So....quite possibly the publishing event of the year as far as horror goes, and unless you've been living under a rock for the last few years, you'll know that this year - this month - heralds the release of the newClive Barker novel.
Of course, this isn't just any novel by just any writer. Anyone who claims to be serious about horror fiction (reading or writing) cannot fail to have acquainted themselves with Barker's fiction. Even if you found you did not like his style or his stories, your horror reading education, I'd argue, is severely limited by not even trying his work. There are a number of writers old and new, of many different styles and areas of interest, that I'd hold up as essential reading for the serious horror reader/writer, and Barker is definitely one of those.
He seemed to burst onto the scene in the mid to late eighties and while the truth is never quite like that, he did quickly establish himself a reputation as something very different from the current (at the time) crop of horror writers. Less concerned with the standards of horror fiction - ghosts, vampires, werewolves and so on - he seemed more interested in creating something wholly new, whether that was character or mythology. And, I'd say, he succeeded - many times over; Weaveworld, Imajica, Cabal, Quiddity the dream-sea from The Great And Secret Show (and its sequel Everville). He took obscure words that existed or created his own and imbued them with a sense of weight and history - in most cases, almost immediately. There's no denying the huge influence Barker has had on the horror genre, an influence that still lasts to this day. And then, following Coldheart Canyon in 2001, he almost completely stopped producing this kind of work. Aside from the novella Mister B. Gone and the Abarat sequence, there have been no significant releases from Barker until now.
Chief amongst those characters and mythologies, of course, was his creation of Pinhead and the Cenobites, the so-called servants of the Order of the Gash, and the puzzle box, The Lament Configuration (one of the Lemarchand boxes). Of course, most people will recognise the creations through the movie Hellraiser, but for all intents and purposes, The Scarlet Gospels is a direct sequel to the novella, The Hellbound Heart.
The Scarlet Gospels has been rumoured for many years, first as a short story in a new collection, then as the lynchpin novella in said collection, and finally as a novel in its own right in which another of Barker's creations, the occult Private Detective harry D'Amour, would battle Pinhead himself. If further rumours are to be believed, this novel apparently ran to something like 140,000 words or so, which is pretty damn big. The 'finished' manuscript is a lot more modest, coming in just over 400 pages (in PDF file anyway..). But now, to the story itself...
The book opens with a group of powerful magicians in the process of resurrecting one of their own as he lies entombed. It's established in this scene that a powerful demon or entity has been hunting down members of their order, torturing them for their mystical knowledge and store of magic books, then dispatching them in ever inventive and horrific ways. His motive is unclear but it seems he is trying to amass more power than anyone could ever wield. Anyone human that is. Of course, this entity is Pinhead himself, who promptly turns up and makes literal mincemeat of almost everyone in attendance. It's quite an opener and pretty gory. Having no prior acquaintance with the group of magicians, we are hard pressed to feel any sympathy for them, especially as their rounds of dialogue establish them as venal, self-centred and power hungry people. Instead, it is the base reaction of mild nausea that arises; and yet this potentially cheap opening is offset with a very sharp, sardonic tone. You get the real sense that Barker is enjoying himself immensely, both with the scene and with sly pokes at the legacy of his most famous creation. There's a throwaway line that suggests the 'man' himself despises the nickname, Pinhead. Anyone who knows the history of the character knows that this name wasn't coined until the second movie; he was unnamed (and subtly different) in The Hellbound Heart, and simply billed as 'Lead Cenobite' in the first film. This sort of wry humour permeates much of the following novel. It's also a welcome return to the distinctive turn of phrase that Barker has always had; a prose style that mixes formal with informal, poetic and esoteric, turning mundane things into the exceptional.
After this violent, bloody and almost comical (intentionally so) opener, we jump to the other main character, Harry D'Amour. We are given a couple of flashback scenes to establish both D'Amour's 'abilities' and what I believe is his very first encounter with something 'otherworldly', demonic. From there we meet his guide, a blind woman called Norma Paine who sees - yes, you guessed it - dead people. She provides the impetus which eventually brings D'Amour into contact with Pinhead. One thing that's very noticeable - and a marked difference from previous Barker works - is how fast it all moves. It's almost dizzying. Not that a book or story should be judged by the author's previous output, but when it's such a marked change, I can't help but comment on it. Virtually gone are the long, ponderous passages of introspection and deep scene setting. Instead we jump from place to place with hardly a breath to take in-between. As I say, it's not...bad, as such, but it does give the impression of...'Barker-lite' is the best way I can think of describing it.
Anyway, D'Amour has a scrape with Pinhead that leaves him worse for wear, we're introduced to a number of new characters and then soon the gang are following D'Amour as he chases Pinhead into...the bowels of Hell.
Yes, that's Hell and not a Hell devised by Barker...well, not entirely. Basically, instead of creating a wholly new environment, Barker decides to set much of the events of The Scarlet Gospels in his interpretation of the biblical Hell. Of course, it's not quite the Hell depicted either in Christian artwork or elsewhere, but it is still Hell complete with fallen angels, the inherent religious history and an absent Lucifer. Barker still populates it with his own inventions, hierarchies and creatures but it all feels somewhat...smaller than it should, like a set rather than a believable place (in the context of the story). Still, there are some fantastic scenes and the path of Pinhead as he walks through a great destruction - almost an annihilation of Hell - he has wrought is heady stuff.
But there is always that little nag in the back of my head. It just doesn't quite feel like a Barker book. It's readable, entertaining and has little flashes of both Barker's penchant for mythology invention (some of the names are fantastic and feel like things that have always existed) and his unique turn of phrase, but it also feels a little truncated, missing a depth or weight I feel it requires. And there are some jarring moments that really made me cringe. There is one exchange between some of the characters (members of D'Amour's 'gang') which felt more like a Carry On film than a Barker book (or even any horror novel). Not that I'm averse to innuendo or bawdy humour (though I do hate Carry On films...) but it comes at a point that feels so out of place and inappropriate that it threw me.
And this is one of the downsides of the book (at least as I perceived it); it all feels a little lacking somehow. Characters are introduced briefly and arbitrarily, without proper introductions or histories, situations occur that feel forced, and plot lines spring up seemingly with no prior indications. D'Amour himself, and his motley crew, feel utterly superfluous to events. They have no impact on what occurs, affect nothing and D'Amour is there seemingly only to witness what Pinhead is up to - in fact, this is a role Pinhead tries to enforce on D'Amour in the course of the book. There are also little things that feel should have more explanation to them and perhaps this is an indication that the rumours of the original size of the manuscript are true. For example, D'Amour and his small group of protagonists receive a collective nickname - Harry's Harrowers - but it seems to spring from nowhere and then is used prolifically. There are other little things; there is the lingering sense of a book almost too small to contain what is in it.
I also found it very difficult to divorce Doug Bradley's fantastic and iconic performance as Pinhead in the movies, from the slightly but significantly different version here. Unfair but inevitable. There is a scene in which the book Pinhead uses his fists and it was hard for me to visualise Bradley's very restrained and laconic Pinhead from doing this.
But dammit, I did enjoy it. It's entertaining, a fast paced read and has some really affecting scenes. Inevitably, with both the wait and the weight of expectation, with the subject matter dealing with characters that have such a history, it's inevitable that there is some disappointment. It's whether that disappointment outweighs the story. It doesn't for me, but it's close. I do think it could have been better, but it could also have been a lot worse. It's a tough one to quantify because so much of it is dependent on what Barker has achieved in the past, and that's perhaps a little unfair on my part.
But it is what it is. Perhaps it's intentional on Barker's part to deal with this character in this way. To reclaim something that perhaps he feels has been sullied with inferior movie sequels, despite Doug Bradley's continuous great performances. While not, in my opinion, a towering achievement such as Weaveworld, The Great And Secret Show or my personal favourite, Imajica, it is nevertheless, an interesting addition to Barker's catalogue and I would certainly read it again. Perhaps I can do so without the restrictions I myself have placed on my initial reading and can judge the work on its own merits.