We gave it a B+
I started reading the new Clive Barker book on my lunch break. Don’t make the same mistake; your stomach will never forgive you. In the first 20 pages, the prologue piles gore atop grotesquerie atop body-horror delirium. “Surely a faster autopsy had never taken place”—that’s about the only thing this magazine can print.
Our world would be much drabber without Barker, whose career over the decades has branched across prose, painting, cinema, theater, videogames, and even action figures. The basic tropes of Barkerism don’t change: Ornate BDSM-inflected sexuality commingles with decadent Judeo-Christian anti-theology; campy Harlequin romance and gritty detective noir segue into porno-horror featuring Lovecraftian monsters and oceans of blood. And The Scarlet Gospels is Barker at his most unhinged and indulgent. The book unites two of his most famous creations: the demonic Pinhead (from the Hellraiser franchise) and the tattooed occultist PI Harry D’Amour (played by Scott Bakula in the horror noir Lord of Illusions).
The Scarlet Gospels is pitched as the concluding chapter of the Hellraiser mythos. Better, I think, to read it as a culmination of his unique fascinations. Back in 2012 he spent a week in a coma following what he called “a nearly fatal case of toxic shock.” That health scare may explain why Gospels dives deeper into the afterlife than any of Barker’s previous works. There’s a renewed urgency, too—an urgency that occasionally feels just plain sloppy. Barker is in his wheelhouse writing about Pinhead, the oddly charming mega-murderer. But the novel, which spends too long on D’Amour and a vaguely defined investigation subplot, doesn’t take off until the author plunges wholeheartedly into hell itself, replete with monsters and Boschian landscapes. It’s Barker Unbound—and not for everybody. (Spoiler alert: Quite a bit of skin gets pulled off.) Yet beneath the mountain of outré horrors, there’s a weird humor underpinning Barker’s work, a droll self-awareness and a riotous, do-not-go-quietly energy. It’s a tasty delight—if you can stomach it. B+
THE OPENING LINE
“After the long quiet of the grave, Joseph Ragowski gave voice, and it was not pleasant, in either sound or sentiment.”