Sometimes, making a name for yourself, whether in Hell or in writing, can be a double edged sword.
Sure, there’s all that warm and fuzzy “going-where-everybody-knows-your-name” type stuff.. But along with the good comes the not so good. Or perhaps more accurately, what comes with success is the increasing pressure of meeting and exceeding expectations when you (the author) and your literary creation are synonymous with a whole generation of sophisticated horror and subversive humor.
Living up to those expectations while at the same time changing the impressions of people who think they know you is a task unto itself. A task which horror legend, Clive Barker, attempts with abandon in his new novel, The Scarlet Gospels (St. Martins Press), his first novel length adults-only offering since 2007. In the novel, Barker provides his long-suffering fan base a final coda dealing his most well known mind-child, the beloved S&M Cenobite anti-hero of print and screen, Pinhead.
Except, much to our surprise, we find out that good ol’ Pinny (along with Barker) absolutely hates that nickname... In fact, in The Scarlet Gospels, we find out despite nearly thirty years of being known as the demon with the hardware store facial, we should have been calling him the Hell-Priest (don’t forget the hyphen).
Well, geez... That sort of puts a damper on things. It’s kinda like calling, Rupert, your best friend from the fifth grade, “Clarence” for 28 years.
Getting one’s due is at the core of Barker’s motivation in Gospels. In fact, the novel begins with Pin...err, the Hell-Priest teaching a familiar assortment of sorcerers an object lesson about standing in way of what he wants. Namely, absolute proof that the Priest is biggest and baddest son-of-the abyss that has ever sent an innocent soul shrieking into oblivion.
The Priest means business, gentle folk. To the extent that his master plan, hatched over the course of his last several appearances in film and print, involves him wreaking havoc on his own Cenobite order with the ultimate goal of solving Hell’s ultimate mystery. And creating a brand new, bloody litany all of his own.
Just like any good guru, the Hell-Priest needs disciples. The most important of which proves to be another familiar face to long time Barker readers, Harry D’Amour ( The Last Illusion, Everville). Clive’s supernatural detective is drawn into the sphere of the Priest’s schemes by the less-than-honest machinations of a newly dead, New Orleans-loving, secret sadist, leading to an uncovering of yet another edition of the world’s worst puzzle box.
As one might imagine, gory terror and hilarity ensues as Barker, once again, inverts the Stephen King formula of “extraordinarily ordinary” people teaming up to stop evil with his own gender and sexual orientation tweaking flair. Don’t worry, however, you horror loving completists, Barker still finds room for the prerequisite Mysterious Strongman (sorta) and the equally necessary Magical Negro.
For some segments of Clive’s diehards, there will be an old rush of the familiar, coupled with knowing fan service to long time favorite moments from The Hellbound Heart and the Hellraiser film series. (Look for the “Jesus Wept” nudge and wink early on in the proceedings.)
And that perhaps sums up the biggest issue that The Scarlet Gospels is forced to carry like Sisyphus. Namely, the almost unimaginable burden of being as good as Barker was at the top of his game.
And quite a top it was. When he burst onto the scene in the 1980’s, Barker shook the gate like almost no one since, catapulting himself next to the Horror Writing Trinity of King, Straub and Rice seemingly overnight. It wasn’t just shorts and novellas, of course, but films and plays and art, single handedly changing the equation of what a horror themed creative could accomplish. He essentially created the modern market for British Horror and Suspense on this side of the Pond, making what Moore, Morrison and Ellis did palatable to an American audience. He was Neil Gaiman before Neil Gaiman.
But given the myriad of personal and professional obstacles Barker has encountered in the past number of years it’s not a surprise that much of Gospels performs like the abandoned building machines that our harrowed heroes encounter on their inevitable journey into Hell... Clunky, with signs of rust.
It’s not that Gospels is fully a bad novel. In fact, there’s a lot to like about its component parts. The return of the lavish gore descriptions made famous in the Books of Blood, the ever quotable mayhem of Pin-Priest, one of the most disgusting menaces to ever come out of a imaginary water faucet, a protagonist who truly rises above his damaged past.
But noting the highs of the novel only accentuates the visible problems with a narrative that runs perhaps 80 pages too long and ultimately leaves its heroes on the sidelines as the ultimate plan of Pin-Priest is far to lofty and cosmic for mere mortals. The final denouement features some speechifying that would have been over the top for Stan Lee in the 70’s. There’s also some strangely wooden brutality in the book, culminating with a truly unfortunate death sequence for one of our heroes. The exchange that takes places almost made me wonder if Barker had been prepping to write the great Susan Lucci comeback vehicle.
It gives me no pleasure to sort out the unpleasant entrails this particular offering. I count myself as a respectful enthusiast of Barker’s work and in the back of my reviewing heart I had hoped Gospels was going to be a round tripper for him. Everyone who has followed his health and other personal struggles knows how close we came to never getting this novel.
In many ways, I hope it sells through the roof for him. And inspires him to get back on the writing horse as soon as humanly possible. Because I believe that a much better novel is still in the inner working of this man. One that will be a worthier heir to The Great and Secret Show, Imajica and Mister B. Gone than this uneven reboot. He hints at some interesting threads in the playing out of Gospels. Threads that, by any measure of fairness, will make for a more fulfilling sequel.
He’s always been an acquired taste, but at his best, he was a taste that one couldn’t possibly ignore. Hopefully, it will just take a few turns of the puzzle box to see Barker get back on his game.
Until that happens, make sure you update your contact list and ringtone for everyone’s favorite chain-wielding sadist. The worst fate for this Judas Priest would be to make his final bow as Hell’s version of Rodney Dangerfield.
Top image: Scarlet Gospels artwork by Carlos Garcia. Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Barker’s most recent book for adults was Coldheart Canyon, which came out in 2001, not 2011. In fact, his most recent previous book for adults was in 2007.