Unlike most slasher film villains (Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers et al.) who were born out of celluloid, horror author Clive Barker’s iconic demon Pinhead was originally created on paper in his 1986 novella The Hellbound Heart.
He wasn’t even called Pinhead at first – that was a nickname coined by the special effects team from the 1987 movie adaptation, which Barker himself also wrote and directed and which remains one of the greatest horror films of all time. Barker initially didn’t like the name of Pinhead as it was a cartoonish moniker for one of the more elegant monsters of horror fiction since Anne Rice’s Lestat, but the name stuck and has since become legendary.
Though Hellraiser spawned eight sequels (only one of which, Hellbound: Hellriaser II, is considered canon and actually worth watching) and became a veritable franchise in its own right, there had never been a sequel to the original novella in book form. Until now.
It has taken nearly thirty years, but The Scarlet Gospels is finally Clive Barker’s own official sequel to the book and character that, arguably more than any other except perhaps the Books of Blood, catapulted him into literary stardom during the mid 80s.
The obvious question that immediately comes to mind, then: was it worth the wait? But there’s no way to answer that question without a dozen laborious qualifiers so instead it’s best to just say that for the majority of Clive Barker fans, and almost certainly all Hellraiser/Pinhead fans, The Scarlet Gospels delivers in every way that you would want or expect it to.
There’s no better evidence of this than in the bravado prologue, a delirious symphonic overture of blood and gore that, were this a movie, would surely have the entire theater on opening night erupting into loud cheers and applause. It’s as if Barker, no stranger to cinematic pacing, is saying, “Okay, Hellraiser fans. I know what you want. Here it is.”
Not that an ultra-anticipated book like this really needs anything in the way of a synopsis, but basically the prologue tells us that Pinhead (here referred to as simply the Cenobite or the Hell Priest) has been steadily hunting down all the great magicians of the world, brutally murdering them and pilfering their collections of the most ancient and coveted texts of magic. The reason why is best left a mystery to savor while reading the book, but the other half of this puzzle is another one of Barker’s classic characters, private investigator Harry D’Amour who made his own first appearance back in the short story “The Last Illusion” in the Books of Blood. Thus does Barker bring together two of his most iconic characters, making this a crossover event mandatory for any long-time fan.
Aside from some truly glorious servings of classically Barker-esque gore, the most enjoyable passages in The Scarlet Gospels are the detailed descriptions of Hell which this book devotes a gratifying portion of its length to. The best thing about Hellbound: Hellraiser II, after all, aside from seeing heroine Kirsty Cotton again, was the fact that we got to enter and see the Cenobites’ labyrinthine home dimension. But the visual depiction of that world was limited by budget and technical constraints whereas in Gospels we are limited only by Barker’s feverish imagination. In some ways his vision of Hell here goes refreshingly against traditional depictions while in some ways it unavoidably confirms them. Think less Hieronymous Bosch and more Rome at its height, albeit a dark and twisted version of it in which despair and suffering are reliably present.
At the end of our vivid tour of Hell we are treated to some spectacular encounters in which Pinhead’s status as a modern mythical icon is exploited about as well as it can be within a single volume. It’s hard to know why Barker has chosen to end the Pinhead mythos with The Scarlet Gospels rather than use it launch an entire series that would most certainly be successful, but I respect an author who knows when to end a saga rather than interminably drag it on only to have it spin beyond his control or to end up never finishing it.
As huge a fan as I am of Clive Barker, I wish I could say that The Scarlet Gospels is a flawless masterpiece, but I do have a few small quibbles which I’ll share in the interest of a fair review.
First of all the role, power and relevance of magic is a bit vague and unclear given the theological context. The ruling elite of Hell, for instance, clearly consider magic “a human artifice… yet another of man’s inventions designed to grasp divinity.” And yet when we see what it is used to do, the human artifice would almost seem to equal if not shame the innate divine power possessed by Hell’s pantheon.
And speaking of Hell’s pantheon, one of the most fascinating parts of Hellraiser II and, to a lesser degree, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, were the glimpses into the erstwhile humanity of Pinhead, his life before becoming horrendously transformed into a hell priest. Personally, I would have liked this element to have been more fully explored in this book.
Finally, the dialogue among our human heroes struck me at times as being slightly awkward. Particularly when they are in Hell, the banter between them, as clearly intended for comic relief as it is, feels a bit too nonchalant considering the fact that they are trapped in the worst possible place any human being can possibly be trapped in.
However, these are, as stated, minor quibbles. The Scarlet Gospels is great fun and I would recommend it to everyone who considers themselves fans of Barker or the Hellraiser mythos.
Completists may first want to check out Clivebarkercast.com’s recommendations for the five works to read before tackling Gospels (and going even beyond that, perhaps the comics from BOOM! Studios penned by Barker himself), but for those impatient to start I would say that even just watching the first Hellraiser movie would be sufficient preparation (and maybe also Lord of Illusions which faithfully adapts the character of Harry D’Amour, at least, if not the original short story). Indeed, Hellraiser may be even better pre-reading material than The Hellbound Heart because as faithful an adaptation as it is, it goes further and includes elements not in the original book such as the other Cenobites besides Pinhead who also make cameo appearances in Gospels.
There’s something else about The Scarlet Gospels that deserves a special mention. It is Clive Barker’s first book to be published since his life-threatening coma in 2012, a harrowing experience in which his doctors did not initially expect him to survive. As such, filled to the brim as this book is with gore and death, it is nevertheless a celebration—of Barker himself, his creative longevity and his own narrow escape from the gates of hell, but more importantly a celebration of the overall triumph of life over death and of good over evil.