Ginger Nuts of Horror
The Scarlet Gospels
Objectivity is a nonsense, as it is commonly understood; the notion that we can somehow separate ourselves from bias, from intention; from dread or desire, when these things constitute everything we are; the realities in which we operate, utterly absurd. The very best we can do is aspire to some degree of critical distance; attempt to observe and interpret from a number of precepts, rather than to advocate that which we most acutely identify with as exclusive.
You'll forgive me, then, when I say that I cannot pretend objectivity when it comes to Clive Barker's work. I simply cannot; it is too essentially a part of me as a person, let alone as a writer; it has helped me to elaborate and evolve; to transcend previous presumptions of self; to determine states of operation I never could have imagined before. That influence has infested and informed me as I have grown; become a writer and imaginer myself, largely inspired by the lack of parameter promoted by Barker and his ilk.
The Scarlet Gospels, then; one of the most anticipated books of the year, not only amongst fans of Barker's work, but in horror and speculative fiction in general. Something that has been promoted and promised for many, many years, during which, according to pervasive rumour, it has undergone myriad shifts and transformations. Something approached with no small degree of personal excitement and trepidation; with the desperate hope of the invested.
There is no hope that this work isn't going to upset people, simply by virtue of its subject; the Hellraiser franchise, like all of its kind, has a die-hard and highly energised fan base, as does Barker's fiction as a whole; certain expectations have accrued and been expressed in the years since the first rumour of the book began to float; expectations which it can do no other but defeat.
Even given that, the book is a strange instalment in Barker's canon; nowhere here will you find the dense, transgressive metaphysics of Imajica or Weaveworld, the philosophy or eroticism of Sacrament, the grotesquery and near nihilism of The Damnation Game. The writer responsible for those works is, in a very real sense, gone; the man who stands in his place transformed by time and experience into something other. His work, therefore, is similarly removed; something less patient and foregoing; something that splatters imagery and colour and circumstance across the page in an almost arterial manner, the result something that is as likely to please as it is to alienate.
This is not the book that many people want; those who are looking for some continuation of established Hellraiser canon will be utterly defeated by it; its Hell is not that of Leviathan's Labyrinth, nor is its metaphysics that of the films or comics, nor is its Pinhead that of the films, comics or extended universe; if anything, this feels more like a continuation of the story in which protagonist Harry D'Amour first occurred; The Last Illusion, a story in which Hell and its denizens are multifarious and carnivalesque; creatures of such insane variety, they are presented almost as a parade or freak show for the reader to peruse, in all their surreal horror and beauty. The Hell of The Scarlet Gospels is something of the same vein; effusive and variously textured; colourful and surreal, in the way of a Dario Argento picture; a far, far cry from the manner in which Leviathan's Labyrinth has been depicted in both film and comic form.
Similarly, the denizens of that plain; that sphere of reality, are far more diverse and absurd in both form and mannerism than the more mythological overtones of the extended Hellraiser mythos implies; here we have demons of every shape, size and species; some redolent of beasts or animals, others vaguely humanoid, twisted and distorted out of true; their natures ranging from the bumbling and domestic to the petulant and brutish to entities somewhat more redolent of the Cenobites as they occur in the extended universe. As for the Cenobites themselves, they are barely a footnote; a small order in one very, very small corner of Hell, that feature peripherally.
Those who come expecting this to tie up loose ends established in comic books and movies will inevitably be disappointed; the story doesn't concern itself with older narratives or mythologies at all, what references there are extremely subtle; minor name drops and images that might spark some fleeting familiarity.
Harry D'Amour himself is somewhat removed from the broken and dishevelled figure we find at the end of Everville (another mythology that the story pays only the most fleeting reference to), still broken and dishevelled, but in an entirely different manner; far more the character we were left with at the conclusion of The Last Illusion; bitter, sardonic; accepting and digesting circumstances that should, by rights, have driven him insane by around a quarter of the way through the narrative.
The book is intent on being its own entity; entirely removed from fan-boy references or nods to bygone work. As such, it is notably un-Barkerian, in many respects, whilst simultaneously being rife with elements that are highly redolent of his earliest works. This factor alone will determine how much enjoyment the individual reader derives; if one is willing to let the story breathe; to be its own entity without reference to ancestry or tradition, then it has all the pace and colour and thrills of a ghost train ride; hurtling along in an escalating swell of images and ideas; a visual feast, more than anything else, the vistas and scenarios it describes redolent of Hieronymous Bosch's paintings, the interactions between its characters faintly comical in their blandishment; Harry D'Amour swelling into a deliberately cinematic archetype; the grizzled and faintly wounded action hero, cursing up a storm as he tracks “Pinhead” (variously rendered as “Pin-Fuck,” “Fuck-Head,” “Pin-Dick” and many, many more epithets than I can recount) through the depths and dimensions of Hell, to the throne of its very maker.
As for “Pinhead” himself...he represents what is quite possibly a conscious middle finger on Barker's part to the entire franchise; do not expect him to demonstrate an ounce of the majesty or ambiguity that he does in the original film or in some of the better stories that have followed; Barker is intent on having you dislike this character, certainly by the end of the story; he is sadistic and cruel, unnecessarily monstrous and violent, even thuggish at times, engaging in acts that are actually shocking because of who is committing them. Barker also takes great pains to demolish the character both physically and psychologically; undoing him down to the essential threads, then scattering them to the ether. When Barker proclaimed that “...he'll be very quiet when I'm done with him,” the man wasn't engaging in hyperbole; the entire endeavour seems to have been motivated by a singular desire to draw a line under this character, if only in Barker's own work (there will inevitably be other entries in this franchise; remakes, sequels, comics etc, and will forever while it remains profitable).
Again, this factor will profoundly affect the reader's ability to engage with and enjoy the text; many who have been clamouring for this tale on the basis of what they already love will be disappointed, maybe even angered, by the turns the story takes, what it does with characters and mythologies they have particular preconceptions of. Appreciating the work in and of itself relies upon the reader putting away presumption and nostalgia; taking it as the product of a man who has changed considerably from the one who wrote The Hell Bound Heart, The Great and Secret Show, Imajica...this is a different work by a different writer; one who is older, who has experienced more in the way of disappointment with the world, but also revelation. There is none of the slow world-building or accruing metaphysics that once characterised Clive Barker's writing here; instead, we have a faintly mythological, near comic-book ride of violence and grotesquery; of surrealism and disturbia, culminating in a kind of quiet reordering of the unseen state of reality; the metaphysics underpinning the world.
As for my own aforementioned lack of objectivity, I devoured the book in a single night, my only breaks to brew coffee or a cup of Chai tea. No doubt I will devour it again just as readily in days to come, it being one of the few of Barker's works I have read only once.
One to approach with consideration rather than expectation; to surrender to rather than make demands of.