I first began reading Clive Barker’s works when I was a teenager. They were sexy and gruesome and intriguing and I inhaled them. (This is around the time Cabal came out, for reference.) I thought they were edgy and sophisticated and a bit terrifying, especially as they introduced me to ideas I hadn’t really considered before.
I probably should have left it there, in my teenage years. Because slogging through The Scarlet Gospels felt a bit like looking at your old yearbook pictures. You know, the ones with the fucked haircut and a carriage informed by what you believed was cool before you realised cool is bullshit.
This book features a scene in which, basically, the Devil is punched out. So it’s about as teenage boy as you get. There’s more to it than that – ghosts and second sight and a psychic detective and tattoos that serve as warning systems and the fate of the world! but it seems much more goofy than terrifying, honestly. There’s magical battles and the pursuit of arcane knowledge, but the electric tang of horror that typified the text that brought Pinhead into the world is lacking.
I’ve heard rumours that Barker was involved in part of this book (rather than the whole) and though I’ve no evidence to support that assertion, it wouldn’t surprise me. This is practically the definition of phoned-in. It’s something that publishers would like as anything with Pinhead (or “Hell Priest”, as he’s repeatedly referred to instead) is likely to bring in the hellbucks, but it seems Barker approached his task with two goals – to kill off the lead Cenobite, and to piss on his grave while doing it.
I get that a torturer in the service of hell is probably meant to be a bit of a dick, but the canonical presentation of the character seems to be drier than this. He’s a dickhead to begin with, and he increases his power with the ultimate goal of… becoming a bigger dickhead? The humanising aspects of the character that’ve worked in other (yes, admittedly non-Barker) offshoots – even as misdirections in the service of bastardry – are absent, and what we’re left with is a guy who’d be twirling his moustache if it wasn’t pinned to his fucking face.
Which seems a bit of a sad end for the character, to be frank. (Well, not Frank, because that guy’s an even bigger dick. But you get what I mean.)
So why three stars? Well, because it zips along serviceably enough, and has some interesting characters. But it’s a magical realist gumshoe tale rather than a nihilistic horror. There’s worlds created tolerably well, and the description of those worlds is great. But it’s hollow and clockwork: there’s nothing behind the curtain except teamsters smoking while they wait for their shift to end.
The more I think about it, the more I recognise that the whole story has a bit of an air of fuck off and leave me alone to it. I mean, if we’re to view Lucifer as a stand-in for the authorial voice, Barker really really would just like a bit of shoosh, thanks.
(Can we also say: CLIVE WE GET IT ENOUGH OF THE DEMONS JACKING IT. Also, when describing evisceration and horror, nothing ratchets down the tension like saying a demon’s head was hooked through “his butthole”. It’s like reading a teen recap of The Year’s Greatest Mutilations and less like hearing from an apparent master of horror.)
So yeah: it’s fine. There’s slashings and violence and such sights to show you: it’s just that the narrator’s looking at their watch and hoping you’ll fuck off sooner rather than later. A shame, given that the future of Hell seems to be in the balance, but you know – it’s Clive’s house so off I trot.
It’s fine. But I want something more than okay from someone like Barker. Unless I’m right and should’ve left the books with that fucked haircut I used to have.