The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker
After years of anticipation, this month saw the release of Clive Barker’s long-overdue novel, The Scarlet Gospels, featuring two of his most illustrious characters. No, not Rawhead Rex and Candy Quackenbush – though that might have made for a much more entertaining read. This book sees the return of hard-drinking private investigator (you pictured Scott Bakula, didn’t you?) Harry D’Amour, and the Hell Priest (AKA Don’t Call Me Pinhead). So surely this is going to be a masterpiece of epic proportions, right? Right?
The first four chapters would lead you to believe so, as six High Circle magicians, one of whom has just been resurrected against his will, are tortured and humiliated by a never-more-poetic Hell Priest. No amount of pleading can save these poor bastards as Pinhead (let’s just get it out of the way now) calls upon his hooks and turns them into something you would normally find on a side-plate at a hillbilly barbecue. One of them, Felixson, is fortunate to be spared, only to reappear in a later chapter as a mangled creature whose sole purpose is to follow Pinhead around telling him how pretty he isn’t.
With those four chapters out of the way – and bloody good they were, too – we catch up with Harry D’Amour, who is having a miserable night out at his local bar, celebrating his birthday in the only way he knows how. Several flashbacks and a couple of was-it-a-dream?’s later, Harry is contacted by the only friend he has, Norma “black, blind, and 63” Paine, who has been visited by a ghost going by the name of Carston Goode. Goode, it seems, was something of a deviant in life, which is evident when Harry head over to his house and rifles through his knicker drawers, only to find that little box of pain and pleasure, Lemarchand’s Puzzle Box – not to be confused with the equally painful, Rubik’s Cube.
All’s well and good. Harry knows that the box can’t open itself, so everything is…wait a demon-summoning minute. The box has learned how to open itself, and before you can say “Jesus wept” Harry is standing with one foot in Hell, staring into the face of the legendary Pinhead. After surviving that encounter, barely, Harry is drawn back into Hell after Pinhead steals his best friend Norma “black, blind, and 63” Paine and takes her on a whirlwind tour of Pyratha – like Rome, only without all the Romans knocking about the place.
What follows is essentially two-hundred or so pages of cat-and-mousery (if it’s not a word, it should be), with Pinhead just a few steps ahead, leaving dead demons in his wake for Harry and his ragtag band of Harrowers – seriously? Do they do cover songs at weddings? – to trip over. One member of the band tells jokes so terrible, he ought to go it alone as a pub comedian.
And that is part of the problem with The Scarlet Gospels. It’s too light-hearted, with quips coming thicker and faster than at a Tim Vine gig. Surely, if you were in Hell, surrounded by demons and the like, the last thing you’d be doing is plunging into your brain for an innuendo that would make Frankie Howerd blush. It’s hard to care for characters who don’t care enough for their own safety to quit with the jesting and concentrate on the task at hand.
Another problem is Pinhead’s objective. What does he want with Harry D’Amour in the first place? It quickly becomes apparent that the Hell Priest (or Pinfuck as Harry affectionately calls him) requires someone to take notes as he butchers his way through Hell. Surely there are millions of temps out there willing to take the job for less than minimum wage and on a zero-hours contract? The fact that Harry seldom witnesses any of Pinhead’s brutal undertakings is irrelevant.
When Odd Thomas and The Scooby Gang finally catch up to Pinhead, he’s pulling swords out of a long-dead (suicide, of course) Lucifer and preparing to take over Hell with his own brand of ruthlessness. The only trouble is, in removing said swords, the Morning Star is revived and not in the best of moods. There’s a bit of a punch-up, which Harry doesn’t see as he’s running in the opposite direction, followed by a fifty-page ending in which Harry is blinded, but it’s okay because he can now see the ghosts his friend Norma “black, blind, and 63” Paine once had to tolerate every living hour, so, swings and roundabouts…
After all that, and though it might sound like it, The Scarlet Gospels is not terrible. There is plenty of action in Hell, with demons falling left, right, and centre, and some of the imagery will stick with you long after you finish, particularly those opening chapters. The sequence in which we are dragged back to Harry and Norma’s first meeting is particularly well done, and Felixson’s demise is another noteworthy moment. Barker’s version of Hell, however, does come across as a slightly worse off Dudley City Centre with its lack of fire and brimstone, but perhaps that is what it is truly like, and this reviewer will no doubt find out soon enough.
Overall, The Scarlet Gospels is not bad; it’s just not the poetic, intricate, profound piece of work we have come to expect from such a visionary author.