Book Review: The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

“As a standalone story it has merit certainly, and there are passages contained within that serve as a reminder of Barker’s greatness.”

scarletushb1Expectations can be such dangerous beasts, especially so in the case of a new and much-anticipated book from a favourite author, and a much lauded writer at that. Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels is one such tome – Barker has done more to redefine the nature and parameters of what we’ve come to know as horror than probably any other writer from the late 20th century. More than that, he gave us the iconic figures of Pinhead and his fellow Cenobites, monstrous perversions of flesh and philosophy who somehow embody everything about the rotten core of humanity, perfect mirrors of the zeitgeist into which these literary creations were birthed. The release of The Scarlet Gospels brings with it a whole phalanx of dread anticipation, if only because of the fact that it’s a follow-on to The Hellbound Heart, wherein Pinhead made his first entrance into the genre consciousness, and it’s had a twenty year gestation period. Was the wait worthwhile?

Pinhead, aka the Hell Priest in this incarnation, features prominently in The Scarlet Gospels, as does Harry D’Amour, a detective who possesses the misfortune of being able to pierce the veil of reality and enter the dimension of the occult, to come face-to-face with the nasties of Hell themselves. Pinhead was introduced in the novella The Hellbound Heart in 1986 (published in the third Night Visions volume, edited by none other than George RR Martin), although he wasn’t a major character in the novella. D’Amour made his debut in ‘The Last Illusion’, published in the final volume of The Books of Blood, going on to also make appearances in The Great and Secret Show, in the story ‘The Lost Souls’ (contained in the Cutting Edge anthology), and in Everville. In Barker’s latest the pair are the main actors in the play, the Hell Priest and D’Amour dancing around each like the giant Doxie flies to be found buzzing around the corpses littering the pages of the book.

The story begins simply enough: five magicians, the last of their Order which once numbered hundreds, have reanimated the body of Joseph Ragowski in order to ask him to help save them from the bloody depredations of Pinhead. The latter has been systematically slaughtering members of the Order, the sole aim being to take the forbidden and rare volumes of occultic knowledge each of them has for some grand plan he’s enacting. D’Amour is brought into the picture when he’s commissioned by Norma, a blind woman who converses with the deceased as easily as humans do with each other, to destroy the compromising contents of a house in New Orleans owned by the newly dead Carston Goode, an outwardly conservative Christian man who has a deep dark secret. The detective finds more than he bargained for, however, including, amongst the rare volumes and voodoo fetishes, a Lament Configuration. Pinhead is called, and from that moment events begin to spiral out of control, eventually leading to the kidnap of Norma and D’Amour’s Orphic descent into the bowels of the Underworld to rescue his Eurydice.

There’s no other way of saying this: The Scarlet Gospels doesn’t start in a particularly promising way, taking a while to get into its stride, only grabbing the reader and their attention about a quarter of the way in. Also missing from that first section is Barker’s trademark flowing, poetic prose: it even bordered on the clunky in places. It’s only when the plot moves itself into the environs of Hell that the pace is picked up and Barker turns on the poesy that the narrative flowers into something beyond the ordinary, numinous even. The Hadean land- and mind-scape depicted here isn’t the traditional hellfire and brimstone picture inculcated from pulpit and Sunday school: instead, in many respects it’s more horrific because of its banality, being a reflection of the desperate lives of the downtrodden, hopeless, and forlorn here on the surface. It’s necessarily exaggerated, of course, the filth and degradation magnified, the torture crueller, and its denizens more twisted and deformed, but when all is said and done they’re nothing more than ciphers for the humanity that breeds unbound upstairs. Their concerns are the same, and so are their preoccupations.

Even the Hell Priest, as far removed as he is from the definition of humanity as we’ve come to know it, is portrayed as intensely human here, albeit a power-hungry, angry, belligerent, and diseased specimen. This is perhaps the one aspect of The Scarlet Gospels which is most problematical – the archfiend, the Anti-Pope, betrays his human origins almost too much, robbing him of the malefic majesty people have come to associate with him. His actions are entirely human in cause and nature, at least in the initial stages of his coup. However, without giving too much away, it would also be fair to say that he regains much of his tainted glory in the latter part of the book.

Where the book elevates itself into the numinous is in the prose describing Hell and its architecture. Barker delineates the Netherworld with precision, the monolithic and gargantuan landscape and the oppressive edifices planted within it imprinting themselves with clarity on the mind’s eye. It’s utterly alien and incomprehensible, a Peter Gric painting made real. This is the Barker of old, unleashing his imagination with prose that is startling in its lyricism. His vision of Hell is one that is far more real than any depiction documented by the spiritual fathers of whatever religion: the true nature of the place isn’t about everlasting fire and pain – it’s in the sheer oppression and banality, where casual and studied violence and fleshly violation is mired in the mundane and everyday. Cruelty is commonplace, part of the narrative of Hell itself. Moreover, it resonates strongly because it’s also the narrative of our world too.

There’s no doubt that it’s a mixed bag of a book, starting off a bit unsure of itself but gaining confidence and strength as it goes along. The question posed in the first paragraph of whether the wait was worthwhile and whether it will fully satisfy fans of the Hellraiser mythology remains to be answered. As a standalone story it has merit certainly, and there are passages contained within that serve as a reminder of Barker’s greatness. Plus, in many respects we’re treated to a very different Pinhead from the one we know through the books and the film franchise, but the mythology of Hell is also expanded immensely, giving us a broader understanding of its geography and socio-political fabric. The book is a lot better for its inclusion. It’s a vast place, as complex and as fascinating as any of the worlds the writer has ever created. In that respect, it’s vintage Barker. Ultimately, however, only time will tell whether the book takes its place as a part of the canon and is as fondly embraced as Barker’s other output has become.

SIMON MARSHALL-JONES

Publisher: St. Martins Press
Paperback (360pp)
Release Date: 19 May 2015

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The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker (UK)
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