Ginger Nuts of Horror
WARNING: This series contains HUGE spoilers, and is designed as a discussion for people familiar with the source text. I do not wish to spoil your enjoyment of The Hellbound Heart, so please read it before reading this. Thanks.
So I had read this one before, albeit at least fifteen years ago, mainly as a function of having seen the movie and being curious about the source material, and yet I've found this essay to be hands down the toughest one to write so far.
Because of the movie.
See, I've seen Hellraiser a lot of times. And unlike some people, I still think it's pretty awesome. But it makes reading this novella a very strange experience. I mean, it's different, in many crucial respects, from the name of the brother (Rory instead of Larry), to the fact that Kirsty is not Larry's Rory's daughter from his first marriage but his friend (and from her side, fairly clearly an unrequited lover), to the physical appearances of the Cenobites... the list goes on. And the problem for me, as the above makes clear, is that the movie is my primary frame of reference, and so I spent much of the book noting the differences rather than managing to engage with the story purely on its own terms. Added to my misery is the fact that on occasion, the two pieces do mirror so closely that I had a weird doubling effect in my mind, like reading the novelization of the film.
Anyhow. I'm going to do my best not to bore you with that version of the essay, but if some bleed-through does occur, please accept my apologies. I'm trying.
Of course, there's a way in which bleed-through is an entirely appropriate image, because bleed-through and blood is at the core of what The Hellbound Heart is all about. We start with Frank, burned out on the pleasures of the flesh, trying to open a puzzle box he's been assured will open the gates to untold, unimagined pleasures. I enjoyed the glimpses of the ritual preparations, including the offerings that Frank has been assured will put him in good favour with the beings he summons. It's absolutely vintage Barker too in that this is a tale of hidden realms, rubbing up against our own. It reminded me far more of the epic work of Weaveworld and Imajica (in subject if not in scale) than the stories have so far.
There's an absolutely superb sequence, after Frank has opened the box and agreed to go with the Cenobites, where his senses are sent into overdrive; suddenly, he can hear the sound of dust motes pattering against his skin, his clothes become unbearable, he's forced to close his eyes, the intensity of the sensory input simply too much. It's vivid, unsettling stuff, and threatening even before his ultimate fate is revealed. There's a moment when his memories of women past causes him to masturbate. It's a classic Barker moment in and of itself (what King in 'On Writing' talks about as 'not looking away') but cleverly, it serves double duty as the method by which Frank can gain egress back into this world later – a physical remnant. I found this storytelling exciting for two reasons: one is that it shows just how tight the story is woven, how much Barker is making every word, every scene count (that, at least, has continued form the short stories I've read to date) and two, because of the powerful, elemental symbolism at work. Spilt blood, spilt seed, that between them can grant the power to move between worlds.
The characters are similarly drawn with a ruthless efficiency. We are simply told that Julia is beautiful, and that Kirsty is not (or at least does not believe herself to be). Rory is interesting, in that we get almost no physical description at all, only the very different perceptions from the two women in his life. The sparseness here is so stark that it almost becomes an exercise in caricature – the principles all feel almost archetypes rather than real people, characteristics defining personality and even fate (with the notable exception of Kirsty, who is set up as a classic victim, but whose subversion of that role is ultimately for me one of the triumphs of the story, albeit an understated one). There's a way in which it makes sense – the story is at it's heart a melodrama, a classic tragedy, though containing some impressively imaginative supernatural elements – still, in the context of this read through, I felt like it was almost too sparse, the characters too vague.
Tellingly, we get far more information about Frank and the Cenobites. It's still the case that more is implied than outright stated, but it felt to me like Barker's earlier gifts for deft visualisation were back in force – he gave me just enough words of description to set my imagination to work. The Cenobites are horrific and terrifying, elemental. Frank is... Frank is interesting, actually. Amazingly, he is kind of sympathetic, because the situation he's trying to escape is clearly far worse than anyone should have to endure. At the same time, he's irredeemable – cruel, utterly indifferent to the suffering of others, utterly selfish and driven by his own whims – a petty sadist, next to the Cenobites, but still, you do feel like they belong to each other. When Kirsty accidentally summons them, then makes the deal to trade Frank in for her own freedom, it's a deeply emotionally satisfying moment, and the tension of seeing if that promise can be fulfilled, or if Kirsty will revert to being that victim she's seemed destined to play from the off, I found to be genuinely exciting.
I enjoyed The Hellbound Heart, but it definitely felt like a transition piece – there's archetypes here, but missing a lot of the deft characterisation that typified similar approaches to character in the early stories. Similarly, the epic horror fantasy elements here take centre stage, but are not yet fully formed or developed. Clearly the Cenobites and The Order of the Gash are brilliantly disturbing creations, and that notion of worlds of almost unfathomable cruelty and terror separated from ours by only thin vale is a compelling one, but in service to this story, these ideas don't get room to be fully explored. It's an exciting mythos, but it's merely hinted at here, leaving much of the work to the readers imagination – no bad thing of course, but knowing what Barker can do with such ingredients when working on a bigger canvas, I did find myself hungry for more.
Which is handy. Because now, The Great and Secret Show beckons. See you on the other side...
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