Ginger Nuts of Horror
In contrast to general opinion, I rather enjoyed Clive Barker's The Scarlet Gospels. Certainly not the book I or anyone was expecting; far, far, far from Barker's best work, but one I cannot deny taking some adolescent thrill from (I believe I described it as the literary equivalent of a ghost train ride in my initial review).
That said, I am under no delusions as to its short-comings; all of the criticisms that have been levelled at it elsewhere on this site (and others) are true and then some. It is inconsistent, comic-book in tone and heft, ducks and dives all over the place without ever centring or focussing on a clean or definite through-line (so far removed from any of Barker's previous works, it has led many to question just how involved in its production the man actually was).
Which criticisms beg the question: How would I have done it better?
Well, for one thing, I would not have so wholly ignored the weight of history behind the Hellraiser franchise. Certainly, there are elements of the extended mythology accrued around the comics, the films; the various mediums into which the franchise has expanded, that had to be excised, but the decision to throw out baby with the bathwater has resulted in a work whose tone and mythology are so far removed from its parent franchise, it may as well not be a part of it (replace “Pinhead” with Demon Protagonist X and it makes little difference to the overall story).
In particular, I would have returned either to the original source material, the novella, The Hellbound Heart, in which the Cenobites and what they represent are markedly different in dynamic and implication from how they manifest in the films: their ennui, their dispassion, their sheer boredom, provides a fairly interesting dynamic for exploration, as do the titbits of implied back mythology scattered throughout. These Cenobites present far more interesting and potential subject matter in literary terms, as the condition they derive from s clearly not the Hell of The Scarlet Gospels, nor is it Leviathan's Labyrinth, as established in Hellraiser 2: these Cenobites are almost Lovecraftian in their other-worldliness, the state of (dis)grace they inhabit barely explored in the novella; merely hinted at through strange and distressing imagery. The potential for elaboration and exploration in that regard is enormous, and also presents are far more potent opportunity for marrying the Hellraiser mythology to another that was utterly abandoned in The Scarlet Gospels: that of The Books of the Art, in which protagonist Harry D'Amour also plays a key role and in which it is clearly established there is no “Heaven” or “Hell” as they occur in traditional mythology; rather, the entities that D'Amour himself initially defines as demons are, in fact, merely extra-dimensional entities from other states of being, that are either play-acting the part or have lost their own sense of identities, believing themselves to be angelic or infernal.
The decision to abandon both mythologies wholesale was an enormous faux pas from the out; both are vast and various enough to accommodate one another, with a minimum of tweaking: The Cenobites of Barker's original novella could very, very easily be an order from one of the states littering Quiddity, the dream sea that touches the shores of all realities, or something even more profound: a sect established in service to or defiance of the Iad Ouroboros: the force of raw, apocalyptic desolation that is the nemesis of that particular series. Something that is severely lacking from The Scarlet Gospels is the sense of ambiguity concerning the Cenobites and the wider mythology: “Pinhead” (or “The Hell Priest,” as his official title) is just a bastard; there's nothing else to him. This is in stark contrast to the entities that appear in The Hellbound Heart, that are bored and disinterested, but ultimately not malevolent: they give only what is asked for, come only when called, and do so without any overt glee or monstrosity. This ambiguity is certainly evident (though not quite as overt) in the first two Hellraiser films, in which the original Cenobites tend to come with words of promise and play rather than threat; this is a part of their appeal, but something that “Pinhead” and the Cenobites of The Scarlet Gospels do not evince (largely due to the misconceived decision to remove the entire mythology to a more traditional, Abrahamic one). The more ambiguous breed would certainly suit the stories in which Harry D'Amour has traditionally found himself, and work far more fluidly in conjunction with the mythology of Quiddity, the Iad Ouroboros and The Ephemeris (Leviathan's Hell or whatever condition the Cenobites ultimately hail from could very easily be one of the metaphysical states that make up the islands of the Ephemeris).
Similarly, the decision to not merely ignore but utterly undo the mythology established in the second Hellraiser film, in which the origins of the Cenobites, the realm they inhabit and the God that forges them (Leviathan) are all broached, if not intimately explored, is a perplexing one, especially since it's one that Hellraiser fans and even those responsible for broadening the mythology via the medium of comics etc have taken to heart. In The Scarlet Gospels, Leviathan does not exist, and the Cenobites are merely a particular order within a particular corner of a very traditional, Boschean Hell, complete with its own horned, fork-tailed demons, its own Lucifer etc. There is no ambiguity here; nothing of the surrealism and strangeness of Leviathan's labyrinth. If anything, The Scarlet Gospels feels more as though it's set in the universe of Mr. B. Gone, one of Barker's more comedic works to date. To my mind, this is a profound mistake: the book presented a fantastic opportunity for Barker to explore the Cenobites, their natures, their origins; to marry them into wider mythologies such as that established within The Books of the Art, Weaveworld (in which the Cenobites are passingly referenced) and even Imajica. Leviathan itself is always a concept that, whilst not Barker's own, has always screamed, screamed for elaboration: what is the entity, why does it manifest as a vast version of the Lament Configuration, how did it come to be what it is? Far from being simplistic villains or antagonists, there was potential for the story to bring Harry D'Amour into the Hell he has always feared, rather than the one he clearly doesn't, in The Scarlet Gospels; for him to engage with the Cenobites and maybe even Leviathan in a more complex and engaging manner than he does: given the impending apocalypse represented by the Iad Ouroboros, it is not outside the realms of possibility that they might even enter into an uneasy alliance; that the Cenobites and their domain may, in fact, be a bulwark against the Iad, since the metaphysical annihilation they represent also threatens their agendas and interests. Were both mythologies not thrown out wholesale, it might have even been feasible to tie such situations into the origins of Leviathan, the Labyrinth and the Cenobites themselves: being entities of utter sensation, perpetual extremity, they dynamically represent everything antithetical to the Iad Ouroboros, which is nihilism, which is disease and filth and decay. The Cenobites and Leviathan's Hell could easily have been antagonistic to begin with, but slowly drawn into conflict with the Iad by Harry.
Structurally, as well as conceptually, there are certain questionable decisions concerning The Scarlet Gospels that could have easily been avoided: the book moves far, far too eagerly into the absurd and extreme; unlike many of Barker's earlier works, it leaves no time for establishment; for slow build into a state of normality before shattering it with the bizarre and disturbing. It leaps right in, from page one, and is overt in its presentation and language. This leaves very little time for character or setting or mood to establish itself; there's very little of the grit and grime; the existential despair, that has defined Harry D'Amour's earlier adventures. This could have very easily been fixed in conjunction with the aforementioned mythological problems: taking time to explore where Harry is and what he's doing following the events of Everville would have allowed for that slowing of pace, that depth and breadth that the book sorely lacks. Personally, I would have focused very closely on Harry in psychological and metaphysical terms, as, following Everville, everything he assumes or believes is shattered. He is cast adrift in a world (worlds) more alien than he could ever imagine; an excellent starting point for the story. Perhaps he is gone; fled and wandering, somewhere isolated, away from humanity, away from demons and angels and sorcerers and Nunciates...afraid of living, even more afraid of dying; a man frayed to the very point of insanity. That is certainly how I would have started the book; with someone, maybe one of the characters from The Books of the Art, seeking Harry out, for aid, to warn him of something fast approaching...maybe just to drag him back from the brink. Meanwhile, Harry is endlessly tormented, not only by his own metaphorical demons, but by whispers of other worlds; dreams, visions and hallucinations of what is coming...
Perhaps fled to one of the more distant states of the Ephemeris, or somewhere similarly isolated in Earth, various peoples, powers and principles from all mythologies seeking him out, because he has some reluctant part to play... enter The Lament Configuration; an artefact that Harry has some knowledge of, not to mention its provenance; one that is perhaps brought to Harry in his isolation, or that he already has, having fallen across it in one of his wanderings between this point and Everville (cue opportunity to tie up some loose ends from Hellraiser; Kirsty Cotton et al). Even the box calls to Harry, Leviathan's Hell in a state of some uproar, the Great Configuration still disturbed following Kirsty Cotton's actions in Hellraiser 2, the denizens of The Labyrinth (i.e. the Cenobites) suffering an uncertainty they haven't known in centuries; a sense of something approaching dread, Leviathan afflicting them with terrible visions of the approaching Iad Ouroboros, of the ultimate end to their explorations that the phenomena represents.
Something finds Harry; what he initially presumes to be an agent of the Iad, bit which turns out to be one of Leviathan's earthbound servants. Wounded, terrified, desperate, the stricken man (or woman) forces Harry to solve the Lament Configuration, which he is happy to do anyway (the damn box having invaded his dreams, his waking thoughts; obsessing him with its tinkling and its visions).
The way to Hell opens, and who should come and collect Harry for Leviathan's pleasure, but a figure that Harry recognises from a thousand different accounts, from myriad mythologies: the pin-headed High Priest of Hell and his entourage.
A fractious and ambiguous meeting, Harry having made himself an enemy of Hell and Leviathan many times over, this “Pin-Head” not the overtly villainous entity we meet in The Scarlet Gospels, but the weary, graceful sage of the original Hellraiser. When he speaks to Harry, it isn't in terms of threat or coercion, but as to a fumbling child, who doesn't understand the art he's destroying:
“You know me?”
“Oh, yes; you are known to us; your name echoes through the screams and sighs...you would be our enemy, is that not so?”
“I am your enemy...”
“Not today, D'amour, not today”
This is what was missing from The Scarlet Gospels that I and so many fans of the franchise ached for; moments of quiescence and intimacy; moments of genuine conversation between D'amour and “Pinhead,” which would have served beautifully to emphasise the characters and establish a far more engaging dynamic between them.
Imagine that, following their initial meeting, Harry is taken to Leviathan's Hell, but not before some familiar faces burst through the door: The Great and Secret Show and Everville's Tesla Bombeck, whom Harry warns back, whom the Cenobites are actually interested in, owing to her Nunciate nature (Pinhead in particular showing some degree of fascination).
She attempts to save Harry, but Harry warns her back, allowing the Cenobites to take him, leaving Tesla and her fellow rarefied souls on the threshold of Hell as its doors close.
Harry in Leviathan's Hell would make for a fantastic sequence; as Pinhead establishes in Hellraiser 2, the labyrinth is different for all who wander it. Imagine what it would make of Harry's psyche, what it would reveal and betray in him? The potential for delving deep, deep into the character is enormous; a far cry from the quipping action hero archetype we find in The Scarlet Gospels. Yet...the Cenobites do not tear him apart; acting almost as escorts, visions afflicting him; of his past, those he has failed to save or been forced to put down; lovers murdered, abandoned, left to confusions...entities scrabbling out of the darkness; creatures he knows, that he has faced before and sent back to the abyss.
An opportunity to provide a little recognition of those stories Harry has experienced in the past, along with the reader: the likes of the magician, Swan, Nix, The Puritan and myriad others from Harry's previous escapades and encounters might make their returns here, much changed, of course, but not so much that Harry and reader cannot recognise them.
Meanwhile, a secondary thread unfolds back on Earth: Tesla Bombeck and her allies – a rag-tag collection of characters from Barker's previous works: perhaps one or two specimens from The Books of the Art, The Damnation's Game's Marty Strauss and Carys Whitehead and Kirsty Cotton, seek a means of opening the way to Hell; of storming it as Kirsty once did and retrieving Harry. In this regard, the story could so easily have been Barker's equivalent of King's Dark Tower series; a means of cohering everything he has written into a multiverse (which fans would no doubt have gone insane for, if handled deftly enough).
Harry, of course, is not their only concern: Kissoon, antagonist of The Books of the Art, has been hard at work, gnawing at the seams of reality, gathering strength in the Iad Ouroboros's embrace. Humanity's dreaming self is in turmoil, expressing itself outwardly in escalating violence, atrocity; ranging from comparatively minor acts of mindless malevolence (rapes, abuse, serial killings) to political acts of near-apocalyptic malice.
Tesla, being touched by the Nuncio and now, a wielder (or conduit) of The Art, is extremely sensitive to this; is even able to stand on the shores of Quiddity, the Dream Sea, and see its escalating pollution; the trails of the Iad's effluent bleeding into its depths and tides, seething like a smog storm in the sky. Marty Strauss, having learned a little of the same crafts that Mamoulian practised (The Damnation Game) is likewise discomfited, not quite knowing to the same degree as Tesla, but aware that something is happening.
They need Harry. Tesla doesn't know why, but the Nuncio in her system screams it; divinities, otherworldly entities from a variety of different states and mythologies, visit her in dreams, in moments of rare recline, amongst them both Randolphe Jaffe and Wesley Fletcher, both of whom exist on an entirely other plain of existence, now; their former definition, their enmity, forgotten, in favour of a more profound unity. No longer enemies, not even lovers; they are a single, ambiguous whole: a divinity that has seen and wandered further than Tesla can even dream; who has seen the rise and fall of Gods and Goddesses, the wars they fight between them (including the Barbarossas, Hapexamendios, Leviathan et al)...they claim to be what the Nuncio ultimately intended; what Quiddity dreams for humanity...what Kisson and the Iad wish to snuff out:
The species' potential to re-dream itself.
But, in order for that to come about, Harry D'Amour must be plucked from Hell...
At this point, allow me to digress: I am aware that the plot may be in danger of becoming just a knot of references, ill-balanced, not entirely gelling; thrown in for the sake of fan service, but, at this point in Barker's career, with so many mythologies left flailing unfinished, The Scarlet Gospels represents the perfect opportunity to tie them all up as one; to create the uber-mythology that might even challenge King's Dark Tower in its expansiveness, its colour and variety.
This is also the kind of story fans of Barker's more classic work have been aching for for so long; something that provides a continuation and potential closure for beloved characters; that throws them together for the fun of it; explores how they play off one another. D'Amour is the perfect lynchpin, in that regard; the hub of the mythology, in that he already transcends several (The Books of Blood, The Books of the Art, Hellraiser).
Meanwhile, in Leviathan's Hell, Harry is prepared for his exposure to Leviathan: The Hell Priest (Pinhead) attending to him personally, but doing so not out of spite or malice, but with a religious ritualism; a reverence for Harry's flesh and pain that the detective can barely credit:
“You are...exquisite, D'Amour...”
“So I've been told...”
“...every inch of you; every line, ever scar; a tapestry of suffering; a testament to our creed. What stories you tell...what gospels you bear...”
The potential for exploring Harry as a character here is incredible: The Hell Priest's rites not only consisting of physical torture and mutilation, but flashes of Leviathan's black light (as seen in Hellraiser 2) which dredge up the most sublimated shames and horrors from Harry's past...a true treat for Barker fans; to see the man in more innocent times, to see the first experiences that brought him to the darkness, and the darkness to him...The Hell Priest not only fascinated by the stories Harry relives, but moved by them; finding in them echoes of his own former life as Elliot Spencer. Like old war veterans, they swap stories of their scars; how they came to be where they are, who and what they are...more in common than either could have foreseen...
I will stop at this point, for fear of this spilling on for another ten pages or more (believe me, I have enough material for it to do so). Needless to say, I think it provides at least a framework for how The Scarlet Gospels could have been a more successful continuation of Barker's earlier and more beloved work. I comprehend totally the desire to make the piece its own; to let it have its own identity, but, given that it deals with already well established characters, mythologies etc, that was always going to be problematic, and the wholesale abandonment of those mythologies does not serve the finished product terribly well.
For those interested in how my own version of The Scarlet Gospels would have continued and, perhaps, concluded, feel free to get in touch. Or, better yet: what would you have done?