“Barely had the flow of sounds come to a halt than the power in the words rose up, creating a stench, the stink of life and death rolled into one monstrous river of sentient grease, where the secrets of the world’s beginning and, no doubt, the secrets of its end were circling together in the same irresistible liqueur.”
PHEW! Welcome back, Nasty Clive Barker – how we have missed you.
In The Scarlet Gospels (or ScarGo, as hardly any of its fans will call it), the Liverpool-born, Hollywood-dwelling writer/artist/filmmaker breaks a host of personal covenants with such glee it’s hard to believe he ever made them. This is the man who once said in a DVD extra for his directing debut Hellraiser that it would be the last time he’d ever talk about that film. The man who has defied his publishers’ efforts to nudge his fiction on to more commercial avenues. And the man who, outside his film work, has shown every sign of turning his back on horror altogether – devoting himself for the past 13 years to young-adult fantasy saga Abarat. But in the course of The Scarlet Gospels’ 360 blood-spurting pages, Barker has managed to plunge deeper into the Hellraiser universe than ever before, romp up the bestseller charts with a strategically aimed crowd pleaser and put an ocean of clear, red water between himself and the gentler, if no less vivid, voice he has preferred to write in for more than a decade.
Our action opens with the blackest of black masses. Several magicians are resurrecting a fallen comrade to ask his advice for combating the Hell Priest: a demon who has been crushing the ranks of the world’s foremost conjurors and stealing their arcane knowledge. With their dregs rounded up all in one mausoleum, the Priest enters and lays on a banquet of torture and humiliation so exquisite it makes for one of the most bracing prologues Barker has ever penned. His scalp bearing a grid of scars interspersed with nails, the Hell Priest can only be “Pinhead”: the saturnine, sadistic Cenobite who first appeared in Barker’s 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart – adapted by the author the following year as the landmark Hellraiser. What could this creature, absent from Barker’s fiction for so long, be up to?
Cut to New Orleans, and detective Harry D’Amour – a recurring character in Barker’s work and, as played by Scott Bakula, central to his film Lord of Illusions – is in the middle of an unusual housebreaking case… unusual in the sense that Harry is the one doing the housebreaking. Within the property, he comes across evidence linking the owner to the magical community’s plague of losses. But of far greater significance, he also stumbles upon a certain antique puzzle box – known to Hellraiser fans for its dangerous ability to open unseen doors. Before Harry can grasp what he’s doing, he trips the trap, comes face to face with the Hell Priest and barely escapes with his life. As Harry limps to New York to make sense of the encounter with the help of his dear friend Norma Paine – a blind medium – we venture far below to Hell itself for further insights into the Priest’s plan. Page by eye-popping page, we discover that he has stored up his reserves of magical know-how as an arsenal against his masters – a raising of the stakes that transforms the book from a slice of urban, supernatural pulp to a kind of sprawling, metaphysical heist thriller.
After Pinhead goes rogue and commits a seriously inventive mass murder against Hell’s bureaucrats, he sets his sights on kidnapping Harry, who has suffered demonic run-ins for most of his adult life. Pinhead’s motive? To turn the bedevilled gumshoe into a Witness who will chart his triumphant trek to the throne of Hell. However, amid a struggle on the streets of New York, Pinhead drags away Norma instead – leaving it to Harry and a ragtag bunch of spiritually tuned outsiders to track her and the Priest into Hell on a daring rescue mission.
Ahead of them, the Priest lays waste to all and sundry as he creeps ever further towards a vast, dark cathedral thought to house Lucifer himself. Here, the book transforms once again, becoming an incredibly twisted remake of The Wizard of Oz – the travellers following a bleak and bitter Scarlet Brick Road to Lucifer’s own menacing Emerald City. As in Baum’s classic, it turns out that the man behind the curtain isn’t quite what he’s cracked up to be…
If The Scarlet Gospels were laid out on a mattress with three other horror novels like the baggies of dope in Pulp Fiction, a longhaired Eric Stoltz would definitely describe it as the “Madman” of the bunch. There’s massive, mind-stretching stuff going on here, and the scope of the book ramps up time and again as we are lured towards the Hell Priest’s nihilistic endgame. Long-term Barker fans will know that Gospels had a troubled, 20-year gestation, beginning as a short story and then climbing to almost a quarter of a million words. Following an editing spree at the hands of Mark Miller, vice president of Barker’s LA film outfit Seraphim, the word count has plummeted – but the result still contains more eye-wideningly baroque concepts than a book twice the size. Gospels also upholds a key motif of Barker’s writing, whereby the descriptions become looser the more florid they get: a technique that forces your imagination to aim high in order to solve the book’s maze of complex visual puzzles.
There are caveats aplenty:
- For a book that has its roots in detective tales, the plot becomes steadily more diffuse, and never really clinches the sense of “lock-tight” completion that distinguishes the best crime writing – or fiction that stems from it.
- The scale of the challenge that faces Harry & Co is often surprisingly lower than what you’d expect from the hordes of Hell, and what should have been a classic exercise in whittling down the gang’s numbers one by one never gets underway. Indeed, one scene in which our friends are cornered in the streets of Hell’s capital by a mass of shape-shifting demons is almost laughable in the ease with which they get away. What begins as a moment of stark terror ends up feeling like a videogame cutscene where Our Heroes scuttle off without having had a decent fight – like there’s been an erratic jump in the gameplay or something.
- Frustratingly, Barker never attempts to square Gospels’ mythology with that of the other, major tomes where Harry appears, namely The Great and Secret Show and Everville. Known as The Books of The Art, both novels took great pains to explain that the Judeo-Christian belief system that swathes of mankind follow is actually a mask for a far more daunting spiritual landscape that lurks right on the edge of consciousness. In Gospels, though, Harry emphatically goes to Hell – even its inhabitants call it by that name – and amid Barker’s quirky reimagining (Hell has bicycles!), the detective still often finds himself surrounded by archetypal imagery that would sit comfortably in The Book of Revelations. So are we following a parallel version of Harry, for whom Judeo-Christian mythology is a more solid edifice? It is never said, and Harry’s brushes with The Art are scarcely mentioned.
- Despite Barker and Miller’s best efforts, there are often inconsistencies in the prose style that reveal the book had significant input from a writer other than the one emblazoned on the cover. This is obviously the kind of remark that begs the question, “Would you have picked that up if you didn’t already know about it?” To which my answer, I’m afraid, would be a resounding “Yes.” Aside from that occasional shakiness, there is also a maddening overuse of the horrible, clunky phrase “In point of fact”. Urgh.
With all that in mind, does The Scarlet Gospels stand a chance of being considered anything like as momentous as Barker classics such as Weaveworld or Imajica – books that urged horror, fantasy and philosophy to join hands and dance? Good grief, no. But, lest that verdict be perceived as a damnation game with faint praise, the book is still awash in Clive Barker hallmarks, with oodles of Big Ideas swirling through the mist of sprayed blood. It is also one of the most nakedly entertaining novels he has ever put his name to, with far shorter and punchier chapters than in most of his other books, all bound by a thread of wry – sometimes gonzo – humour. Best of all, Pinhead is a total, utter bastard, and every line he speaks drips with poetic arrogance.
Ironically, after spending 13 years writing an ambitious body of children’s fiction that occasionally baffles with its tangled complexity, Barker has produced a novel of savagely adult visions that reads as compulsively as the best children’s fiction.
For those of us who feel as though the 14 years since Coldheart Canyon emerged have been achingly short on the flavour of Barker we most enjoy – a pang relieved only by the slim volume of Mister B Gone – The Scarlet Gospels is a welcome, full-throated blast of his operatic register. At long last, a patience-taxing thirst has been slaked, and scarlet-brimming glasses can be raised to toast the author’s reconciliation with his applecart-demolishing, younger self.
For a long time, Barker has seemed like an author who’d rather saw off his writing hand at the wrist than give the public what they want. Flaws aside, The Scarlet Gospels is a mad and grandiloquent exercise in fan service – a veritable smorgasbord – and on this evidence, one can only hope that whatever Barker himself may be afraid of, his squeamishness about that process has been firmly laid to rest.
Words> Matt Packer