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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Horror Review: The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for review consideration. While I make every attempt to avoid spoilers, please be aware that an ARC synopsis, press release, or review request may disclose details that are not revealed in the published cover blurb.

Like many fans, I entered into The Scarlet Gospels with significant expectations. Not only is it Clive Barker's first novel for adults since 2007, it's one he's been teasing since 1993. Over the course of those 20+ years it's grown from just another short story destined for a new Books of Blood collection to a massive 232,000 word epic, before being edited back down to the 100,000 word final book. That means, of course, that more than half the story has been edited out of the final text, including many of the scenes Barker himself has teased. There's no Joseph and the Holy Grail to be found in its pages; no first encounter between Pinhead and a 12 year old Harry D'Amour; and no conversation between Harry and Jesus, discussing the subject of suffering, and remarking on how Pinhead's nails are akin to his crown of thorns.

While I would have loved nothing more than to immerse myself in another Imajica-length door-stopper, I'm actually glad none of those scenes are to be found here. This is Pinhead's story. This is the story of Hell. There's no room in it for the 'other side' to tell their story. Similarly, with Harry serving more as witness here than epic hero, it's simply not important for him and Pinhead to have ever met . . . and the story works better for it.

The Scarlet Gospels is the dark, bloody, brutal, magnificently epic horror novel we've needed from Clive Barker for so long. If you've worried that absence may have made the heart grow softer, or that he'd have trouble getting back into the blood after so long spent in the Abarat, then fear not. This is a book that's influenced by his entire career, seamlessly meshing the sadomasochistic brutality of The Hellbound Heart with the epic mythology of Weaveworld, while incorporating the same depth of character we found in Sacrament. More than that, after the somewhat sterile novella that was Mister B. Gone, Barker has recaptured the power of his narrative voice, marking a return to the kind of storytelling where you're compelled to linger over every word.

The first third of the novel is a contemporary horror story, full of magic, ghosts, demons, and monsters. It serves to establish Pinhead as more than just another opportunistic Cenobite answering the call of Lemarchand's box, establishes Norma Paine as a friend for whom Harry D'Amour would willingly go to Hell to save, introduces Harry to the horrors of Lemarchand's box, and introduces Pinhead to the one mortal worthy of being considered a true adversary. It's dark and it's violent, but there are also some strong touches of humor, especially with the banter between Harry and his crew.

Once the story shifts to Hell, however, it's a whole different story. Pinhead's march through the streets of Hell and into the Monastery of the Cenobitic Order is some fantastic stuff, with images that linger with the reader long after the cover is closed. Barker describes it as an immense fortress of sadomasochistic solitude, built over seven hundred thousand years ago to isolate its priests from the politics of Hell. There's a confrontation here that allows Pinhead to put his grand scheme into motion, with bespelled origami birds, deathly plagues, and a fog the likes of which has never been seen before. Following that we have a suitably epic journey across the landscape of Hell, taking us through the cities of the damned, a wilderness of dead trees, and across a lake haunted by a monstrous force of pure hunger and malevolence - all to reach the hidden, secret fortress of Lucifer himself.

If I were to have one minor complaint about the novel, it's that this really isn't the 'Pinhead versus Harry' tale that we were promised. While Harry undertakes his epic journey for the noblest of reasons, entering Hell itself to save Norma's body and soul, it turns out he's really only been drawn there to witness Pinhead's grand plan. The two do have their confrontations, and they are brilliantly entertaining, but Harry has absolutely no hand in Pinhead's fate. Fortunately, by the time we get to the end of the novel, we've already come to realize that his is Pinhead's story (not Harry's), and when a creature of such monstrous cruelty is striving to do no less than overthrow Lucifer's throne . . . well, he deserves a foil even greater, even more mythic, than the Cenobite himself.

As works of epic mythology go, The Scarlet Gospels is absolutely magnificent. At this point, it's hard to add much to the story of Hell, but Barker succeeds brilliantly. It's absolutely breathtaking the way he just keeps upping the tension and expanding the scope, adding layer upon layer to the horror, even as he takes us deeper and deeper into Hell. The final set piece is . . . well, there's not much I can say about it without spoiling the story, but it's one of the finest Barker has ever created. The finale may leave some readers feeling a little unsettled, especially with the odd sort of epilogue (with it's entirely self-indulgent, yet gloriously satisfying confrontation with a wealthy preacher), but so long as you remember this is Pinhead's story, it all works.


Hardcover, 368 pages
Expected publication: May 19th 2015 by St. Martin's Press

8 comments:

  1. It's a real relief to hear that the Gospels is good. Suddenly I'm so excited, I just can't hide it. :)

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    1. I was a bit worried, given how long I've been anticipating the read, but I was entirely satisfied.

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  2. Overthrowing Lucifer is no easy task. I'm glad some of those scenes were left out. Story sounds stronger for it.

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    1. Agreed. The conversation with Jesus sounded interesting, the way Barker has described it in the past, but it all would have been filler . . . and would have distracted from the focus.

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  3. I didn't know there were books about Pinhead, I only knew him from the films... *hides in a corner like the amateur she is* I will definitely have to pick up Clive Barker's books now because they sound exactly like the kind of books I want to read during a thunderstorm! Thanks for the great review :)
    Juli @ Universe in Words

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    1. He's really more a creature of the screen than the page - his role in The Hellbound Heart was actually rather minor, and it was Hellraiser that really pushed him to the forefront and established him as a character.

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  4. Oh, I'm so excited to hear you enjoyed this! Must add it to my list :) Especially after this line "Barker has recaptured the power of his narrative voice, marking a return to the kind of storytelling where you're compelled to linger over every word." - sounds fantastic

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  5. I'm glad you loved it, I know how much you've been looking forward to this one! Wow it's been years since I read anything by Barker, must jump back in the game:-D

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