Harry D’armour, private eye to the supernatural has been chosen as a witness. A mad Cenobite, a Priest of Hell known as Pinhead wants Harry to write his Gospel, to chronicle the Cenobite’s challenge for the throne of Hell. Pinhead will not take no for an answer and convinces Harry the only way he knows how, by dragging Harry and his friends to Hell itself.
Clive Barker has been away from his blood soaked world of horror for quite some time. The Scarlet Gospels is his first book for adults since 2007 and has had a gestation period of over twenty years. Barker has dropped hints, mercilessly and mischievously teased his faithful congregation about the book’s contents, since 1993.
There was a worry that so much time away from horror would have dulled Barker’s narrative voice in the genre, but on the contrary, this is a glorious homecoming. This is not the Barker we first met in the 1980s, this is a far more refined, confident and brutal storyteller. The prose is both eloquent and obscene, phrases expertly turned where even the most horrific act reads beautifully, the artisanship at odds with the obscenities described, combined with dialogue that crackles with wit and poetry. One such thought from a Hell dweller is heavy with meaning, but focussed in it brevity: “Living in Hell kept him aware of the possibility of Heaven, and he’d never felt more alive.” Straight to the point, saying so much in just a line or two, this is a hallmark prevalent throughout the book.
Barker takes the reader on a journey to Hell and back, where more than once the harrowing nature of the plot has you putting the book down for respite. There are several moments which really are the very definition of horror, both physically and psychologically. Barker and Pinhead pull no punches, and the reader is not spared. The prologue packs more imagination and invention into 30 pages than some authors can muster in 300. By way of illustration, one scene involves a literally bisected man, surgically split down the middle and held together by metal, binding and screws in such a manner that he lives but suffers constant pain and has to walk like a crab. This could be considered one of the lesser atrocities committed by Barker’s eloquent, dignified, supremely sadomasochistic thug of a priest.
The plot is quite straightforward; Pinhead takes on the rulers of Hell, one maliciously inventive scheme at a time. The book is not without its humour, and one set piece, which – without giving too much away – could only be described, as “death by a thousand origami birds,” is sublime in the telling, but hilarious in concept. There are certainly aspects of the story, which are ludicrous, humorous, and horrific in equal measure.
Harry D’armour, simply tries to make the best of a very bad situation. It is a shame that his inclusion feels unnecessary – as likeable as Harry is, ultimately, this is Pinhead’s story. The exploits of Harry and his friends are not always welcome. Harry’s interactions with Pinhead and the denizens of Hell are entertaining, but minimal. It does feel as if Harry could be in a separate adventure and, given his final status at the end of the novel, this may have been preferable. The Cenobite’s march on Hell may have been gory, glorious, and satisfying, but you are left wanting more. If there was less of Harry, it is possible we would see more of Pinhead’s elegant brutality.
The Scarlet Gospels is horror at its finest, but you really have to read it to believe it. The sheer imagination on display is a delight, but… leave the main lights on. A table lamp will not stop you wondering if a bell in the distance is a Cenobite asking you to bear witness to his next gospel of pain.
David M Graham.