Today’s post is by the Author and fellow horror-reading enthusiast Vincent Asaro
Clive Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels is a novel that comes freighted with a lot of history and legacy. Three legacies. First there’s the character of the Hell Priest – or “Pinhead” as he’s known to legions of Hellraiser fans. Second is that of Harry D’Amour, the paranormal detective who pops up on occasion in Clive Barker’s fictional universe (but who, so far, has had only one story all to himself, The Last Illusion). Finally there is the novel itself, a legacy of anticipation. Like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, which did not appear until four years after the author’s death, The Scarlet Gospels has been the focus of intense fan speculation; over the years, Barker has dropped hints about the novel, which only served to whip fan expectation into a mounting frenzy. Suffice to say that the final, published book has a lot to live up to.
The history of the novel is just as complex. Barker went on record in the mid-late 1990’s that he was working on a short story that would kill off the Hell Priest, for good and all, and would pit the famous Cenobite against Harry D’Amour. As the years passed, Barker’s life and career took many unexpected turns. While Barker pursued his interests in fine-art erotic photography, video game production, film production, painting and branching off into YA fantasy with his Abarat series (probably his most successful venture to date) his personal life went through major upheavals. Separation from his long-time life partner, multiple throat operations, the passing of both his parents and finally a bio-shock induced coma following a routine dental cleaning, all served to waylay the final Hellraiser story. Barker soldiered one, still keeping up an astonishing output of work. When he finally announced the completion of The Scarlet Gospels, the short story had ballooned up to an almost 250k word novel! The final novel is probably closer to 100k words in length.
For some fans, this has been a crushing disappointment. While I choose to see it as a triumph and an act of extraordinary generosity on Barker’s part to complete the novel at all during his recent tribulations, I also can’t help but wonder what the uncut novel was like and just what was cut out and/or altered. I can sympathize with Barker. When a story gets that out of control, sometimes the only response is to cut it back down to size. Barker has granted only two interviews for this book, so far. He touches on the intense labor of writing the manuscript, about his feeling that the book had become “self indulgent”, and of his desire to make a strong return to the adult horror market. Whatever other reasons caused the epic to be retooled so drastically, the fact remains that for the time being, this is the Scarlet Gospels as Barker has given it to us and we are left to make of it what we will. So, what do I make of it?
In brief, the novel centers around the Hell Priest’s ambitious plan to take the throne of Lucifer, conquer Hell, and then the universe. But he wants a chronicler of his great deeds and for that he chooses D’Amour. To get D’Amour to actually follow in his footsteps, the Hell Priest kidnaps D’Amour’s “secretary” Norma, who is blind but can see and communicate with the souls of the dead. D’Amour falls in with a motley group of allies and what follows is a breathless chase across Hell in pursuit of “Pinfuck”, as D’Amour often calls his adversary.
On the surface, that’s not much of a story line; and as you read the novel for the first time there is a feeling of let-down. This was supposed to be another Imajica; but it feels like a novelization of Barker’s video game Jericho. Description is either spartan or absent; dialogue is flippant, glib – very unlike Barker’s trademark style; sequences are pushed forward without much shape or nuance, very much as they would appear in a screenplay. Once D’Amour and company get to Hell they pursue the Hell Priest – in a straight line. There are no twists or turns. They just make a beeline for Lucifer’s stronghold, overcoming obstacles easily. Once they catch up with their enemy, they enter Lucifer’s maximum security sanctum – through the back door. They just walk right in! The complexities of Hell are alluded to – internal politics, a stratified society and a peasant uprising – but never explored or expounded upon.
These are all weaknesses that mar the novel, that I can’t and won’t deny. There’s definitely something missing. Whether it’s in the more than 100k words sheared away from the book, or it was always missing, is anyone’s guess. Barker wanted a “lean, mean” story and he got it. Suspense exists but not in the mode of the horror genre, more in the mode of an action story. The book is drenched in blood and guts and I found most of the gore to be up to Barker’s visceral/imaginative standard. But the Gospels rarely feels like a horror novel; more of an adult action/fantasy. There are lapses in technique as well – twice on the same page Barker describes something as being “beyond [Pinhead’s] comprehension”; sloppy, and disappointing coming from the pen of a true poet. Along the way we are treated to: a perverted clay-faced demon that gets off (literally) on death, unlikely alliances between sexually polymorphous misfits, marching armies of devils, a giant crustacean sea monster with a human face, killer origami, and a smack-down between the Hell Priest and Lucifer that breaks Hell into little pieces. Even if The Red Gospels was Barker’s weakest story (and it isn’t) that’s more than you’ll get from most other contemporary horror novels.
And yet, if the novel had ended as it proceeded, I’d probably be among the truly disappointed. But it is in the ending that Barker shows his true gifts. I won’t spoil it for you. But it’s been almost a week since I closed the book and the ending is still with me. I just can’t shake it. As I read the last scene for each of the main characters – Lucifer, Pinhead and Harry – I thought, “That’s it?” Once I turned the page the full import of what I’d just read sank in, and surface disappointment was quickly transmuted into profound appreciation. Barker crafts a trio of endings that are elegiac, life affirming and beautiful. All three characters show a courage for acceptance and change that the reader is not expecting. This is Barker at his level best, subverting the genre in thought provoking and soul-nourishing ways that the reader cannot see coming. Now that Barker has returned to the fold of adult horror novelists, and The Scarlet Gospels is finally off his chest (and shoulders) let’s look forward to the riches still to come.
Vincent Asaro is a published author of horror and fantasy. You can read about his work and sample Free fiction here: www.vincentasaro.weebly.com