Overall: [usr 1.5]
We at Malevolent Dark love to expose the soft, visceral underbelly of the horror world to the world. In that, Malevolent Dark takes great pride in releasing semi-regular reviews of independent horror films to the world. In the event that the material falls short, we would rather reserve judgement than be overly critical of a burgeoning artist before they can find their stride, Malevolent Dark waits for their next work. The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker does not fall into that category. Once the term ‘Master’ has been attached to ones name, all’s fair in love and war.
Be sure to check-out the Rawhead Rex review to read a novel/movie side-by-side comparison between Barker’s written work and the film that came of it.
Clive Barker – So-Called Master of Horror
Often, the term ‘Master’ gets thrown around recklessly to describe someone that creates popular works. Critics throw the term around so recklessly that it begins to lose meaning. Even the most coveted ‘Masters’ of horror produce a plethora of below grade material. In the written word, this seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Not to start a holy war, but Stephen King wrote way more books that I didn’t like than ones that I like… but he still reigns unambiguously as a horror “Master”.
Undoubtedly, Clive Barker has produced some critically acclaimed stories. Many of those made their way in varying capacities into theaters. Certainly, Clive Barker has proven his mettle with his best work. Hasn’t he also created a lot of chaff? The Scarlet Gospels offers a wonderful example of chaff. In fact, this chaff is so deep that it threatens to pull the great franchise it represents into the abyss with it. Buckle up.
Harry D’Amour – A Less Interesting Hellblazer
So when it comes to fiction, it’s not necessarily a sin to expand on the ideas of others. Hard knock detective stories are as good a place as any for some overlap on key ideas. Clive Barker does his best Alan Moore impression with his character of Harry D’Amour. Created in 1985 in his epic run on the Swamp Thing series, Alan Moore created a very similar paranormal detective character named John Constantine, also know as Hellblazer.
Clive Barker’s retort, Harry D’Amour, arrived just on its heels in 1986. Harry D’Amour also is paranormal/psychic detective entrenched in the underbelly of evil. He too possesses his own supernatural powers. Unfortunately, the character of Harry D’Amour possesses less charisma than John Constantine carries in a weathered pack of silk-cut cigarettes. Harry D’Amour fails to capture the sleazy and mysterious private-dick persona that Barker intends to capture.
The Banal Intersects with Greatness
What has been heretofore neglected is The Scarlet Gospels historical importance. This book purports to be the long-awaited official sequel to Clive Barker’s classic novella The Hellbound Heart, better know by film-buffs as the Hellraiser series. The Hellbound Heart stands as one of the more original stories in all of horror. Barker’s bad-guys, The Cenobites, have become permanent icons in the horror pantheon. The Scarlet Gospels is a sequel provides The Hellbound Heart in the same way that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 is a sequel to the original. Yes, it’s a sequel, but it’s nothing like the original.
Rather carrying the darkness of the original, Clive Bark instead writes a modern day Hardy Boys novel that tangentially intersects with the Hellraiser universe. The concept is interesting for sure, but the Devil is in the details.
A Plot Born in Hell
The primary plot-line involves the most recognizable character from the Hellraiser universe, The High Priest of The Order of the Gash. Much to his chagrin, the world knows him as Pinhead. Having grown weary with deleterious politics in hell, Pinhead accumulates the magic of men in order to stage a coup in hell. Pinhead plans on overthrowing the original fallen angel, Lucifer him. Pinhead’s conquest of hell interleaves into the lives of Harry D’Amour and his band of psychic super-friends.
The novel begins with a pretty awesome slaughter of wizards and warlocks at the hands of Pinhead. Clive Barker wastes no time implausibly injecting Harry D’Amour into the narrative. D’Amour, at the suggestion of his blind partner, Norma Paine. Norman communicates with the dead. Harry D’Amour takes a case down that leads him to New Orleans to button up the secrets of one of Norma’s recently deceased clients. Lo and behold, one of those secrets is a strange puzzle box, the Lament Configuration. You see where this is going.
Of all the rotten luck, Harry finds a Lament Configuration puzzle box and swiftly opens is without even trying. Pinhead arrives with bells on. Rather than flaying his, Pinhead condemns Harry to document his coming triumph in hell. Clive Barker always hated the name Pinhead as it’s such ridiculous name for a monster deserving of more respect. Barker riffs off of that by making a running joke of Pinhead bristling every time someone uses the name.
As unbelievable as it sounds, Pinhead kicks off his march to the sea by animating a bunch of origami paper cranes using human magic. These paper cranes have the power to re-arrange the internal organs of their victims. This demise even no demon including Pinhead’s former organization, The Order of the Gash. What?!?! One of the most evil organizations in all of literature destroyed by a bunch of paper chickens. I had to read it twice to make sure I didn’t imagine it. Sadly, I didn’t imaging it.
For the Sake of Norma, a Descent into Hell
Pinhead decides that he needs Norma for something that’s not entirely clear. Presumably, his primary objective is to lure Harry D’Amour into hell in order for him to document Pinhead’s domination of hell. Before going on the trip, Harry enlists the help in a ragtag bunch of psychic powered friends. Lana, an abrasive lesbian, Dale, an effeminate queen and Caz, a gay tattoo artist accompany Harry into the abyss. They call themselves The Harrowers.
Their trip into hell plays out like a bad retelling of the Goonies, just less endearing and exponentially more asinine. Barker continually attempts to put The Harrowers into peril, each instance more ‘harrowing’ than the last, but the threat is all a mirage. Even at the most, critical of times, the group easily slaughters 1000’s of demons as if they are paper dolls. Their descent into hell felt as ‘harrowing’ as Corey Feldman battling Gremlins with a slingshot. It would be comical if it weren’t to be taken serious.
Harry and and his tribe of paranormal misfits, eventually track down their pin-studded adversary to the very gates of hells most famous tenant.
And in This Corner…
Over the course of the novel, it eventually becomes clear where this story end up. The High Priest, carves a path of destruction directly to the threshold of Lucifer himself. Giving credit where credit is due, these passages demonstrate some of Clive Barker’s most impressive imaging of the entire novel. Not wanting to give away too much, there are a couple of interesting details to behold.
Barker chooses to depict his Fallen Angel with alabaster skin and chiseled features like that of a Greek God. With wings torn from deeps scars from his back, this personification of evil depicts a broken man cast from Heaven against his will. Barker does as excellent job describing the dichotomy of a tormented king wallowing in sorrow.
Things get a bit wonky as Barker describes the physical confrontation between Pinhead and Lucifer. Much like in a bad Michael Bay movie, the action sequences are so over the top that it’s difficult to actually picture the battle in the minds eye. At its worst, it feels like one of several Michael Bay Transformer battles. 10 seconds into it, the reader doesn’t know which way is up, who hit who and which team is winning. Clive Barker incredibly depicts in prose what we all would call bad CGI in film.
Hell, a Fallen Nation
Another place that Clive Barker borrows from the comic world concerns his political descriptions of Hell. Over time, Hell comes under the leadership of an absent and apathetic Lucifer. In that time, like many civilizations, it becomes a caricature of its former glory. Barker does well to draw parallels to the fall of Rome. The once shining example of civilization falls victim to its vanity, narcissism and indulgence.
By the time of this novel, this trope had been well established by D.C. comics. Alan Moore laid the groundwork, and then Neil Gaiman improved upon them, these political descriptions of hell had been well established in support of a more interesting narrative. In the Barker’s defense, D.C. comics had several years to layout this story, which clearly works to their advantage. Barker has only 300 pages.
Taking this parallel further, The Scarlet Gospels and D.C. comics share another critical detail. In both story arcs, Lucifer gets bored with his life in hell and embarks on a new journey through the realm of man. As they say, great artists steal.
Summing it All Up
Considering the emotional build-up to the sequel of The Hellbound Heart it Is difficult not to be disappointed. The Scarlet Gospels fails as a sequel. Instead, it feels like two puzzle pieces forced together despite the fact that they clearly do not fit. Barker had a demon on one shoulder and an angel on the other. The demon demanded another Pinhead novel, while the Angel wants more Harry D’Amour. Barker chose to split the difference to get the worst of both.
The biggest failing of Clive Barkers book is that it does nothing to advance the mythology of the Cenobites, nor The Order of the Gash. He actually degrades their legacy. Be basically pulls a Ridley Scott. Just as the fans are diving waist deep into the mythology of the ‘Engineers’ from Prometheus (2012), he murders them all in a single scene in Alien: Covenant (2017). It feels cheap and insulting as Barker’s Order of the Gash is liquified origami birds.
At nearly 500 pages, Clive Barker instead tries his best to create a band of adventurers as compelling as Stephen King’s “The Loser Club” or Stephen Spielberg’s “Goonies”. He never nails the camaraderie, and his attempts at levity fall on deaf ears. Only Norma garners any real sympathy. Ultimately, it’s just not enough.
Super-fans of Clive Barker will surely point to this novel as another master-stroke by the “Master of Horror” while Malevolent Dark will strongly suggests that the average horror fan spend their 500 pages elsewhere.