Written by: Brent R. Oliver
Pinhead, much like Bon Jovi, has always been one to keep the faith. While it’s obvious that Bon Jovi’s music is more awful by far than any torture Pinhead has ever dreamed up, it’s also beside the point.
Pinhead is undoubtedly one of Clive Barker’s greatest imaginings. From his introduction in the novella The Hellbound Heart, to his dignified S&M glory in the first few Hellraiser films, to his sad descent through the final Hellraiser films, he’s been a monstrous entity we fans just can’t get enough of. Even when he goes to space or becomes part of an online role-playing-game.
But what if he discovered a lust for power that outstripped his faith in temptation and pain? What if he got tired of waiting for creepy nipple-pinchers to solve his kinky puzzle box and jump down to perdition? In fact, what if Pinhead got altogether tired of Hell’s shit and decided to crack the universe in two from the basement up?
Oh, yeah. Don’t call him Pinhead, by the way. Turns out he hates that.
The Scarlet Gospels opens with some good old-fashioned raising of the dead. One dead, actually, a former magician named Joseph Ragowski. Pinhead plundered Joseph’s extensive magical knowledge and then killed the ever-loving shit out of him. After that, he hunted down the most powerful mages on Earth, stripped them of their fancy magic info, and creatively murdered their faces.
The few remaining magicians put together a complex ceremony to pull Joseph from death’s grasp in case he has any bright ideas about keeping Pinhead from killing them, too. You know…since Joseph did such a great job the first time around.
Predictably, things go all chain and hooky.
Soon after, we get reacquainted with Harry D’Amour, the private dick from The Last Illusion who reluctantly specializes in the supernatural. Harry’s best pal is an aging lady named Norma. Norma’s conventionally blind but she can see ghosts. She’s made it her life’s work to help the confused and suffering dead figure out how to move on. Of course, things aren’t always simple and she gets a fair amount of weird requests from the newly deceased.
Like Carston Goode, former family man and loving husband. His adamant spirit needs someone to nip down to New Orleans and tidy up his gay bondage sex house before his grieving wife and estate lawyer uncover it.
There’s really only one man for the job. Harry D’Amour heads to the Big Easy where he stumbles across a Lament Configuration and, by extension, Pinhead. Again, things get all chain and hooky but D’Amour is a hardened dick and this isn’t his first supernatural rodeo.
From that point on it’s human versus Hell, Cenobite versus Cenobite, and Pinhead versus goddamn everyone. Fallen angels, sins of the flesh, flawed humanity. That stuff.
The Scarlet Gospels is Clive Barker’s much anticipated return to the world of pure horror. A world he infiltrated and absolutely took over in the 80s because he was just so much better at it than everyone else. I’ve written on this site before about my undying, unrequited, unmitigated love of Clive Barker. He changed me. I adore him and I adore his work.
What a kick in the balls it was to realize that The Scarlet Gospels is a disappointing book. I was lucky enough to receive an advance review copy because my reputation as a horror critic is nearly nonexistent and I have a friend with connections. I let the book rest in a holy place on my desk for several days just so I could savor the anticipation every time I walked by. Its vibes slowly filled my office until I was in a state of pre-prom sexual frenzy. One night I snuck off to bed with it while my wife was still up watching TV. I cracked it open and let Mr. Barker’s words slam into my face just like I’d always wanted.
My page-turning fingers soon lost their quiver and reality knocked this book’s awkward fantasy aside. It’s bland. It’s awkward. It’s sloppy. Words and phrases are repeated, often in the same sentence or paragraph. The dialogue is actually painful to read. Harry D’Amour is flat and childish with a superhuman resistance to character development. He has all the feel of a badly drawn teenager rather than the snarky anti-hero we know him to be.
And the group of brave Hell-stormers he leads is just as tired. Not one has a bright personality, or a distinct voice, or real depth. They’re all birdbath-shallow and wan as zombie toenails. I was done with them almost as soon as they were introduced because they had no vigor or snap.
Pinhead has more dimension. His motives are somewhat murky but he at least changes, evolves, becomes more than what he was at the start. His evolution isn’t precise, and there are moments where I questioned the validity of his actions, but his arc moves steadily forward. That motherfucker has a plan.
Barker is renowned for his eloquence and his obscenity, the two often going hand-in-hand. The Scarlet Gospels contains too much of one, and not enough of the other. While the author scripts some of his most elegant, regally efficient prose to date, it’s hamstrung by an overarching clumsiness. One magnificent turn of phrase that left me breathless with its artifice was instantly ruined by the next sentence which plodded dully along whacking dead horses.
Even though the overall effect is ponderous, make no mistake that Barker is still a wizard with the English language. For every two crumbly, mealy-mouthed sentences that slot gracelessly together, there’s one that soars on wings of pure genius. Sometimes I had to actually set the book aside for a few minutes and just wallow in the sheer beauty that he can magic up out of simple words.
On the obscene front, I’m usually behind it one hundred percent. Barker has a knack for seamlessly weaving ghoulish scatology into the fabric of his stories. In his hands, gore is glorious, shit and semen become sublime, and pure profanity is poetic. No one does it better.
But The Scarlet Gospels is rife with fairly pointless graphic nastiness. Occasionally it fits in well with the narrative but all too often it’s just jarring. Barker spends a little too much time rubbing the reader’s nose in something disgusting which turns out to have little bearing on the story. I certainly wasn’t offended. I don’t even know if that’s possible. But the art that’s usually behind Barker’s blasphemy and irreverence is missing.
And that’s my complaint with the novel as a whole. Clive Barker is a goddamn artist. Almost everything he does, no matter how crass, ludicrous, or vile, is stylishly refined. He hammers the most prosaic scenes out of his keyboard in a manner that is stately and opulent. His stories and characters come to life with unequalled vivacity, not just in the horror realm, but in the literary realm. Most of that is lacking here.
The Scarlet Gospels is a fantastical journey through Hell, which is a landscape I expect Clive Barker to describe with his characteristic aplomb. He’s created some of the most rarefied worlds, galaxies, and environments I’ve ever experienced. Imajica, Weaveworld, The Great and Secret Show, Everville: all these drip with stunning detail and cunning craft. But The Scarlet Gospels is strangely colorless and without punch. It almost feels like a novella stretched out to cover the ground of a novel.
If you’re a fan, you absolutely should pick up this book when it drops May 19th. It may not have quite the level of mastery you’re used to but it deserves a spot on the shelf nestled next to Mr. Barker’s other works. If nothing else, this is the life and times of Pinhead, Hell Priest of the Cenobite Order, thief of Earthly magic, and enslaver of souls stronger than yours. How can you pass up his final chapter?