The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker (St. Martins, 2015), 361 pages.
I’m posting this early (on 27 May) because I’ll be in London, Paris, and Rome the next two weeks. So this is a new record: writing up a book 8 days after it was released (on 19 May). I didn’t mean to do it: it just happened. I was all ready to write about octopuses (not octopi) but that will have to wait. I started reading this book Saturday and I just finished it (see: and people think I read all the time…I pace myself).
Clive Barker is one of the few authors of whom I have read almost every word (note the correct grammatical form). Yes, even the plays. I started with the Books of Blood short story collections in the 1980s and, I have to say, saw that the stories were different right away. They did, and still do, give me nightmares (especially the one where the girl turns the rich guy into a bulldog (don’t ask) and how the people of two towns make themselves into living towers and fight (probably shouldn’t ask about that one either). I loved the Hellraiser movies, and not only because Pinhead reminded me of an old boss I had.
This book combines Pinhead (played in the movies by Barker’s friend from high school in Liverpool, Doug Bradley) and a kind of “psychic detective” from a couple of other Barker stories and books named Harry D’Amour. (Interesting factoid: I grew up a block from a man named Armand D’Amour, who everyone Americanized to pronounce “Armin Day-more.” It was only when I took French that I realized what had happened.)
Speaking of Doug Bradley, I met him in Baltimore at a horror convention in 2004. I was displaying my car with a story about dead people etched into the paint. He was a big smoker so I saw him constantly out in front during his breaks from his photo sessions. I had no idea who he was at first until I realized this was the guy who was charging 60 bucks to have your picture taken with him. He was shorter than I thought he would be, not much taller that I am, and we had some great talks about my horror car (which he pronounced “very cool”) and other stuff. He offered to take a picture with me for free, and I, to my everlasting regret, said no because I felt slimy short-circuiting the conference. By the way, Doug Bradley has a book out about horror and masks and makeup called Behind the Mask of the Horror Actor and everyone should buy a copy and read it.
To create The Scarlet Gospels, Barker had to ignore a lot of plot points that the eight or so Hellraiser movies had made. But Barker didn’t write those, and they were getting a bit desperate in any case (I mean, Pinhead in outer space? Really?). You don’t have to know much about Pinhead and Harry to appreciate this book, but it certainly helps.
The plot of this book is easy to outline. Pinhead the Cenobite, called the “Hell Priest” in this novel, kills a bunch of very adept magicians to claim their magic and challenge Lucifer himself for the Overlord-ship of Hell. Harry and a few close friends have to stop Pinhead, although all they really know is that the Hell Priest has kidnapped one of Harry’s friends and they have to penetrate the bowels of hell (this sometimes seems literal) to rescue Pinhead’s victim.
Barker’s hell is not Dante’s hell. No sinners are roasting on a spit, and what demons there are have problems of their own to worry about. The demonic inhabitants of hell actually seem like “jus’ folks” in a sense: they even have guards and bosses and so on. Even when Pinhead’s revolt threatens the natural order, I imagined a family of demons loading up the HellWagon SUV for a vacation to Hellowstone Park: Pop is trying to get Junior to help pack up the van while Mom is frantically searching for their daughter, who might be dallying in the Chamber of the Unconsumed, drawn by the unending flames.
Somehow, Barker’s visions of mayhem and blood and vomit and other bodily fluids did not seem as unsettling to me this time as they did in the 1980s. Now that my kids are grown and on their own, is the world less threatening and me more secure in my life? Have the horrors of the world, especially in the Middle East, overtaken what even a twisted mind like Barker’s can conjure? Or have I just grown up?
Today, descriptions of barren wastelands and twisted guts leave me kind of cold. How is all this very much different than the scenes we see on the nightly news or on the Internet? Hateful monsters destroying priceless cultural treasures, and people wandering around in a stupor, waiting to be beheaded, not sure what they did to deserve their fate. Perhaps the next drone strike will end their suffering. Horror is not what it used to be.
Barker’s prose is certainly everything it used to be. You can’t read book after book by the same author unless you can follow the rhythm naturally, almost letting the sentences finish themselves in your head before you read them. I can do that with Barker, Pierce Brown, Lincoln and Child, and not many others. Other authors I can read, but with effort, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Some authors I have to abandon, mainly because what I am putting into their story is more than I am getting out of it. Fortunately, the world of reading material is vast. (I just realized I left Stephen Baxter off this list, but I have to say, I read him more for his ideas and themes than for his prose. For me, Baxter can be a compelling read, but not an easy one.)
I think only Barker can write something like this, a back-and-forth dialog concerning two angels of the Lord, Bathraiat and Thakil, contemplating the fall of Hell and the demise of Lucifer (pages 328-329):
“They had a leader. Some rebel. Shite! I don’t remember his name. You know me and names. He was a dickhead and everyone says so. And old Bitch Tits kicked him down here. He started some rebellion.”
“That’s the one. Lucifer. They prayed to Lucifer.”
“Didn’t he build this place?”
“So? Who cares?”
Shortly thereafter, Lucifer wakes from the dead and kills the two angels by “counting them among the dead.” To me, this is classic Barker. Foul mouthed, irascible holy angels, forgetful and irreverent. Then killed by the devil. I loved it.
After devouring The Scarlet Gospels, I can wait for the two remaining volumes of Abarat with a smile on my face.