Book Review: Hellraiser Retrospective: The Scarlet Gospels

 

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The Scarlet Gospels takes readers back many years to the early days of two of Barker’s most iconic characters in a battle of good and evil as old as time: The long-beleaguered detective Harry D’Amour, investigator of all supernatural, magical, and malevolent crimes faces off against his formidable, and intensely evil rival, Pinhead, the priest of hell. Barker devotees have been waiting for The Scarlet Gospels with bated breath for years, and it’s everything they’ve begged for and more. Bloody, terrifying, and brilliantly complex, fans and newcomers alike will not be disappointed by the epic, visionary tale that is The Scarlet Gospels. Barker’s horror will make your worst nightmares seem like bedtime stories.

 

Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels has a very long and sordid history. Having been first mentioned in the early/mid 1990s, Barker has given many iterations and hints as to what the book would be like. One thing we knew for sure was that it would mark the end of Hellraiser fan favorite Pinhead.

 

After being chopped down to a very lean 40% of Barker’s original manuscript, what we get is a condensed look at what feels like something more. Even without prior knowledge, just in reading the book alone, you get the feeling that things have been omitted and trimmed along the way. But don’t get me wrong, I absolutely adore this book. Is it everything I wanted it to be? No, but it doesn’t need to be. The story of Harry D’Amour and the Priest of Hell is one that fills me with such joy. Barker’s unfiltered way of creating sweeping fantastical narratives is one of the many reasons why he has the fanbase that he has. I feel as though The Scarlet Gospels is a success more to those that relish in his dark fantasy and more of a failure to those that only really know of his cinematic work, or more the cinematic work that his writing has inspired.

 

The quick cut pacing of this novel is as if Barker made the most unfilmable, cinematic novel in history. The Scarlet Gospels is told in typical Barker high description, but the story is so damn huge you could never amass the money needed in order to film a grand scale, R-rated horror film such as this. Nor would you recoup your funding. Either way, the epic sequences are done in an Tolkien fashion. Colossal in every way, yet easy to follow and even easier to imagine. This is clearly the culmination of Barker’s increasingly imaginative tales over the decades. It’s certainly not his masterpiece, but I’m sure the unabridged version very well could be.

 

As I am not an English Lit major, I could not even begin to imagine all of the literary references that are sprinkled throughout. Obviously, there are references to the Bible, seeing as Barker tells his own slanted version of the Judaeo-Christian Hell. Having a lack of reference to Leviathan, it is hard to determine whether or not the realm in which the Cenobites exist has been altered. Again, without the complete version, it is hard to tell what is new, altered, or just elaborated on. I digress. There are also references to The Divine Comedy (Harry and his companions are referred to as The Harrowers), the Hellraiser film series and even the comic books themselves. I would love to ask Clive if the references to the comic books are by design or purely coincidence.

 

In regards to the Hellraiser films, Barker makes his distaste for the name Pinhead quite clear as it is only used in the book as a derogatory term and is seldom used. Instead, Barker opts to call our lead Cenobite The Priest of Hell, which is so much better and far more fitting. This is a menacing force of evil, not an idiot pincushion. Also, in reference to the film, as the Priest of Hell makes his move in order to usurp the throne of hell, we come across the female Cenobite, as well as the fat one. They receive a treatment that is as fitting as the renaming of Pinhead.

 

Harry D’Amour gets a bit of reworking as well. Well, technically, his backstory is alluded to and fleshed out a bit more. We rejoin with Harry many years after the events of Everville and Barker fills us in. Covered in more tattoos and far more cynical, Harry has seen some shit over the years. There are also some quick references to past incidents with Harry including a nod to Lord of Illusions by making mention of fighting cults in the desert.

 

The book opens with an outstanding bit of classic Barker horror as we meet a group of magicians that are trying to resurrect one of them that the Priest of Hell had recently brutally murdered. This is oldschool Clive Barker at his finest. The tension is thick, the violence is openly graphic and the dialogue of our beloved Pinhead is in top form. I love rereading this part.

 

Shortly after this we learn the intentions of the Hell Priest are to take the throne of Hell. In this version, Hell is a thriving society that has many different facets to it. This is some of Barker’s best world building mythology since his Tortured Souls story. There are many factions and hierarchies. I could read and study the opening of the chapter that runs through most of this world building over and over.

 

The role of Harry, at the request of Hell’s High Priest, is to document Pinhead’s ascension of Hell’s throne. Harry is to be/create the gospels of Pinhead’s new rebellion. Harry’s companions, lovingly referred to as the Harrowers, get sucked into the Hell Priest’s plan, as well as Hell itself. The first portion of this book is horror, great horror. As we move into the next section, when the Harrowers are in Hell, this is when Barker’s dark fantasy kicks into high gear. This is when we meet The Unconsumed, possibly one of my alltime favorite Barker creations. Every moment The Unconsumed is present, amazing, violent things happen. Given that he is the unwelcome heir to Lucifer’s throne because the flames do not consume him, he is the only thing that stands between the Hell Priest and the throne. I won’t spoil anything about him other than there is an amazing battle with him, which is my favorite part of the book.

 

The last thing I will mention, which I think is the coolest thing about this novel, is all of the origin and explanation of the Hellraiser mythos that the The Scarlet Gospels gives. The revelations are tied to the original novella, The Hellbound Heart, and throughout the original films. One of these revelations is the meaning behind the bell toll that sounds when the puzzle box is opened, a feature that is missing from the films after the fourth sequel. The bells that alarmed would make me flinch as a child. After the first time seeing Hellraiser when I was little, church bells ringing would be nightmare fuel to me. In this book, Barker gives an origin story to the ringing, making it even more upsetting that the subsequent sequels do not use the sound. Anyway, the ringing signifies the bells ringing in the Cenobite, Order of the Gash, monastery. The box opens a direct portal to the monastery and this is where we encounter The Engineer in the first film and novella. It truly is a wonderful thing to see all of this mythology tied together.

 

The Scarlet Gospels may not be Clive Barker’s best work, mainly due to the heavily edited feel of the narrative, but it is easily one of my personal favorites. The loving resolution is a fitting end to some of the best characters in horror. Barker manages to use tricks and tools he has developed over the last 30 years and even brings some new ones. This book marks the first time that I can recall a hefty amount of humor used in a Barker book. There is also a significant amount of cursing, which has never been as prominent in one of his works as it is here. Obviously, there are missing sequences, we do not see Christ’s Crucifixion and other previously mentioned segments that were originally supposed to be in this book. But, what we do get is one fantastic ride through the mind of one of horror’s greatest masters. One that has evolved beyond standard horror and uses this ability to tell a tale that is grand, magical, and terrifying.  

Author: David J. Sharp

Editor-in-Chief of Cinema Bluster. Co-host of The BS Podcast. Critic of both film and literature. My work can be found at Cinema Bluster and on Horror Underground, Beneath the Underground, Splatterpunk and others. Film geek. Collector nerd.

Twitter: @HorrorUndergr
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