Book review: The Hellbound Heart

The Hellbound Heart.The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars.

I suppose polishing off a Gothic fancy where death plays love’s fiddle put me in mood for something a little more grim, so I decided to revisit Clive Barker’s novella of puzzles and bad dates, The Hellbound Heart.


Steady on there, Frank. 

Jesus wept, indeed.

I’d read the work before, a couple of times. It’s only a short piece, and I remember having a luridly illustrated paperback while a teenager, trying to consume the story that birthed such a striking movie adaptation in Hellraiser. (Obviously, this was before the other nine or so non-Clive movies followed and any such interest would’ve been pulled apart with hooks.)

So, how was it this time around? It’s probably worth bearing in mind that I recently forced myself to rewatch all the films in the series, so my bonhomie towards the Order of the Gash is probably not at an all-time high. I mean let’s face it – after that much direct-to-video shit I’m likely to hammer in Pinhead’s nails myself.

I guess that means not well. Certainly, I revised my score down a star this time around. Last time I read this was a decade ago, and I don’t know whether that means I’ve read more horrific literature in the interim, of that I’m not as dazzled by Barker’s B&D grimness as I once was, but it didn’t seem to really work quite as well as I remembered.

The story – which first appeared in a horror anthology – is pretty simple: a tired pursuer of sensation discovers a secret puzzlebox which apparently leads to the most unimaginable pleasure. Except what he doesn’t count on is that “unimaginable pleasure”, when filtered through the sensing of piercing-bedecked heirophants on a break from the Hellfire club, is “by gosh it feels good when people stop slicing the eternal fuck outta you for a moment”. Which probably wasn’t the jizztacular-party-on-drugs he’d been expecting, but I guess you can’t win ’em all.

Or at all, given that all this happens without skin. Or respite. Hooray!

Anyway, Our Man Seeking Fun is taken to hell until some spilled blood brings him back from the brink, and gives him enough corporeal form to convince an old flame to bring back some pre-Tinder meat-sacks to help rebuild his body so they can go off and… well, avoid games shops and puzzles, I would suppose. Of course, Shit Gets Real because the Cenobites – those of the slicing – don’t particularly enjoy having people escape their charge, so the clock ticks…

There’s an argument to be made that the film adaptation of this story makes a better fist of the narrative: the motivations are much clearer, and though you lose the horror of imagining the Cenobites yourself – to me, they’re more childlike in the text, which is a lot fuckin’ creepier given that we’re talking about scarification-heavy almost-corpses with elaborate genital piercings – you gain the tightening Barker applied as director. Certain subtle changes applied to the film’s version of the same tale (something as simple as using a hammer instead of a knife in one instance) provide a more elegant, more disturbing version of the story.

The printed version is politely nihilist in places:

If nothing was worth living for it followed, didn’t it, that there was nothing worth dying for either.

but this time around I wasn’t as taken with the work. I haven’t really read much more of Barker’s work since I first started with this one – a couple of short stories and the novel Cabal pretty much cover it – though I do like this story. It just feels like there’s so much more buried in here; so much that could have been brought to light with further refinement, further evisceration.

Still, it’s better than most of the movies, even if it doesn’t feature a monster that fires CDs out of its mouth. Which is… a win?

My Goodreads profile is here.

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