Ginger Nuts of Horror
Strange and suspicious, this; following from the less-than-successful Scarlet Gospels, a prequel to Barker's closure of the Hellraiser franchise came out of nowhere and seems to have been surreptitiously slipped into the market without much fanfare or celebration.
No longer marketed as being written by Barker himself, this instalment is purportedly written by Mark Miller, one of the ghost-writers of The Scarlet Gospels and one who has worked with Barker on various comic book projects before now.
An expensive curiosity, following the overall disappointment of The Scarlet Gospels, I was reluctant to lay down the asking price for this book, out of sincere dread of being soured further on the franchise.
But, curiosity and a -perhaps misplaced- loyalty to the franchise led me to pre-order it, devouring it in its entirety on the day it arrived.
First thing's first: whilst extremely small (the book barely warrants being called a novella), it is beautifully produced, with a lush and exquisite jacket, excellent quality paper and binding; a physical product of quality one would expect, given the asking price.
It is also very, very, very small. I was certainly not expecting something of the length of The Scarlet Gospels, but maybe at least half that.
A matter which is of little significance, if the story itself is of sufficient quality (Barker's Tortured Souls: Tales of Primordium is of similar size, but a fantastic read).
For my part, this marks the end of my association with this franchise. I don't think anyone currently operating with reference to it, in film or written fiction, grasps what made it so successful in the first place; where the core of its appeal lies. Furthermore, I do not believe that anyone involved with it harbours any genuine enthusiasm on their own part for it.
The book purports to follow Kirsty Cotton, protagonist of the original Hellraiser (most certainly the film incarnation, not the Hellbound Heart novella) in the decades following her experiences with The Lament Configuration, the Cenobites etc, in which she finds herself constantly on the run, having to change lives and identities so as to avoid the forces and agents of Hell, who are consistently interested in her.
Unfortunately, the book simply isn't long or fulsome enough to make anything of this. Like Harry D'Amour in The Scarlet Gospels, Kirsty feels truncated and breathless and “hurried along,” as though the writer wants to get the domestic details out of the way and get down to the weirdness and horror of it all.
This is particularly problematic when you consider that there was a Hellraiser comic book series not too long ago which told exactly the same story, but did so with far more nuance, intrigue and respect for the original mythology, that portrayed both Kirsty and “Pinhead” (here more often refered to as “The Cold Man”) in a more complex and engaging light.
There's just nothing here; nothing to immerse or anchor the reader; it relies far, far too much on fan-association and brand loyalty, hoping that the inclusion of characters familiar to the reader will make up for a lack of depth or detail in the writing.
Kirsty Cotton, protagonist of the first two Hellraiser films makes a return as a harassed and hunted woman, perpetually forced to abandon the lives she manages to scavenge together in the aftermath of her experiences with the uncanny for fear of its agents discovering her.
This, in itself, might have been the basis for something interesting; it would have leant the book some much needed depth and detail to explore who Kirsty was, is and has been throughout her myriad incarnations, what encounters she has had with the agents of Hell and other forces. A fascinating format is inherent to the idea: the book would have had so much more raw intrigue and engagement were we introduced to Kirsty not as Kirsty, but maybe one of the myriad roles and masks she has occupied in her time since Hellbound.
Instead, all we have are allusions to her past and current condition; very little that anchors or makes the character interesting beyond the too-heavily-relied-upon context of the films. She is very much just a cypher for the story in this instance, which is extremely thin and provides little in the way of illumination or elaboration on the events of The Scarlet Gospels.
The book is somewhat flaccid, but not terribly offensive, until the point that “The Cold Man” makes his appearance.
Given the book's brevity (it barely constitutes a novella; many of Lovecraft's “short stories” are far longer), there isn't enough time to build up the threat or ethos of Hell; Kirsty's few encounters with the outre or bizarre are pleasing enough, in their own surreal ways, but more like paintings than parts of an on-going narrative: images that exist for their own sakes, with little weight or context to lend them relevance.
As such, “The Cold Man” and Hell itself lack impact, when they finally occur:
Introduced far too early, this is very, very much the Cenobite we know from The Scarlet Gospels and the latter films, lacking any and all of the majesty, ambiguity and poetry that leant him intrigue in his original incarnations.
There is something powerfully off about this particular rendition of the Cenobites: they are far too limited, too physical and verbose; far too emotional to maintain any weight or dignity: “The Cold Man” is brought low by nothing more than a claw hammer and responds to physical violence as though he is a far more fragile and mortal entity than the one portrayed in films, the original novella and the extended universe. He suffers pain, he experienes wounds, he is moved to anger and expressions of violent petulance.
It's almost as though the writer(s) hate this character, hate this mythology, and want the readers to hate them, too, so go out of their ways to undo anything ambiguous, complex or engaging about them:
Hell is Hell, and it is a place where demons and bad people reside. “The Cold Man” is a demon who could be swapped out for any such entity from any vaguely metaphysical work of horror you might name: there is nothing to distinguish him here or make him a half way engaging character. Kirsty is just another in a long line of plucky potential victims that ends up turning the tables (in a manner that does not work; it feels strained, as though the writer didn't know how to manoeuvre her out of the situation he placed her in).
The encounter between “The Cold Man” and Kirsty could have been one for the ages: something that fans have been clamouring for arguably since Hellbound (yes, I know they meet again in one of the latter bits of “straight to DVD” dreck, and no, it doesn't count). Instead, it's awkward, fumbling and, most notable of all, insincere. It doesn't feel as though the writer believes in this story; it feels like something that has been cobbled together, possibly from portions excised from the final draft of The Scarlet Gospels, and sold as a complete work (for a HEFTY price tag, I might add).
Furthermore, this story has already been told: as previously mentioned, a recent series of Hellraiser comics does this exact concept far deeper justice, in which the mythology of Leviathan's Hell is maintained (and elaborated), in which core characters from the franchise get to have some exposure (and even resolution), in which “The Cold Man” is not only intriguing, but marvellously complex: swapping out his place in the hierarchy of Hell for a return to his mortal life as Elliot Spencer, with Kirsty Cotton taking on his mantle and the panoply of pins. It's a fascinating role-reversal, and is far more consistent with the original mythology and its ethos, far better written and more diverting than this.
It's all very hum drum; simultaneously pandering and entirely ignorant of what has sustained this franchise through corporate shit and shennanigans that should have buried it long, long ago.
For my part, in context with the undoubtedly hideous Hellraiser: Judgment (read our review if it here) , this marks my termination point with a series I have adored since I was a child. The original films, The Hellbound Heart novella, will always be significant to me; they will always be powerful influences on my imagination and the subject matter it produces.
But, as for anything that occurs from this point on, I will make a deliberate point of not purchasing it, not consuming it, for fear that it taints my affection even for those artefacts.