Expectations are a funny thing. They leave you all excited and giddy. They have you impatiently waiting for the big day to arrive and when it does it very rarely lives up to the expectation. We all do it, we all big up the one thing we are most looking forward to and then feel empty and disappointed once we have consumed it. The life of a reviewer isn't so much like a box of chocolates, it is more like a box of chocolates where someone has stolen all the coffee creams.
The Scarlet Gospels to many people, this reviewer included, is the horror event of the decade. Finally after all these years two of Clive Barker's greatest creations go head to head in an all out battle that was promised to be the horror showdown to end all horror showdowns. Harry D'amour verses everyone's favorite hardware store enhanced baddie Pinhead. It's a pity this battle for the ages, between two of horror's heavyweights turned to out be a showdown that made even Freddy V's Jason seem like a good idea.....
Of course there is no way The Scarlet Gospels could ever have lived up to the hype and expectations surrounding it. Not only did it signal the return of a master of the horror genre, it also brought together two of horror's most beloved characters, and promised to tell us the final chapter in Pinhead's story. For any book to live up to that it would have to be amazing.
Initially all the signs were looking good. In the prologue we are introduced to the last of the Earth's great sorcerers, who have all fled to a sanctuary with the hopes of bringing one of their order back from the dead so he can help them battle Pinhead. Is pretty near to perfection. Crisp dialogue, hints at hidden worlds, ancient Cabals of sorcerers, mystical sexuality, brutal violence and ballet like choreography all told with a poetic narrative would have had you believing that the master had returned. The prologue to The Scarlet Gospels was as close to perfection as we could hope for. Cinematic in its execution, from the slow and steady introduction of Pinhead as he strips away the giant blocks of stone that stand between him and the Cabal cannot help but raise the hairs on the back of your neck. However it is when he finally interacts with them that the bar is raised to lofty heights.
The Pinhead presented here is not the same as the Pinhead we see in the rest of the novel. A majestic and proud figure, tinged with a layer of sadness and resignation. He is still our beautiful Prince of Pain. His insults and actions here are a wonder to witness. The brutality and utter lack of compassion he shows as he literally rips apart the Sorcerers and degrades them is a perverted joy to read. Barker has always known how to present graphic violence in such away that it never feels as though we are just witnessing violence of violence sake. There are scenes here that will have even the most hardened horror fan wincing in sympathetic pain, and yet they ever played out for titillation, the brutality is a symphonic overture of pain.
And yet the the greatest part of the prologue is the reaction of Pinhead to being called Pinhead. For years we have been led to believe that this was a name he carried with pride, instead we learn that the name elicits a response akin to calling the overweight kid in your school "Fatty". This is a stroke of genius from Barker, it is a quantum shift in the way we perceive him, no longer is he just an avatar of pain. He is now a shown as a creature with feelings and his own desires. Desires that will become all too clear as the book unfolds.
When you compare the prologue to the rest the of the book you are left wondering what happened? Where did all the Majesty and sense of awe and wonder go? Where is the pleasure and pain that we have come to know from his work gone? It is as though two different writers wrote the book.
To be fair the book holds up until the point were our two heroes met and the game really starts. D'amour's introduction is a bourbon soaked piece of classic PI storytelling. When we first meet him, he is almost a cliched New Orleans PI, all boozed up, smoked up and burnt out. You can picture him all unshaven, collar undone, back of the shirt covered in sweat with crystal tumbler of neat bourbon swirling in his hand as he attempts to chat up a washed out blues singer in some low down bar. Yet despite this Barker manages to avoid all the usual potholes of such a character and leaves the reader with a big grin on their face. Harry is back, and we are happy.
Harry's visit to the secret house of a deceased debauched sorcerer to retrieve some damaging items is again another piece of classic Barker writing. It is a tense encounter with some magical imagery that only Barker is capable of. Pinhead's attack dog is a glorious creation. The broken apart and rebuilt body of one of the sorcerers from the prologue is a worthy addition to legions of cenobites (even though he isn't a cenobite).
So we have our two fighters in their respective corners they have had their warm up round and they are ready to go head to head, toe to toe, in what should have been the battle of the decade. It's such a pity that it all goes to hell in a hand basket from this point.
Why The Scarlet Gospels took such a change in tone and more importantly style I will never know, but is certainly made a change. From this point on all sense of awe and wonder is lost. The narrative is stripped back to the bare bones, bereft of all of Barkers usual wondrous imagery. The Scarlet Gospels is turned into a basic almost hard boiled pulpy follow the leader crime story. Which in itself wouldn't be a problem, but the fact that the whole book shifts in tone is a concern. A writer should never write for his fans and this isn't a case of a fan wanting something and not getting it. I would have been happy for the whole book to have been a hardboiled noir, with a stripped down narrative and structure. In fact I think that could have been a good thing. This however feels as if The Scarlet Gospels is a product of a book being stripped of writing rather than being written that way.
But the style and tone of the book is not the only the problem. There are deep flaws in logic, the biggest being the fact the fact that Harry has absolutely nothing to to in the book other than to be a witness to Pinhead's schemes. Something which Pinhead mentions that he wants Harry to do. Which again would be fair enough if it wasn't for the fact that Harry doesn't witness most of his schemes first hand, he is always following in the wake of Pinhead, and without a CSI / Bones team of boffins to recreate the crimes, Harry can only have a best guess at what just happened. Harry had absolutely no part to play in the book, he may as well not have been there. And this for me is the biggest failure of the book. What a total waste of a character,and opportunity. D'amour is worthy of something much better.
Which brings us to the The Harrowers. Just how did they get the name? Have we missed some important points as to exactly what our intrepid band of motley heroes has gone through to gain that name? Who and what did the Harrowing, or did they all to to public school in Harrow? It may seem like a minor point but again it alludes to a much larger novel. As for the members of the group, I get what Barker was trying to do with the characters and using humor as a means to defuse the tension, but what a misjudged step. I thought double entendres went out with Frankie Howard. Do we really need terrible puns about pulling ones staff in a book like this, especially when they were so badly written. It got to the point where I wanted that character to face a very painful death.
As for Pinhead credit must be given to Barker for taking Pinhead in the brave and inspired direction that he did. For years we have been led to believe that Pinhead was name, and for Barker to turn this on its head and to use it as an insult to the demon is an ingeniously fiendish move. Who would have thought that it would be so easy to taunt and anger Hell's very own master of pain. But that is just the start of Pinhead's transformation. I'm not sure if it is response to Doug Bradley's ever impressive performance as Pinhead, and a move to recapture Pinhead for his himself, but this is not the Pinhead from the films. He is a much more down and dirty evil force. There is one very brutal scene in particular that was magnificent. It is a scene where Pinhead acts in way that you would never have thought. And yet it works perfectly, it's a pity the book didn't have more scenes like this. Ones that take a risk and play with our expectations of the story and characters.
Another problem with the book is the Hell setting, if you are expecting a Barker inspired vision of hell and it's denizens then you will be sadly disappointed. Barker has elected to go for a basic Christian view of hell with a few added extras such as a massive sea serpent. Even the scenes were we cross a vast hell ocean lack Barker's usual vision and flare. This is a Hell of castes but rather than being some exotic thing like Cabal, it all just feels like a night down at the local council offices, with leaders pontificating about their latest project.
Yes the final battle between Pinhead and a certain someone was epic, but it just had a sterile feel to it, it was more akin to watching Iron Man battle Ultron in the new Avengers film, all flash and bang with no depth.
The Scarlet Gospels is, for this reviewer, a great disappointment. There were times during the reading where I wasn't sure if Barker had just decided to rehash The Wizard of Oz, and whether or not it was Harry or Pinhead who was playing the part of Dorothy I couldn't quite decide. Was it Pinhead and his quest for the Wizard behind the curtain, or was it Harry and his "We're not in Kansas anymore" band of followers. I half expected Pinhead to click his heels together and say "There's no place like home". It felt as though this once brilliant writer was running on fumes or suffering from a huge lack of conviction of his own talents as a writer.
Should you read The Scarlet Gospels? Yes you should, it is decent enough story, it is just not a great story, A Barker- lite novel that hints at a much better story but never stretches either the writers gift for storytelling or the readers imagination. A huge missed opportunity and a rather depressing finale for Pinhead.
This was just my opinion of the book, and it would be a great disservice to only print my review so please stay tuned for some other reviews of The Scarlet Gospels from other members of the Ginger Nuts of Horror Team
And if you haven't already read some of the great accompanying articles from the Ginger Nuts Team to celebrate the release of the book follow the link below for the landing page for all the articles.