David Sandford Ward travels to Hell in Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels

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The Cenobite bites it. The Order of the Gash lays smashed and shattered upon a mound of bones and blood, confined forever to a sea of dust and ash. This is the worst-kept secret about this novel, which has been under discussion and hinted about for decades: Pinhead dies. I can understand Barker’s choice to do this; he’s quite literally killing his darlings.

Touted as Barker’s “much-anticipated return to horror” (a comment, by the way, that also found its way on to the jacket of his last novel for adults, Mister B. Gone – perhaps it was due to a change in publisher?), The Scarlet Gospels is the closing chapter in the lives of two of Barker’s longest-lasting creations: Pinhead and Harry D’Amour. Admittedly, Harry doesn’t have quite the same cultural resonance as the BDSM angel of death from Hellraiser, but he’s a contemporary of, if not older than, Pinhead. D’Amour first made an appearance in Barker’s novella The Last Illusion (found at the end of The Books of Blood VI and later adapted by Barker for the screen as The Lord of Illusions, starring Scott Bakula as D’Amour), and then he crops up again in Everville, the Second Book of the Art. Pinhead, on the other hand, and despite the innumerable excrescences that comprise the Hellraiser sequels, only appears in one Barker story: The Hellbound Heart and its film, Hellraiser.

The premise of the novel is quite simple: Pinhead wishes to rule Hell, and he gets on the wrong side of Harry D’Amour, whom Pinhead feels, for some bizarre reason, should be the Chronicler of Events Not Yet Told. D’Amour, of course, is having none of it, until his hand is forced by the Cenobite and his twisted playthings, and he goes head-first into Hell with his friends. Enter brutalities and burning flames and D’Amour chasing the Hell Priest who craves an apotheosis of torn and bloodied skin. Until something wakes up and the sky is . . .

The book harkens back to Barker’s early days in genre writing: remorseless, vulgar, straight-out horror. The Books of Blood are echoed here more than once, as are elements from The Great and Secret Show, The Hellbound Heart, and Cabal. But there are no city-gods, here. No metaphysical waters of dream echoing life and death. No talking cats. Instead there are ghosts, demons, and violence – and such violence. This is “Pig Blood Blues” and “Rawhead Rex” type stuff. This isn’t subtle; this is the creation of monsters and the shaping of bloodied flesh. Never mind an adventure through the broken, twisted, and unnatural geographies of Hell. Actual Hell. This is the shit-stinking, blood-rending Hell of Barker that we saw once before in Mister B. Gone, but most of the time it’s only hinted at through unnerving light and the monsters that burst through. Here they are, in all of their gangrenous, pustuled selves – each scale and burnt limb a reminder of the atrocities they live and breathe. Throughout the book the writing is a bit uneven and lacks Barker’s usual lyricism in places, but when the blood, guts, and fire start, it’s Barker at his rawest. Through apocalypse comes beauty, I suppose. He’s definitely at his strongest in this novel when bodies, physical or metaphysical, are being rent asunder.

To date, most of Barker’s other worlds, while monstrous in some capacity (the Imagica, Quiddity, the Abarat, etc.) are also full of wonder, beauty, and love. Here the land reflects its inhabitants – all broken, twisted, gashed, and bloody. Pinhead’s broken visage, the nails in his flesh, the seeping, bloodied wounds are all reflected in the toxicity that is Hell. A Hell abandoned, of course.

As above, so below.

Oh, and Pinhead dies.

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