Scarlet Gospels, The (Book)
Written by Clive Barker
Published by St. Martin’s Press
I love Clive Barker.
Author, painter, playwright, filmmaker, weaver of both dreams and nightmares for audiences young and old alike, Barker is a bona fide genius – responsible for several classics of the printed page and motion picture variety. His second film, the troubled but fascinating Nightbreed, was the first horror film I ever caught in a theatre. His terrifying novella “The Hellbound Heart” (the source material for Hellraiser, Barker’s first turn behind the camera) was the first book I ever purchased to read solely for pleasure- sparking a lifelong love of consuming written fiction of all sorts. And as a writer, Barker is unlike any other practitioner of the page, spinning beautifully crafted tales with gorgeous, inimitable prose while describing stunning worlds and heinous acts that could only have sprung from his oft-startling imagination.
His work provided this fan innumerable escapes from the reality of an occasionally rough and awkward adolescence, and was one of the chief inspirations for this writer to aspire to become a storyteller in his own right. I even managed to meet my hero once, as an incredibly nervous seventeen year old, during a book tour for his novel Galilee – and found the man to be as charming and intelligent as his work.*
It was around this time that I first read of Barker’s intention to write a short tale that would bring together two of his greatest creations (Harry D’Amour, from Barker’s “The Last Illusion” and Everville, and Pinhead, who should really need no introduction) and bring to an end the story of his “Lead Cenobite” – already a victim at this point of increasingly lame treatment by the silver screen (this wasn’t long before his greatest degradation, trotted out in a series of increasingly maligned direct-to-DVD ventures – the quality of which even the considerable presence and acting ability of Pinhead thesp Doug Bradley couldn’t manage to elevate). The prospect of Barker returning to his most well-known creation and giving him a fitting sendoff was indescribably exciting for this uber-fan. I couldn’t wait to read it.
But wait I (and all of fandom) would. As year after year would pass, morsels of information would be tossed out describing bits of the story’s nature and its ever-changing length (from short story to novella, novella to novel, novel to unwieldy epic), keeping fans’ desire for the tale stoked while Barker worked on other projects – including the fantastic Coldheart Canyon, the alternately horrific and amusing Mister B. Gone, and his stunning fantasy epic Abarat, a young adult tale initially meant to span only four volumes (it’ll reportedly conclude with a fifth). By around 2005 or so, my anticipation reached a fever pitch, before eventually settling into the grim realization that the long-promised story might never see the light of day. Still, mentions of the work would continually pop up in various interviews with Barker, constantly teasing the possibility that we would eventually be able to read what one hoped would be Barker’s masterwork.
Ultimately, it was announced last year that the novel-length The Scarlet Gospels would finally be released in the summer of 2015. Calendars were marked, excitement rose again, and May 19, 2015, couldn’t possibly get here quickly enough. And on that day, this fan (much like many, many other fans) finally laid his hands on the book he’d waited half his life to read. Now having finished it, after savoring only a chapter or two each evening over the course of the past month, I’m left with the inevitable question – was it worth the wait?
Opening with a grisly bang, The Scarlet Gospels wastes no time in reintroducing Pinhead to fans. Referred to here by his true Cenobitic moniker “Hell Priest” (he really, really despises his far more popular nickname), Barker’s Lead Cenobite is not the breathy-voiced, bejeweled demon from The Hellbound Heart. This is Doug Bradley’s cinematic take on the villain through and through, in both appearance and attitude. He wastes no time in dispatching a group of terrified magicians, who’ve huddled together in the hopes of avoiding the grisly fate that has recently befallen many of their kind. It seems as though Hell Priest has been offing leagues of magicians and stealing their knowledge for his own, all in service to a master plan he is only now beginning to put into motion – a plan which will upend the status quo in Hell and send the demon onward toward a new destiny, one he’s carefully crafted for himself.
Pinhead’s ambitions eventually involve D’Amour (so memorably portrayed by Scott Bakula in Lord of Illusions, Barker’s third, final, and best outing as a film director), a hapless private detective who is repeatedly and unwillingly drawn to the occult. When D’Amour’s oldest friend Norma Paine, a blind “ghost whisperer” of sorts, is abducted by Pinhead and taken to Hell as bait for D’Amour, the reluctant hero must descend into the pit with a band of powerful paranormal allies (dubbed “Harrowers” – a nod to a few of Barker’s comic book spinoffs) to retrieve Norma and thwart the Hell Priest’s grand scheme. Of course, much horror and heartache stand between our heroes and their final fates.
…yeesh, where to begin?
As a novel of suspense and horror, The Scarlet Gospels is a more than adequate trek into the darkness. It’s a briskly paced and well written book, filled with impressive and horrific imagery. D’Amour and his merry band are well drawn and likeable, and Pinhead himself often cuts a terrifying figure throughout the story – restoring the character to his roots as a villain to be feared, rather than the diluted, moral-of-the-tale spewing mascot the later entries in the film franchise had him positioned as. For casual horror fans looking for a breezy trip into Hell, this book should more than fit the bill. But for the longtime fans of both Barker and the character he’s sending off?
Look, proper form or not, I’m stopping this review for a moment to point out that the following is painful for me to write. Genuinely, properly painful. At Barker’s worst, he’s still great, and a damn sight better than most writers at their best. The Scarlet Gospels, however, represents the writer at, if not his lowest, then certainly at his most disappointing. That the first review of his work I’d have to write will wind up being even remotely negative… well, it hurts. Anyway, this bit of indulgence aside…
The greatest problem Gospels has is the expectations it’s taken over a decade and a half to build in its ready-made fans. As a short story or novella, the rather simple A to B to C plotline might very well have worked like gangbusters. But as the clothesline running through what was meant to be a saga nearly twenty years in the making, the story is remarkably threadbare – simpler even than most of Barker’s shorter works. Stacked against the years of talk touting this tale as being an epic, what wound up on the page couldn’t help but disappoint. Worse still, loads of story bits that Barker himself had discussed (including an initial meeting between Pinhead and a preteen D’Amour, an appearance by Christ and Golgotha, the “Lazarus Requiem”) have gone missing in action, leaving one to feel as though Barker’s initially sprawling story was gutted at some point along its way from conception to publication. And if so, why?
Another issue concerns the writing itself. Barker’s prose is often without equal, managing to somehow enchant and sting all at once. Read The Books of Blood or The Damnation Game, The Thief of Always or Galillee, and discover a writer who isn’t merely a marvelous storyteller, but an ingenious wordsmith as well. But here, Barker’s writing is little more than serviceable at best. While the dialogue can occasionally feel stilted, the rest of the writing could never be described as “bad”, but it never quite sings like his previous works. It plays out almost as though Barker had no passion for what he was writing, and left the trudgery of putting words to the page down to the mere mechanics of his talent. Worse still, there are numerous passages that seem as though the novel were merely written by an avid fan penning the greatest fanfic ever, rather than Barker himself telling the tale.
Perhaps worst of all is the book’s handling of Pinhead himself. While his appearances throughout the novel usually do have some impact, there are times when it seems as though Barker is writing another character entirely. For example, in the opening segment of the book, Pinhead is portrayed as being at his most vicious yet. Great. But I want you to try and imagine Doug Bradley’s magisterial Cenobite voice speaking aloud words like “bitch” and “tits”. Imagine that character engaging in physical brutality, punching and kicking a victim into submission. Imagine him raping an elderly woman (an act which mercifully occurs “offscreen”, as it were – for that matter, there’s quite a lot of rape mentioned throughout the novel).
Does this sound like the Lead Cenobite we all know and love? He’s a demon, certainly. But between Barker’s novella and first film, and the numerous sequels which followed (three of which Barker was involved with), the character was presented as something a bit more elegant than the typical movie monsters we’d come to expect throughout the 80s and 90s. This was not a villain who was merely strong and silent, nor was he a silly, pun-lobbing jokester. Intelligent, darkly humorous, and not without a code of sorts, Pinhead was a villain one could both fear and, strangely, admire. Here, however, the character is pure evil, and utterly despicable at every turn – think Krug, from Last House on the Left, made smarter and more eloquent. I’d considered that this behavior was more of a revelation regarding the character rather than an outright change (Gospels frees the character of his hellish duties, presenting him no longer as Hell’s regal emissary so much as an individual concerned solely with his own designs and desires), but really – if this was meant to be Pinhead’s final ride, it might have been nice to present the character as we know him to be (even briefly) before showing him to his last sunset. Maybe that’s an unreasonable criticism, but it’s an honest one.
And what of that finality? This was long touted as “The Last Pinhead Story, Ever!” Barker’s hints over the years led one to believe that Hell Priest’s final moments would be an ignoble end for the character, a terrible death that would perfectly befit the blackhearted bastard. It would have to be, wouldn’t it? After all these years, all those movies and comics, the son of a bitch had better go out – well, if not with a bang, then certainly in some memorable fashion.
As it is? Eh. Pinhead neither commits suicide (as Barker had once said he would), nor does he meet his end at the hands of the story’s hero. Instead, the final moments involving the character are remarkably ineffectual. It’s a shrug of a sendoff for such a spectacular and iconic character. Too bad. That letdown, coupled with the utter blandness of Pinhead’s Great Plan (five bucks to anyone who can describe it plainly without it sounding like lazy writing), and you have a Cenobite sequel that, sure, may be better than most of the film sequels…but not all. In fact, I daresay the best sequel the first two films have had is the first twelve or so issues of the superb 2011 BOOM! Studios comic book series which Barker co-wrote. Even that series eventually ran off the rails, but it was a hell of a ride up until that point.
Still, for all that, the novel isn’t without its merits. As mentioned before, it’s loaded with some astonishing imagery (Barker’s take on Hell is uniquely him), and it’s a fast-paced read. Furthermore, D’Amour is, as always, a pleasure to read about. While Pinhead is given the short shrift, D’Amour’s journey throughout Gospels is thrilling, terrifying, and, surprisingly, often full of heart (D’Amour’s refusal to stand down and abandon his friend even in the face of the unspeakable horrors of Hell is frequently touching, as is each of his direct interactions with Norma). Even better, D’Amour’s given a far more satisfying ending than his foe, providing him with both an injury and a newly acquired ability which will forever change the character and his role within the Barkerverse. While Gospels may have fallen short of its mark, the promise made for D’Amour’s future has me eager to see more tales concerning the character.
Ultimately, folks, I’m of two minds when it comes down to simply recommending whether you should give this book a look or a pass. On the one hand, the casual fans who likely have neither any great desire to read it nor any grand expectations for the book’s contents might very well enjoy it for what it is. On the other hand, the diehard fans of Barker and/or Pinhead will absolutely need to read this novel, no matter the disappointment they’re likely in for. And, being honest here, even if you’re reading this review, you’ve almost certainly made up your mind by this point as to whether or not you’re going to give this book a shot (rendering the preceding words and my role as a critic here utterly moot).
All I can say is this – if you do pick up this book, make certain that your expectations have been adjusted accordingly before cracking it open to that first page. Because, even for what virtues this book possesses, this is absolutely not the book you’ve been waiting for.
…still love Barker, though.
*Mind you, I had the great misfortune to accidentally insult the man to his face, but that’s a tale for another time (it involved a discussion of the rather terrible film adaptation of his marvelous short story “Rawhead Rex”). God bless him for being gracious enough to laugh away my bumbling faux pas.