The Scarlet Gospels is Clive Barker’s long awaited return to horror fiction. The Cenobite Hell Priest known as Pinhead has been killing off Earth’s magicians in a relentless quest for power to help conquer Hell. Meanwhile Private Investigator Harry D’Amour has been helping out the dead with the assistance of his business associate blind medium Norma Paine. When a case brings D’Amour face to face with Pinhead the Hell Priest makes him an offer when this offer is rebuked the Hell Priest drags Norma to Hell with him leaving D’Amour to go through Hell – literally – to save her
The odd thing that some may not know is despite being Clive Barker’s most well known creation the Cenobite known as Pinhead has only featured in one short story ‘The Hellbound Heart’. This short story provided the basis for the film ‘Hellraiser’, which would not only make for a notable directorial film debut from Barker due to its nightmarish visuals but also be the start of the character’s association with British actor Doug Bradley who would become an icon of horror cinema thanks to his intimidating presence and memorable performance going on to feature as the character in several inferior sequels.
Harry D’Amour is a P.I who deals with the weird and supernatural and unlike Pinhead has featured in several of Barker’s stories first appearing in short story ‘The Last Illusion’. This story provided the blueprint for the film ‘Lord Of Illusions’ Barker’s third film as director which featured Scott Bakula as D’Amour. Short version The Scarlet Gospels is good, very good and one of the best things about it is readers don’t have to be familiar with Barker’s other books to enjoy this story, which is a great selling point for anyone that might be familiar with Barker through his films rather than his books.
Barker’s writing has a reputation for the imaginative and the grotesque and there is ample demonstration of both here. An atmospheric prologue that will undoubtedly serve as nightmare fuel for some sets things up in a particularly brutal manner before the narrative proper starts.
The narrative is initially split between the two principal characters D’Amour’s has a noirish feel in a world the Barker introduces matter of factly, the dead much like the living are everywhere but only the gifted can see them and it’s the dead that make up the bulk of his and Norma’s clients. D’Amour is haunted by nightmarish memories of his past with a flashback that is particularly disturbing in a way that only Barker could pull off. D’Amour finds himselftaking on a new case on behalf of one of the dead which goes rather awry. The other narrative is that of Pinhead who is in the midst of his own grand plan.
I found myself hearing Bradley’s recognisable voice in my head reading Pinhead’s dialogue such is the association between the actor and the character. There’s a potent charge to the inevitability of the two crossing paths. This is prime Clive Barker it’s visceral, terrifying, imaginative and fantastical in equal parts. The narrative is not only engrossing but compelling and incredibly atmospheric. One of the most impressive feats here is Barker’s Hell which comes with its own geography and hierarchical society far removed from what you might expect.
The Scarlet Gospels was undoubtedly at risk of collapsing under the expectations placed upon it by a fanbase that has grown exponentially but Barker is a much more accomplished and nuanced writer now than when he wrote Hellbound Heart originally published in the mid 80’s and it shows.