I finally delve into Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels

SG Front

I’ve been falling down on my writing duties around here, but have a good reason. At the moment, I have two jobs and I’m going to school, so free time is at a premium. But, I have at least been consuming a lot of dark media to be covered here, and tonight I decided to finally fire off a review I’ve been looking forward to for a long time.

I’ve said it several times and I’ll say it again. Clive Barker is one of my biggest creative influences and my favorite author/artist of all time. In short, this site will be pretty Barker heavy. I say “will be” because I plan on covering quite of a bit of his work in the near future. This also gives me an excuse to just cover literature in general, which I haven’t done at all. It’s easy to fall into the habit of making this site weighted toward quick film reviews, but trust me, I’m reading as much as I’m watching. If my eyes aren’t glued on a screen somewhere, they’re usually glued to a page.

So, I’m SO INCREDIBLY JAZZED that recently I finally got round to reading last year’s The Scarlet Gospels, Barker’s return to the universe of the Cenobites originally created in The Hellbound Heart. More importantly, it’s the book that finally and definitively kills off Pinhead. This isn’t spoiler material, or at least it shouldn’t be, as Barker never made it a secret that it was to be a major plot point. Folks, this was one of my most anticipated releases of last year and it didn’t disappoint.

In many ways, the book is not only a final goodbye to old guy, but also a love letter to him and to the fans. The plot centers around Harry D’amour, who has appeared several times throughout Barker’s works – first in the short story “The Last Illusion”, then again in the first two books of the Art Trilogy – The Great and Secret Show and Everville (Come on, Clive. FINISH THE DAMN TRILOGY ALREADY. YOU’RE KILLING ME OVER HERE!). He’s also popped up in the Hellraiser comic book series by Boom! Studios, and was most famously portrayed by Scott Bakula in Lord of Illusions, the film adaptation of “The Last Illusion” that was directed by Barker himself.

D’amour, a private detective who plies his trade using all manners of magic, is covered in tattoos, each one serving a specific function, mostly for the purpose of protection against some demon or another. He runs in an elite, underground circle of magicians and serious practitioners of the occult, some of which make up the group that go on to battle Pinhead later in the book. The group is called The Harrowers, a title and concept that Barker had used before in a fantastic Hellraiser series put out by Epic Comics in the ’90’s. That original series deserves its own post and will most likely get it here at some point. I could write one post for each of its individual 20 issues and it still wouldn’t be enough to properly convey how much I loved it.

SG Back

The book is a little hard to discuss without giving too much away, but I will say that things have changed since the last time we were introduced to the Cenobites. One thing I loved was that Barker directly addresses the name Pinhead, a name he never particularly cared for. In The Hellbound Heart, he was simply referred to as Priest and in the first Hellraiser film, Lead Cenobite. The original crew stuck him with the name Pinhead, and even in the literary universe in which D’amour resides, he uses the name as a tool to undermine Pinhead’s authority and stature, and essentially annoy (and sometimes enrage) him. In fact, from his first appearance in the book, we finally learn his true, proper name – Hell Priest.

We do get glimpses of other Cenobites, but unfortunately, gone are his original henchmen – the beloved Female Cenobite, Chatterer, and Butterball. Instead, in the last 30+ years, he’s isolated himself somewhat from the hierarchy of Hell, and has his own designs. And yes, in his own way, he has aged. He is much more vicious, and just “nasty” this time around. He’s more physical as well and actually uses his own fists at times to directly dole out punishment instead on only relying on his trademark chains and hooks. Even the nails (and yes, they are nails, not pins), driven at intersecting points on a grid across his face and head, have rusted over time. This is not the same Hell Priest we’ve known before.

Hell itself is also different this time around. Barker never went into too much detail in The Hellbound Heart about how Hell was constructed. In fact, it’s easy to forget that all the backstory and imagery we associate with it came solely from Hellbound: Hellraiser 2. While both the comic series from Epic and Boom! continued the idea of Hell being comprised of an intricate labyrinth of hallways and corridors, ruled over by Leviathan, that concept is separate and much different from Hell’s construction in the universe of the novels. In fact, this time around, Hell is laid out more like a city with its own police force, strict hierarchy, a “government” of sorts, and even slums. It’s also populated by a vast array of demons of all shapes and sizes. Cenobites seem to be in the minority. Oh, and there is one other notable resident who I won’t mention.

I can’t recommend this thing enough. If you’re only familiar with the Hell Priest from the films, I obviously recommend reading The Hellbound Heart first and maybe even check out “The Last Illusion” to get a little back story on Harry D’amour. Both are relatively short and can easily be read in one sitting. For extra fun, check out the audio book of The Hellbound Heart, read by Clive Barker himself. It’s worth it just for the bits where he reads the Cenobites’ dialogue. I loved his take on how he originally thought they should sound.

The Scarlet Gospels was written for the fans and it shows. At one point, a character refers to the Hell Priest as “a sadomasochist from beyond the grave”, a reference to the fact that Sadomasochists from Beyond the Grave was actually Barker’s intended title for Hellraiser, but was shot down by the studio. In a famous story about possible titles getting knocked around, one crew member, a 60 year old woman, even suggested, What a Woman Will Do for a Good Fuck.

Thanks for reading me gush over The Scarlet Gospels. More Barker love to follow. I’ll end things with this picture of one of the coolest moments of my life – the time I met the Hell Priest himself, Doug Bradley. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard him say the words, “And what can I do for you?”, followed by your name.

Chills, guys. Chills.

Me and Doug