Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Scarlet Gospels, by Clive Barker

Clive Barker hit the Horror scene with the impact of a nuclear bomb back in the mid-'80's. I remember the fervor that surrounded the release of his seminal BOOKS OF BLOOD series vividly...months worth of articles in Fangoria whetted my appetite, and I was counting the days until I could read the debut of a man who was hailed, by no less a luminary than Stephen King, as "The future of Horror". Finally, while on vacation in Arizona, I found the first three volumes in a Waldenbooks, and I went back home and absolutely devoured them, urging as many of my friends as I could to go out and buy their own copies of these extraordinary, groundbreaking collections of Horror fiction.

 My friends and I eagerly awaited the release of the remaining three BOOKS OF BLOOD. We cut school to attend the first showing of HELLRAISER, and went right back to the ticket window as soon as we got out, so we could see it again immediately. We trekked miles to find a video store that had Betamax copies of RAWHEAD REX and UNDERWORLD. We sought out collections of Barker's bizarre, exquisite artwork. I thrilled to Eclipse's gorgeous painted adaptations of his short stories in their TAPPING THE VEIN series. I snapped up all of Barker's Marvel Comics work, despite the fact that some or most of it was substandard. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool, early-adopter fan of Clive Barker. I am THE target audience for his latest, most eagerly-awaited work, THE SCARLET GOSPELS, which features the Hell-Priest Pinhead squaring off against occult detective Harry D'Amour.

 The book starts strong, with a sequence that evoked the Clive Barker of old: A group of besieged magicians attempt to resurrect a deceased member of their organization in a last-ditch attempt to save themselves from the Cenobite known derisively as Pinhead, who has been tracking down, torturing, and murdering practitioners of the dark arts, in a bid to steal all of the accumulated magical knowledge and artifacts on Earth. This scene, in particular, brought back such vivid memories of early, classic Barker that I felt assured that this long-awaited book was going to be a true return to his horrific form of years gone by.

 The remainder of the book feels totally different from that lengthy opening sequence. Barker continues to spin out Pinhead's mysterious quest to amass his collection of dark magic, and throws him into conflict with another of Barker's franchise characters, detective Harry D'Amour.

 The problem with this conflict, which provides the meat of the book, is twofold: The antagonism between the two feels wholly artificial.....despite the stated reason for it, there's really no good reason for Pinhead to search out and use D'Amour.....Pinhead clearly has access to more credible/more powerful magicians than Harry, so the meeting of the two seems very forced. The other, bigger, issue is the plain fact that Harry D'Amour is really not that interesting a character. In his earlier appearances he was featured in short stories or as a supporting character, where he could serve as a catalyst/witness to strange events that were beyond his abilities to stop. As the star of a major piece of fiction, Harry falls far short of being memorable. He spends most of the book helplessly wandering around various locales, running from demons and monsters, basically saying "I have a bad feeling about this." There are numerous sequences in THE SCARLET GOSPELS that could have worked splendidly as short stories, but stitched together and expanded into one long work, they fall flat.

 Barker introduces a supporting cast that are just as uninteresting as Harry, and sends them through their paces as they attempt to save one of their own, kidnapped to Hell by Pinhead as bait for Harry. Other characters come and go as needed, providing exposition and vanishing, never to be seen again. By the end, the book has moved, to its detriment, from grimy Horror to high Fantasy, complete with Tolkien-esque battles between massive infernal armies on the fields of Hell.

 I was also puzzled by certain continuity aspects of the book. A lot of what Barker does here flies in the face of the Hellraiser films (Pinhead is no longer a former human, as established in the second film, which was written by Barker), and the continuity of the various HELLRAISER comics that Barker has written or co-written. I was able to overlook a lot of this by assuming that THE SCARLET GOSPELS is only concerning itself with Barker's novella THE HELLBOUND HEART and the D'Amour stories that Barker wrote himself, so it wasn't a major concern for me, but it might bother some Barker fans. I was also put off by some of the speech patterns/behavior of Pinhead, which seemed very un-Pinhead-like. (Canon or not, after seeing all of those HELLRAISER films, and reading hundreds of Pinhead comics, you really don't expect the stoic, composed character to jump up and beat the hell of of an old woman like a common mugger.)

 Probably the saddest thing I can say about THE SCARLET GOSPELS was that it was profoundly boring. By the midway point, it became a chore to keep going, and considering how eagerly anticipated this book was, that's pretty bad. If this were a novel by a lesser-known author, I would have put it down for good around page 175. There are flashes of the Barker of old here, but, on the whole, this reminded me of an outline by a deceased author that was polished up and finished by a lesser talent. As much as I'd like to, I just can't recommend this book, even to fellow Barker fanatics.

 St. Martin's Press provided a review copy.

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