THE SCARLET GOSPELS (2015) – Written by Clive Barker, or I guess I should make that “Written by Clive Barker” (wink). I notice from other reviews of this disappointing novel that I’m far from alone in thinking Barker wrote only the Prologue and a ghost writer completed the work. Probably Damon Lindelöf. (I’m kidding!)
How do you go wrong with a novel featuring Barker’s recurring Occult Detective Harry D’Amour taking on the Hell Priest aka Pinhead (or “Lead Cenobite” as he was known to the ancients. Hellraiser fans will get it.)? How do you do it? With horrific writing that is worse than most fan fiction, that’s how.
Let’s start with the good: the Prologue. This prologue is so tantalizingly good that the jarring plunge in quality the rest of the way makes reading The Scarlet Gospels feel like some exquisitely refined brand of torture being pioneered by the Cenobites and their Order of the Gash.
We begin with a fugitive band of actual, powerful magicians both male and female, who have just restored life to the corpse of a man named Ragowski. Despite his name, Ragowski is not a high-energy prop comic but is instead the most capable and charismatic fellow practitioner of these magicians. The assembled handful of mages are holed up in Ragowksi’s mausoleum, fearing their impending doom.
Dialogue lets us know that the Hell Priest/ Pinhead has been traveling the world for years torturing the secrets of magic out of all true masters of mysticism before killing them. He knocked off Ragowski two years earlier because he knew that this man was the only one whose leadership qualities might be able to rally the remaining disparate, often rival magicians into a united front against the Cenobite.
Ragowski relates how the Hell Priest used his hooks and chains on the magician’s anatomy to force him to reveal all his secrets of magic and the location of any mystical tomes and relics he had acquired over the years. The Cenobite, for unknown reasons, seems determined to accumulate every scrap of magical knowledge in the world.
The resurrected mystic advises his former colleagues that their only hope may lie in telling the Hell Priest everything they know about the magic arts and giving him a list of all their hidden paraphernalia. Desperate to avoid the painful, tortuous deaths suffered by their fellow practitioners around the world the terrified handful of magicians begin frantically scribbling those lists as the pursuing Cenobite starts penetrating the mystical defenses of the mausoleum.
Callously, the writing mages ignore Ragowski’s increasingly panicked pleas to be released back into death. He eventually resorts to begging, horrified at the thought of being tortured to death a second time by the Hell Priest. His desperate pleas go ignored by his former friends, who are concerned only with their own fates.
Soon the Cenobite has burst all the way into the mausoleum and begins employing his hooks and chains in the usual way to attack the gathering of magicians. Fascinatingly enough, Ragowski gets more characterization in these few pages than anyone else gets the rest of the novel.
Even though we readers know the fearful, panic-stricken state he was in prior to the Hell Priest’s successful penetration of the mausoleum, we get a look at his strength and leadership qualities. He alone of the assembled mages – despite having already suffered a traumatic death at the Cenobite’s hands – remains defiant, hurling insults at the infernal figure, betraying no sign of his inner terror.
Ragowski even resorts to what the opening narration has established as the most “blasphemous” affront of all to this notorious figure: he mocks him with the hated nickname Pinhead. The gutsy sorcerer thus invites upon himself an even more gruesome death than he suffered the first time around at Pinhead’s hands but is defiant to the last. He even taunts the Hell Priest by pointing out that he’ll be dead soon but the Cenobite will STILL be Pinhead.
The other magicians prove to be cowards and worse as Pinhead reveals that he already has all the mystic knowledge he needs and is now simply killing off all the world’s magicians so that no one will be left who knows how to fight him. The Cenobite inflicts various physical and psychological tortures and graphic humiliations upon these last victims.
In an especially flinch-inducing maneuver Pinhead causes the womb of the eldest female to fill with some form of demonic offspring. This child – a female – swells up to nearly adult size, rending her mother’s body to pieces as she is born. She then nurses on the blood from her dead mother’s breasts.
Wondering what Clive Barker has in mind for this monstrous humanoid that the Cenobite brought into being? Well the joke’s on YOU! This book is so ineptly put together that the narrative forgets all about this creature and no further reference is made to her.
I’m not joking. You can even find bits online in which people posted confused questions about what became of the demon-spawn, fearing they might have missed something in the book. Nope.
Well, that’s it for the entertaining part of The Scarlet Gospels. All quality now disappears as thoroughly as Pinhead’s makeshift “daughter.” We move on to Harry D’Amour and his friends.
I’m not up on all the D’Amour stories so at first I thought I might be missing hidden depths in Harry’s menagerie of acquaintances. Unfortunately not.
A lost spirit communicates with Norma, Harry’s elderly, black and blind friend who talks to the dead. D’Amour’s other allies are Lana, a feisty young woman who is there to be his intended love interest, plus Caz and Dale, two gay stereotypes who seem like they were written around 1986.
Through the aforementioned lost spirit the Cenobite uses one of the puzzle-boxes of LeMerchand to lure Harry into his plans. He is about to launch his master plan to find Lucifer, who disappeared long ago, and he wants D’Amour – who is notorious in Hell because of his past victories over the forces of darkness – to witness and chronicle the proceedings.
This chronicle would presumably be the Scarlet Gospels of the title. Pinhead kidnaps blind Norma and uses her as bait to force Harry, Lana, Caz and Dale to follow him into Hell so that D’Amour will fulfill the role our villain has chosen for him.
Get ready for the lamest version of Hell ever put on paper! As presented here, Hell is less frightening than Detroit. There are streets, neighborhoods, boring municipal politics and a roaming police force. Wait … What? No, it’s not an R. Crumb drawing of a “funky” metropolitan Inferno, but it comes across like that.
The most poorly thought-out aspect of Barker’s Hell is the fact that damned souls all feel their suffering strictly in physical terms, as if they all still had their bodies. They can even die. Wait … What? This novel had more “Wait … What?” moments than any other book I’ve ever read. But then I’ve never read the Twilight series.
Harry and his friends – grandly called the Harrowers as in the Harrowing of Hell – wander around the Pit and crack jokes like they’re in a Michael Bay movie. Yep, nothing makes you feel the terrors of Hell like having the characters not take it seriously.
Fortunately they speak English in Hell. Wait … What? Yes, they speak English. I thought at first that it was some supernatural thing where demons can make themselves understood in all the tongues of humanity but no. The demons speak English even when saying things TO EACH OTHER … including things they don’t want the invading Harrowers to hear.
Anyway the Harrowers trail Pinhead to an island in a Hellish lake. Along the way some demons sacrifice other demons by slitting their throats, causing them to die. Wait … What? If you thought it was puzzling wondering what happens to the damned who “die” in Hell then try to wrap your mind around the way this tale presents demons themselves possessing physical forms which can be killed.
Where do you go if you “die” in Hell? Barker apparently neither knows nor cares, which makes you wonder why he even introduced the concept into the proceedings.
SPOILERS: Pinhead’s original plan was to find Lucifer and learn what he could from him. If handled with Clive Barker’s usual skill this could have played out like an ingenious parallel with Frank’s anxious desire to contact the Cenobites in The Hellbound Heart.
Just as Frank had exhausted sexual sensation with men, women, children, corpses and animals and longed for more, we could have been presented with a Hell Priest who had exhausted all the secrets of mystical knowledge from his magician victims and longed for more.
The main reason I think that might have been the author’s intention is the way Pinhead ponders how he will handle the meeting with Lucifer and if he will be required to pay worship or debase himself to please the entity. Just like Frank’s fearful contemplation of the Cenobites and their Order of the Gash.
At any rate it turns out Lucifer has committed suicide. Wait … What? The vast cathedral where Pinhead and later the Harrowers find Lucifer is really an elaborate piece of architectural sorcery in which even Lucifer could die, at last ending his eternal torment.
As the Cenobite says “The King is dead … Long live the King” and Pinhead plans to replace Lucifer as the new monarch of Hell. He will then lead the infernal hosts in an assault on Heaven in a move even Maldoror would appreciate.
Naturally we never get anything that spectacular in this book. It turns out Lucifer has been resurrected (Wait … What?) by Pinhead’s meddling and the pair clash. Ultimately all of Hell is destroyed and Lucifer – who is only eight feet tall (Wait … What?) escapes bodily. Wait … What?
We readers are told Heaven still exists but Hell is gone forever, so who knows where evil souls go now. Pinhead dies with a whimper, not a roar. Lucifer picks up a hot babe and moves to New York City (Wait … What?) to pursue a life of his own, free of the Lordship of the Abyss. (Setting up a Clive Barker sitcom in which Lucifer becomes a pro basketball player with the New York Knicks and tries to adjust to life among humans. I’m kidding!)
I’ll leave out all spoilers regarding Harry and his yawn-inducing Harrowers in case you want to seek out this book and read it to flagellate yourself for your own sins.
If anyone had told me that Clive Barker of all people would present such a mundane and unchallenging vision of Hell I wouldn’t have believed it. Dante can rest easy since the only man who might have rivaled him in describing a journey through the Pit has whiffed on the opportunity.
The Scarlet Gospels is the written word equivalent of what Ridley Scott did to Alien with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. +++
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