The Scarlet Gospels Review
Note: This review was written independently of any other, and indeed before I read any of the other Gingernuts Of Horror reviews. Any repetition is therefore coincidental and unintentional.
And so the path to The Scarlet Gospel ends with Clive Barkers newest tome: billed as the final story of Pinhead, and also starting fan favourite Harry D'Amour.
Where to start?
I guess the first thing to say is that I really enjoyed this book. The story is really a two-hander, with Harry and Pinhead as the main point of view characters. Harry I found to be as compelling as ever – reluctant heroism paired with an unhealthy fascination/desire to face down the darkness. His supporting cast of friends were also a fun bunch, though I have to confess to finding them to be amongst interchangeable at points, especially during the dialogue heavy sections. Still, it was good to see Harry in a more social context, moving beyond his stock noir loner detective roots to an ever more rounded character, and his development throughout the story I found both compelling and surprising.
In many ways, however, Pinhead's journey was the more compelling, for me. It's worth noting that this is very much Clive Barker's vision of The Hell Priest, rather than the movie version of the character. Though my mind initially superimposed Doug Bradley's face and voice over proceedings, it quickly became apparent this was a very different character. The Hell Priest of The Scarlet Gospels is a vicious sadist who clearly enjoys his work far more than the aloof, indifferent master of pain depicted in the films. Whilst The Scarlet Gospels opens in powerfully cinematic fashion, our lead villain is a very different beast – accepting the character on the terms of the novel made him fresh to me, and made the rest of the journey hugely more enjoyable.
As someone who is not a huge fan of metafiction, in general, I personally didn't enjoy the notion that The Hell Priest disliked his Pinhead nickname – it felt a little to cute, to me, a little bit too explicitly Clive Barker saying 'knock it off, you guys!'. That said, it did serve as a useful character note.
For me, the other star of the story is Clive Barker's own vision of Hell. Leaning on Dante for mood, but entirely original in form and scope, I found there to be a ton of Barker's trademark grotesque fantastic in his descriptions of both the place and the population. There were times that it got a little one note, for me, a perhaps unavoidable symptom of the setting for the story (and I'm certainty glad we didn't end up with the original 1000 page draft Barker claims to have written). Nevertheless, there we some moment, scenes, and locations I found to be darkly fascinating, with flashes of that old genius.
There's plenty of movie gore type violence throughout, and again Barker manages to be explicit (and at times pleasingly gross) without crossing over into tedium. I also found the ending to be very satisfying. I'll be very interested to see how the events of this novel play out in a final book of the art, should such a novel ever arrive.
It's clearly not up there with Barker's best work – it didn't have the epic scope of The Great and Secret Show, or quite the elegance and intimacy of The Hellbound Heart. Oddly, in many ways it's Clive Barker writing pulp action horror, albeit with two of his most beloved creations at the core of that action. I think if you can accept it on those terms, there's a really good time to be had here, because a lot of the other trademark Barker elements are present and correct.
I think my bottom line is I'm still pretty overjoyed to have a new Barker novel on my shelf, and it was certainly good enough to make me hope we won't have to wait quite so long for the next one. At the end of the day, 'Not quite top-drawer Barker' is praising with awfully faint damnation...