seconds into thrashing, incomprehensible knots of twitching muscle.
They made their sounds still, protesting their suffering state, but anything remotely resembling words was beyond them now. The stomach of one had been hooked and hauled up through his throat; the face of another was emerging from his butt hole like a prodigious bowel movement. (p. 268)
From his butt hole, huh?
Evidently Barker isn’t interested in classing up the establishment so deplorably explored in the nine films of the Hellraiser franchise—a point he makes perfectly plain well before the sequence featured here. In the prologue alone, the author punishes one woman for her past indiscretions—because of course Pinhead is pro-life—by impregnating the Circle’s sole surviving sorceress with a demon foetus that comes to term in a matter of minutes, in the process tearing her host apart body and soul . . '. before proceeding to eat her whole, "effectively erasing the last remnants of an order of magic that had moved behind the shadows of civilisation for centuries" (p. 26). In the wake of this revolting showcase, you might well find yourself wondering—well, why? Will this enfant terrible play a pivotal role in the whole, partaking in Pinhead’s mission to take Hell for himself using the supernatural powers vested in him by humanity, or is she destined to ally herself against him instead? The answer: neither. As it happens, she’s just one of an alarming number of loose ends The Scarlet Gospels is too preoccupied with perverting the course of storytelling to attend. "The girl, fully a woman after less than twelve hours, was gone," as the last line of the prologue reminds readers. And that’s that.
Yet these first chapters are classic Barker in comparison to the lifeless first act that follows. We’re introduced here to Harry D’Amour. Or rather, we are reintroduced: D’Amour, a private investigator who specialises in the supernatural, has featured in a fair few of Barker’s books before. But his history hardly matters. In The Scarlet Gospels, he’s simply a spectator; a point of view through which we watch as he watches Pinhead wreak havoc on Hell and—wait for it—its civil service.
In truth, this passivity is nothing new for D’Amour. His first real scene in this novel is arranged around a darkly farcical flashback in which we watch as he watches another fast-disappearing demon burn his late partner alive—all while this amorphous monster rubs one off on his "rock-hard salute" (p. 40). To say Harry’s absence of agency in this fragment is frustrating is to let it off lightly, and there’s much more from whence it came, I’m afraid. Take his baffling behaviour a few chapters later: in the French Quarter of New Orleans, our downtrodden detective is destroying a den of iniquity as a paid favour to a dead friend of a friend—namely Norma, a medium and a mother figure whose part in the narrative is ultimately as passive as Harry’s—when he discovers a puzzle box of infernal power. In the movies, these McGuffins are at least mysterious; the poor souls who find them set about solving them, blissfully oblivious that doing so is certain to summon the Cenobites and ensure their eventual evisceration. Harry, on the other hand, knows perfectly well what a Lament Configuration is, yet he fingers the thing with nary a care for the consequences. Pinhead and his pinions appear out of the ether immediately, surprising precisely no one, and I’m sure they’d have done for D’Amour, too—were it not for the descent of a deus ex machina that roundly resolves this disappointing duel.
Pitiful as it is, their brief meeting persuades hell’s High Priest that Harry is the perfect person to witness his great work. Asking him to tag along a little later, after perhaps a hundred pages of noirish nonsense so mundane that it makes Barker’s weakest work seem comparatively remarkable, predictably doesn’t do the trick, so Pinhead promptly nabs Norma and exits stage left, leaving our hero no choice but to pursue him, through a portal said Cenobite has conveniently left untended, into the underworld—an oddly ordinary backdrop, by the by, complete with councils and cleaners and monsters with hobbies. There, Harry and his Harrowers—a lacklustre lot who comprehensively fail to earn their frankly bizarre appellation (including one saucy sort who goes on to drop so many dubious double entendres that I began to wish him a victim)—follow a bloody breadcrumb trail that takes them through a forest, a city, and a river, always a step or ten behind their tease of a target, until they arrive, not before time, at the scene of The Scarlet Gospels’ extended endgame: the distant citadel where Lucifer lives.
It was a tower so massive Harry’s mind failed to wholly grasp the image. This monument before him rose to such impossible heights that he had difficulty discerning between sky and skyscraper. It was Lucifer’s masterwork; there was no doubt about it. From the obsessively decorated stepping-stones upon which Harry was presently standing to the highest of spires whose numbers defied his confounded wits to count, this was clearly the Devil’s working, and this sight filled Harry with equal parts dread and awe. (p. 235)
Relative to Hell on the whole—a plainly portrayed middle America teeming with demons as opposed to people—Beelzebub’s bachelor pad is a devilishly decadent backdrop for the climactic conflict to come. With the very vision and ambition this critic had missed till this instant, Barker builds said setting exponentially, taking pains to detail the décor of the labyrinthine chambers beyond the aforementioned bastion’s grand Gothic façade, before bringing this hellish yet somehow holy edifice crashing down around his central characters to excellent effect.
Fitting, then, that it’s here that Harry finally comes face to face with the narrative’s antagonist, for whom I found myself rooting more readily than I ever did D’Amour—more because he inherits the air of pained resignation invested in the character by the actor Doug Bradley than due to anything Barker does to develop him. Alas, Harry, to say nothing of his hapless Harrowers, is as powerless against Pinhead now as he’s been from the beginning of the book. "All he could do was that which the Hell Priest had asked of him: watch. [...] And watch he did" (p.259), as the Prince of Pain wages war on the Lord of Lies. Though I struggle to see why they couldn’t just have had a chat—too similar, I suppose—it’s a kick-ass battle, actually: a brutal back and forth bolstered by a superb sense of scale and such visceral violence that it satisfies, if only superficially, in a way nothing other than The Scarlet Gospels’ introduction does. That said, this isn’t the conflict Barker has been building up to, is it? That much ballyhooed-about encounter, between Pinhead and his unwilling witness, never actually happens, such that what does, sufficient as it is in its own right, disappoints as part of the larger tapestry.
In that, it’s of a piece with the vast majority of the novel, though there are odds and end to recommend it, including some marvellously cinematic moments in the mode of the Prince of Pain’s entrance in the prologue. It’s good, too, to see Barker take ownership of his most iconic monster, even if he doesn’t do much with Pinhead past the premise that he’s pissed. Harry D’Amour, however, has been a fixture in the author’s oeuvre since the sixth volume of The Books of Blood, and I dare say he deserved a better send-off than he gets in The Scarlet Gospels, which narrative—built as it is of mouthfuls of meat almost wholly hidden by hunks of sickeningly glistening gristle—casts him as nothing but a blank canvas beneath a "brooding, tortured façade" (p. 44). Similarly, instead of making Clive Barker relevant again, this book is "business as usual" (p. 139) at best, and, regrettably, for the rest of the time it reads like an unsightly reminder of a writer past his prime.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.