Clive Barker was the first contemporary author that captured my imagination. I loved Edgar Allen Poe, but after seeing Hellraiser, and discovering the director was also a writer, I was literally hooked.
A twelve-year-old, or whatever my age was when I got into Barker, isn’t interested in character development, style, or even narrative that much. I liked the gore. I liked the concepts that really were beyond my imagination—and most everyone else’s imaginations in the world for that matter.
I drank deep The Books of Blood. Played through The Damnation Game. Fell into the bizarre tapestry of Weaveworld. The first deer I killed on a hunting trip with my father was done with The Great and Secret Show beside me in the deer blind.
Then came Imajica. I was in high school. Maybe I was developing as a reader, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t get through that book. My cousin and good friend, Matt Reda, was only twenty pages from the end of that book… and just set it down.
I think at long last the lack of character development, lack of realism of any kind, was outweighed by the incredible bursts of imagination Barker is famous for.
I guess we got tired of the shtick.
So, I hadn’t read another Clive Barker book since then—some twenty odd years ago.
With some excitement and a lot of nostalgia, I waited with baited breath for Barker’s latest, The Scarlet Gospels. It was said this was a return to the Barker of old. More gore, less fantasy. Hell, it had Pinhead. And Hell. Oh, and Harry D’Amour, but who cares about him really? With this new novel, did Barker again have such sights to show us?
I read The Scarlet Gospels as a writer—to learn from. So this review may be unique in that way.
When the movie Hellraiser came out in 1986, the actor Robin Anderson who played Larry Cotton, said in an interview that the movie would be very black or white: you’d either absolutely love it, or you’d absolutely hate it.
I think this novel is like that in the sense that you’ll either give that little extra effort to suspend your disbelief, or you’ll toss the book away. Like with Poe, the world of Clive Barker is not our world. There’s no hint of realism. It’s a magical universe with intricate, but somewhat arbitrary rules where 2 + 2 = 5, and then twenty pages later, maybe it equals 666.
You either accept this, jump on the roller coaster and enjoy the ride, or hop out of line and ask for you ticket back.
I strapped myself in, and reveled in Barker’s world. Why?
Not for the characters. Harry D’Amour is a strange mix of hardboiled detective overlaid with a punk cool that might have seemed forced even in the 1990s. He’s not that interesting, and thankfully, he’s not the real star of the show.
I was tempted to just skip over Harry’s sections to get to the real hero of the book, Pinhead, AKA The Hell Priest. Granted, a lot of the attraction is from the nostalgia of the movies, but I was interested as a reader as to what Pinhead’s plans were. Also, I just wanted to see who he’d torture to death next in insanely gory ways.
The story itself is mainly set in Hell. Other reviewers have noted that Barker’s great imagination perhaps lets us down in this setting. It’s very literal and conventional. Look at, for example, H.P. Lovecraft’s descriptions of the secret cities of Antarcitca—that felt truly beyond human comprehension and helped capture a feeling of alien creepiness lacking in Barker’s abyss.
So the characters for the most part are a bit of a let down—cardboard and often annoying—interrupting action scenes with bitchy remarks; and the setting is pretty dopey.
Why read on?
Again, we go back to Barker’s ability to imagine and describe truly unique and fantastical creatures and effects that captured my attention back when I was that twelve-year-old kid begging for his books for Christmas (of all things).
My point is this: Barker’s novels aren’t particularly well written, or even that interesting—except for the fantastical descriptions of bizarrity upon bizarrity, of twisted anatomies, and experiences pushed beyond ecstasy and agony, into realms beyond the beyond, beyond the… OK, you get the point. No one is better than Barker at describing the indescribable—he is a genius at this.
Am I being too hard on him about his overall craft? He’s described himself more of a “professional imaginer” than a writer. And man, he is the best in the business.
I think his books are excuses—set-ups only—to prop up what he really enjoys: detailed descriptions of horrific, magical, insane, twisted, bloody, shocking imagery. You’ll find a lot of sloppy editing between the gory highlights, as though not even the editors bothered much with the bridging between the descriptions. Time and time again, the same words appear a couple sentences apart; a flowery phrase that adds more confusion than clarity is left as it had apparently first been written—the dialogue is stilted and the jokes a bit monotonous, at least in tone. The climax occurs 80% through the book, leaving 20% that should have been cut. Maybe this should have been a novella.
And still I will recommend this book! For those outrageous descriptions of monsters, tortures, magical rites, and doors between worlds.
What does this teach me as a struggling writer?
It teaches me that a writer must find one strength, that one passion he holds above all others in the art of writing, and push it beyond his limits. That dedication and craft to one aspect of fiction can, as it has with Mr. Barker, carry you far. Don’t worry about critics if you have a vision. No, I wouldn’t have my climax at the 80% mark of the book, leaving an overly long and pointless tagged-on ending; no, I’d spend more time editing, and working on my dialogue—but what I have learned is that if you’re more than good at one thing, make that the showcase of your work and all that other stuff that seems so important… really isn’t.