At War with the Devil: Clive Barker's Scarlet Gospels (Book Review)

At War with the Devil: Clive Barker’s Scarlet Gospels (Book Review)

After nearly three decades of his Hell Priest’s reign of popularity, one imagines that Clive Barker, the creator of contemporary horror’s beloved sadomasochistic Cenobite, Pinhead, must feel like Dr. Frankenstein towards his aberrant creation: with hooked chains and a malevolent golden puzzle box, the unmistakable robed and bloodied “Lead Cenobite” from the 1987 film Hellraiser captured the imagination of horror fans and took on a life of his own despite the author’s subsequent move towards fantasy fiction. (Similarly, this review has undergone its own transformation: rather than provide the customary plot synopsis – the novel’s Wikipedia entry is sufficiently informative, albeit with spoilers – the final result is a commentary on the divergent paths of Clive Barker and his horror icon.)

The Scarlet Gospels (UK cover)

The Scarlet Gospels (UK cover)

It is difficult now to recollect which version of Clive Barker’s “Hell Priest” one discovered first – likely it was actor Doug Bradley’s portrayal of the character in Hellraiser, the film adaptation of Barker’s novella, The Hellbound Heart – but a single peek into the Barkerverse is enough to get hooked on the author’s entire body of work, from the brilliant and prodigious collection of short horror fiction, Books of Blood to the epic metaphysical fantasy adventures like Weaveworld and Imajica. And the fact is, first and foremost, Barker is a grand fantasist: his work – invariably epic in scope if not always in page count – raises the highest stakes and places all the world’s hopes and dreams in the balance, subject to the mysteries of magic and the fickle whims of chaos. Pinhead’s lasting appeal is, however, established from the sense of containment rather than expansion: he is a demonic jack-in-the-box, summoned by human obsession and possessed of a sublime albeit static state of transcendence, “beyond pleasure and pain.” From the puzzle box that conjures his Order to his mandate to “tear your soul apart”, the universe Pinhead inhabits is absolute, oppressive, and ineffably fixed: in its causality and cosmic binary pairings of pleasure/pain, life/death, etc., there is no room for Hell to grow – at least, it seems, not to Barker’s satisfaction.

For the author, Hell is likely other people’s demands – for more of the same character playing the same diabolical puzzle game, over and over, forever (and the Hellraiser film franchise has certainly suffered for it.) So, one can appreciate that his latest novel, The Scarlet Gospels, must have been an irresistible opportunity to revisit the mythos and nail shut Pinhead’s puzzle box once and for all. The trouble is, you really can’t put the genie back in the bottle. When Barker picks up the Cenobite’s story again, the author bears the weight of many worlds: Weaveworld; Cabal; The Great and Secret Show and its sequel, Everville; Imajica – all epic fantasies published within the five years following his legacy-launching novella, The Hellbound Heart not to mention subsequent novels, illustration work and paintings. With worlds upon worlds now populating the Barkerverse, it leaves the old Cenobitic Hell looking rather pale by comparison. Naturally, as fantasist, Barker cannot hold out against the temptation to reimagine the place and its characters with broader strokes: his “Hell Priest” is now possessed of a megalomaniacal drive to rule Hell; the infernal realm itself receives a makeover, characterized by twisted Hieronymus Bosch landscapes with an infrastructure of tedious bureaucratic and political systems; and the presence of a familiar Barkerverse character, private detective Harry D’Amour, provides in his role as protagonist a credible vessel through which the typically vast array of Barker’s magical and fantastic aspects can permeate the tale.

The Scarlet Gospels (North American cover)

The Scarlet Gospels (North American cover)

Within this fantasy-driven framework, Pinhead’s part as the diabolical master magician (or more accurately, thief of all magic) works. Readers can relate to his motivations for the campaign to sabotage and usurp Hell, and we understand this portrayal of the latter-day Pinhead is informed by the author’s lifetime of imaginaria, filled with fragile human renderings of emotions, dreams, and desires. Although the cast of supporting characters which accompanies D’Amour on his Dantean voyage in search of the Hell Priest is predictably employed for dramatic effect and occasional stabs at comedic relief (the “don’t-call-him-Pinhead” gag is a droll nod to Barker’s apparent distaste for the character’s real-world epithet), each character is deftly sketched with choice details for psychological depth and authenticity.

But these elements are much more organic and expansive than either the gritty nihilism of the novella or the cold, otherworldly menace of the cinematic adaptation and its sequel (let’s not speak of the other seven iterations, please); again, one appreciates that this is undoubtedly the author’s way of flipping the bird at collective and/or commercial ideas and expectations about his character (and so should we expect from such an iconoclastic writer).

Perhaps today’s reader-consumer has come to expect a beloved franchise to adhere to the standard Hollywood-sequel formula of raised stakes and bigger explosions; but Pinhead’s enduring appeal as a “monster” of horror is precisely that he most adamantly does NOT challenge the natural order – he enforces it. Pinhead is not “eager to play,” to be toyed with by his creator – he and the other members of his Order are above reproach in their grisly work as the eternal keepers of damnation – when they come to collect a soul in Hellbound, his female colleague remarks, “We have always been here.”

Doug Bradley as "Pinhead" - Hellraiser movie poster

Doug Bradley as “Pinhead” – Hellraiser movie poster

Having achieved mythic status in the eyes of horror fans, Pinhead is a constant. What has changed with The Scarlet Gospels is that the Hell Priest’s creator has disavowed him – and to this absolution Barker is rightfully entitled, rather than accept the burden of responsibility for the nameless Hellbound Heart character who became a pop culture abomination. Yet, like Frankenstein’s monster, the Hell Priest will likely continue to find his own way on the waves of our collective imagining, to thrive in darkness.