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The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker
Book Name: The Scarlet Gospels
Author: Clive Barker
Publisher(s): St. Martin's Press (US) Macmillan (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Auidobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Horror
Release Date: May 19, 2015 (US) May 21, 2015 (UK)

Time flies: It’s thirty years since Clive Barker’s first novel, The Damnation Game, was published. A tale of Faustian proportions, it – along with his short story collections The Books of Blood – changed the face of horror fiction at the time. Barker’s writing was full of vital energy and visceral imagery that was a mixture of body horror and eroticism; “I have seen the future of horror,” said Stephen King, “and his name is Clive Barker.”

Arguably, it was the film Hellraiser that gave Barker his first full public attention. Another “deal with the devil” story, it introduced the Cenobites and their leader Pinhead, who would become one of the genres most iconic figures. Hellraiser, based on the novella The Hellbound Heart, cemented Barker’s reputation as a filmmaker, while Weaveworld and Cabal would prove that this writer was no flash in the pan. Barker was sure to go far, and he did.

I was a big fan of Barker’s in the early 1990s, and this era feels like his pinnacle. He could, it seemed, do no wrong and huge volumes of work such as Imagica made Barker, for me, the leading fantasist of his time. Yet, there were others who had the opinion that Barker was losing the edge that made him stand out so far from the crowd; odd, because there’s always been a deep emotion in his work, however well hidden, and the passage of time and Barker’s growing confidence and experience allowed him to bring it closer to the fore. My own reading did, however, drift away to other genres, leaving Barker’s new work behind, but still going back occasionally for a reread of older titles. I get the impression that many of his readers have followed the same path, as The Scarlet Gospels is being marketed as his “long-awaited return to horror”, so it’s a good time to jump back on board.

The Scarlet Gospels gets off to a cracking start, when a group of terrified magicians unleash something they shouldn’t. When Pinhead appears, it’s with the same sense of foreboding as in the films; you can almost hear the sounds Barker describes and, by giving the magicians a bloody fate that will make readers wince, it’s clear he’s lost none of his macabre wit.

We’re allowed a moment to compose ourselves as Harry D’Amour is introduced to the story. He’s much changed from the last time I’d read about him, and is a fascinating character. Harry could easily be described as a cross between Philip Marlowe and John Constantine, but in Barker’s hands he’s so much more. Through his writing, Barker gets us deep into Harry’s thoughts, and places him in unsettling situations that really should be read in broad daylight. When Harry’s apprehensive, we’re on edge; when he’s scared, it’s difficult not to look over our shoulders just in case there’s a monster behind us, too.

Harry’s friends are equally well-crafted, coming across as distinctive personalities rather than representations of their abilities. When one of these friends is abducted and taken into hell by Pinhead, Harry and the others have no choice but to follow in an attempt to save her. It’s on this infernal journey that Barker’s imagination is allowed to run riot; his hell is a landscape of buildings with impossible geometries, populated by strange and twisted creatures, and beings of vast power. It’s here where the book becomes almost a fantasy story; people in an unknown landscape, on a quest, unsure if they’ll succeed or not.

Strangely, as a fantasy fan, it’s this part of the book that didn’t work as well for me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderfully written showcase for Barker’s immense imagination and talent, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was something I’d seen many times before. Too often, the characters come across as observers rather than participants, powerless to interfere as Pinhead tries to bring his plan to fruition. It also lessened the tension and terror that built up so well in the earlier parts of the novel; for me, the fear in horror comes when the unreal invades our world, and by taking these characters to hell, Barker turns the novel into spectacle rather than story. We also lose much of the mystery that made Pinhead so appealing over the years, so much so that at times he comes across as a little too human, not much more than a nasty man with vast powers. Perhaps, ultimately, that is all he is.

Despite my initial concern that this was a book written to appease Pinhead’s fans – a way for Barker to move on and put the character behind him, almost – The Scarlet Gospels grips from start to finish. It benefits from a tight and linear narrative, and while it’s clear that much excess has been trimmed in the editing, it proves that Barker has lost none of his edge. He remains one of the masters of his craft, able to combine the visceral and the emotional with startling effect, a creator of images that will stay with the reader long into the night.


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