“I am doing another Books of Blood collection and I’m writing a sequel to the book on which Hellraiser was based – this will be Pinhead’s first appearance on the page, because he isn’t even named in the original.” – Clive Barker, from an interview in Imagi-Movies, Vol 1, No 2, Winter 1993/94
The story that would eventually be published as The Scarlet Gospels has been a long time coming. To my knowledge, it was first mentioned in 1993, and has gone through innumerable permutations on its way to its current incarnation, published in May 2015. First it was to be but a single small story amongst others, then it ballooned into a 230,000 word behemoth, and finally it was cut back down to around 100,000 words. It’s been quite a journey, and while I remain fully committed to the notion that authors don’t owe their readers anything, teasing a story for 20+ years is perhaps a bit excessive. The biggest problem with this novel is one of expectations. Even if I found myself enjoying the book, it’s hard to live up to 20 years of anticipation.
The novel brings together two of Barker’s most famous characters. There’s the Cenobite popularly known as Pinhead (but don’t call him that to his face), who we meet as he’s finishing off a quest to obliterate all living human magicians and in so doing, wrest all of their arcane knowledge for himself. You probably know Pinhead from the myriad filmic portrayals in the Hellraiser series of movies, but his origin is rooted in Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart. Then you’ve got Harry D’Amour, the private detective with a knack for finding himself at odds with the supernatural, as he did in Barker’s The Last Illusion (from Cabal) and Everville. Here, he starts off on a routine assignment to clear out a dead man’s magical library. Amongst that man’s possessions is Lemerchand’s Configuration, the infamous puzzle box capable of opening a door to hell that is usually occupied by our Pinheaded friend. It turns out that Pinhead would like Harry to act as a witness for the next phase of his nefarious plan. Harry is naturally reluctant, but when Pinhead kidnaps Harry’s best friend Norma Paine, an old blind woman who can nevertheless see and speak with the dead, Harry has no choice but to round up a posse to chase after Pinhead. Their travels naturally lead them to hell, where Pinhead is waging all out war on hell’s establishment.
I tend to vacillate back and forth on Barker. I love a lot of his short work, but he also has a tendency to get lost in language and stylistic machinations. That being said, I often find that he’s able to right the ship just before I’m about to actually give up on what I’m reading. His best work manages the balance incredibly well, other works are a little more uneven. This one actually veers towards the more page-turnery side of the divide, but perhaps he’s gone a bit too far. It feels pretty mainstream for what I normally think of from Barker. Even his grotesque imagery feels a little staid, nowhere near that edgy stuff he was writing in the 80s. On the other hand, this was actually quite a fun read, and I mostly enjoyed the whole experience.
I tended to prefer the plot threads centered around Pinhead, who remains a fascinating and somewhat obtuse character. On the other hand, I think I’ve figured out that I’m not a particularly big fan of Harry D’Amour. He’s fine, but I feel like we’re constantly told how badass he is, rather than actually seeing him doing something cool. For the most part, he seems to just blunder through the story, barely making it through alive. This story is often pitched as Pinhead versus Harry D’Amour, but if that was the case, Harry’d be dead on page one. He just doesn’t display the competence that we’re constantly informed he is supposed to have. Take, for instance, his encounter with Lemerchand’s Box. He actually recognizes it for what it is (competence!), but he picks it up and starts playing with it anyway, thinking to himself that he can stop before it goes too far. As a reader, you’re just sitting there in shock that a character who is supposedly smart when it comes to the supernatural is doing something so utterly stupid. He does slightly better as the story proceeds, but that’s mostly just because he’s so ineffective that no one actually considers him a threat, and thus he can act as Pinhead’s witness.
Hell is always an interesting place to visit, and Barker’s hell is an interesting one. A bleak, blasted landscape filled with impossible architecture and grotesque creatures, not to mention an almost bureaucratic streak that runs through everything, Pinhead guides us through it all with aplomb (Harry just follows along in Pinhead’s footsteps like a dope). We’re eventually treated to a glimpse of the morning star himself, Lucifer, and what follows is a well plotted and interesting confrontation. The ending seems oddly appropriate, though I have no idea where hell is supposed to go from here…
So was it worth the wait? It doesn’t really feel like it, but that doesn’t make the book bad either. It’s clearly missing the edge that Barker’s earlier work so astutely captures, but it’s still worthwhile and actually quite entertaining (if a bit on the perverse side). It was certainly a good Halloween season read, which is all I can ask for…