Thursday, August 13, 2015

Mini-Book Report: The Scarlet Gospels

Before I get started, let me apologize for going AWOL over the last few weeks. They should tell you that when you buy a house, it will take up a very large chunk of your time. OK, so everyone I know did in fact tell me that.  But now that things are settling down I should start showing my ugly face around here on a more consistent basis.

Anyone who has talked to me for more than three minutes about horror knows that I am a huge Hellraiser fan.  I've seen all of the theatrically released movies, all but one of the direct-to-dvd dreck that followed, and I didn't even hate Hellraiser: Revelations as much as most people did (don't get me wrong, it wasn't good, but it didn't strike me as much worse than the previous few sequels).

I'm also a fan of Hellraiser's creator, Clive Barker.  I've read several of his books and short stories, including Hellraiser's inspiration, The Hellbound Heart.  I've always appreciated his ability to find beauty in the grotesque, be it the deformed Cenobites or the misjudged creatures of Midian..

Clearly I was excited, then, to hear rumors that Barker was writing a story that would be a grand finale for his most iconic character, Pinhead.  This surprised me considering that Barker claimed to be done with the character, and that Pinhead belonged more to the fans at this point than he did to Barker.  I liked the idea of him coming back to end Pinhead's character arc.

Unfortunately, I would have to wait quite some time for this finale to come to fruition.  I remember first reading about The Scarlet Gospels in the mid 2000s.  As Barker got further into writing, word was that this was going to be an epic book on par with Stephen King's The Stand in terms of length and scope.  But then long stretches would go by with no news about the book.  He even wrote and published several books in the interim.

Then, in 2012, a trip to the dentist's office almost ended not only the Scarlet Gospels, but Barker himself.  While having the dental work done, poisonous bacteria leaked into Barker's blood stream and put him into a 7-day coma.  He came very close to death, and to this day still deals with health issues related to the illness.

At this point it was good news just to know that Barker would recover, so I'd pretty much let go of the idea that Scarlet Gospels would be published.  To my surprise, however, Barker did return to his work, plugging away at until May of this year, when book stores were finally stocked with The Scarlet Gospels.  I, however, would have to be patient for two more months, as I splurged for a signed U.K. copy and had to allow time for Barker to get them signed and mailed all while still dealing with the after-effects of toxic shock.

Now, after literally a decade of anticipation plus two more months of sitting Scott Pilgrim-style in front of my door waiting for the mailman, I've been taken on Pinhead's last ride.  Here are my thoughts on The Scarlet Gospels.

WARNING:  Spoilers abound from here on out

The basic synopsis plays out like this:  Pinhead, Hell Priest and member of the Cenobite order, has been hunting down all sorcerers on earth in order to assimilate their knowledge and give himself the power to take over hell, where Lucifer has been mysteriously absent for many years.  Caught up in this power-play is Harry D'Amour, a private detective (and another important character from Barker's previous work) who Pinhead wants to serve as witness to his ascension as leader of hell.  When D'Amour refuses, Pinhead kidnaps Harry's good friend and medium Norma Paine, forcing Harry and a group of allies to search the expanse of hell in an attempt to save Norma.

One of the first things I noticed was that at 360 pages, it was a lot shorter than had originally been indicated, which implies that there had to have been some pretty massive edits.  Honestly, I'd love to see the full version of the book, as it feels in its current version like a series of great set pieces without enough build-up in between.  The book spends a lot of time with its heroes wandering hell, but I don't feel like the mythology was properly fleshed out, especially considering the fact that Barker combines aspects of the "Cenobite" hell from his original work with elements of the Christian hell.  I wonder if there were more connective threads in the edited pages.  If so, I'd love to see them.

Also, for anyone going into this story hoping for the same tone as The Hellbound Heart, they likely walked away from this book bitterly disappointed.  While Hellbound Heart was a very small story that hinted at larger workings, Scarlet Gospels delves into those larger workings head on.  Also, unlike Hellbound Heart's somber mood, Scarlet Gospels is more playful but with a viscous mean-streak.  Barker seems to enjoy taking the gore to exaggerated levels in a way that a teenage boy might approach it, with more than one instance of hooks tearing out people's insides through an uncomfortable orifice (whichever one you're thinking of right now, you are correct).  I rather enjoyed this tone, however, as for me it indicated that Barker was having fun with it.  And yes, I think that for Barker, ripping out someone's stomach through their asshole is fun.

While reading this story, I also found several instances where Barker is providing commentary about the character of Pinhead, as well as Barker's own place in the Hellraiser universe.  Since the story includes the Christian version of hell, Lucifer plays a pivotal role, but is noticeably absent at the beginning of the story.  It turns out, in fact, that Lucifer found a way to kill himself to put himself out of his misery.  Could this be an allusion to Barker's desire to cut himself off from the Hellraiser mythos?  Meanwhile, Pinhead is not the same character that he was in the early days of Hellraiser.  He's been making schemes to usurp the throne, and in the process he's changed both in terms of his abilities as well as his personality.  More to the point, Pinhead is kind of a prick now.  He was always evil, but now he's the type of evil that beats up on 80-year old women, and he seems smug as opposed to just bored as he was in Hellraiser.  Is this a note about how after countless sequels, the Pinhead of Hellraiser: Revelations is vastly different than the Pinhead of the original Hellraiser?

If that's the case, then that makes Pinhead's final showdown with Lucifer that much more interesting.  Pinhead, with all of the power he's accumulated over the years, tries to best Lucifer/Barker, but although he seems to come very close to besting him, eventually Lucifer/Barker reminds Pinhead who's boss by tearing his guts out, ripping the pins out of his head, and calling him a cliche.  In this light, I love this scene, as Barker reminds us that he created Pinhead and he can destroy him.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment about this book was that Pinhead survived his encounter with Lucifer, and in perhaps the moment most deserving to be cut from the book, he kills Norma in a piece of writing that is needlessly cruel and at the same time treated almost as an afterthought, which makes the scene that much crueler.  But perhaps that was Barker's point: to make us as sick of Pinhead as he is by now, so that when Pinhead is unceremoniously erased from existence as hell collapses in on itself, no one is sad to see him go.

While I can't say that this was a perfect ending to the Pinhead character, I will say that it definitely wasn't boring, which goes a long way for me.  I also enjoyed the opportunity to watch Barker take stock of his most famous creation right before definitively ending it.  Others may take the character on, either in remakes or other kinds of cash-grabs, but for Barker, Pinhead is dead.  I'm just happy to see that Barker outlived him.