If there’s a character who gets routinely excluded from the pantheon of great literary monsters, it’s the Hell Priest. (Pinhead. I’m talking about Pinhead, who got the nickname from the makeup team behind Hellraiser, the film adapted from Barker’s novella The Hellbound Heart.) In a 1980s splatterpunk milieu crammed with masked murder machines, here you had an elegant, interesting, multi-faceted monster whose violence was almost epicurean in its sensibilities. Barker himself has always had a strange relationship with The Hell Priest, especially because of the endless wasteland of Hellraiser sequels produced by hack filmmakers banking on Barker’s credibility as a horror visionary. Barker is bitter about the sequels, and he should be. About the shambolic Hellraiser: Revelations, Barker said “If they claim it’s from the mind of Clive Barker, it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butthole.”
Enter The Scarlet Gospels, a novel Barker’s been talking about writing for the better part of the last decade. He wanted to reclaim Pinhead from the clowns who’ve been milking the Hellraiser franchise for way, way too long. (Pinhead in space! Pinhead on the internet!) And so he finally made good on reclaiming Pinhead and, uh, killing him off. He tells you this on the dust jacket, for chrissakes.
The story revolves around Pinead’s ambition to collect every obscure magic text in the world and absorb limitless power so that he can take over Hell and, like any monster worth their weight in entrails, Earth. His story intersects with Harry D’Amour, professional shit-magnet and paranormal investigator, as well as one of Clive’s most famous characters. Pinhead wants Harry to be his Witness — to record everything that happens in Pinhead’s bloody bid for power so that everyone will have a true account of the event. Harry isn’t keen on the idea, so as leverage, Pinhead kidnaps Norma (Harry’s best friend in the world) and drags her to hell so that Harry and a ragtag group of weirdos have to go in and rescue her.
The first half of The Scarlet Gospels is just absolutely brutal. It opens with Pinhead dispatching a group of elderly sorcerers in true, bowel-churning Hellraiser fashion — you can feel Clive whispering “I know what you want, you goddamn deviants, so here you go” — and then it gets grislier. Even for Barker, who’s no stranger to Crazy Nonstop Murder Time, the first leg of the novel is a giant chunk of death and torture and deviance and madness. It’s just…the best. Absolutely the best.
The second half is self-indulgent wank. Too many questions are left unanswered, too many subplots meander into the abyss, and there’s a Return of The King-level “how many endings can we cram into this thing” coda. But here’s the thing: Even Barker’s self-indulgent wank is compelling and beautiful and impossible to ignore. Barker at his worst is still better than most horror writers at their best, and to produce a book as odd and horrifying as The Scarlet Gospels this late in his career is no mean feat.
The primary strength of The Scarlet Gospels is that it’s a book about feelings. Harry and his little group of friends genuinely love and respect each other, and even as they’re wandering through a Labyrinthine hellscape toward certain mutilation and death, they’re still trying to cheer each other up and make each other laugh. It’s a crucial thing that more horror writers need to absorb: In order to get your audience on board for terror and yelling and horrible things happening to various body parts, there has to be a soft nougat center of tenderness and warmth, because if it’s just grim and unrelenting and sad, none of the brutality means anything. There needs to be tension and release. The Scarlet Gospels gets this, and even if the character banter sometimes seems like it undersells the looming terror, it’s so necessary for this kind of narrative.
The primary failing of The Scarlet Gospels is that Barker juggles way too many chainsaws without being able to catch all of them, and so you get a dozen subplots that never work out to anything worthwhile. It veers too far from Pinhead himself (who I would have adored learning more about as a character) and a little too much on everything surrounding his story. Too many garnishes, not enough meat. His death isn’t satisfying or cathartic because you can almost sense Barker dragging things out for the sake of Harry’s arc, and there are so many false starts to Pinhead’s death that you almost don’t believe it when it finally happens. Maybe my expectations were flawed, but in a novel about the death of Barker’s most iconic creation, I wanted more Pinhead.
However, I fell in love with the book when a doomed man about to be tortured to death makes a callback to Barker’s own annoyance with the nickname given to the Hell Priest: “It doesn’t matter how many abhorrent tortures you devise. You’ll always be the Pinhead.”