I waited nine years for this book, and I'm still not completely sure it was worth it.
It's a good book, to be sure. And I didn't give up on it the same way I gave up on, say, Abarat (which is a huge rant I will deploy at another time. Maybe for post 200) by the same author. And, let's be honest, any meeting between Harry D'amour (the detective from Great and Secret Show and Lord of Illusions*) and the being people can't help but refer to as "Pinhead" (Him what was in the Hellraiser series**) would be final for one of them, if not both. But I couldn't help feeling like this was possibly a tired and annoyed farewell to his work, melding the dark, beautiful fantasy of his later works (D'amour's dominion) with the brutal, gruesome horror of his earlier works (you know who) in an effort to put them all to bed for good.
I'm not quite sure if it's just because I expected a four to five hundred page doorstopper about the ultimate battle between the reluctant champion of humanity and Barker's most terrifying agent of change, or because it dealt a final blow to stories I hoped would continue and I'm being entitled and pissy. Maybe it's that Barker took one of my favorite characters and flung them in a new direction. But either way, the book annoyed me.
If you're in the mood for a vivid, twisted fantasy involving a team of occult investigators in Hell, great. If you're in the mood for some of the most fucked-up scenes in horror outside of maybe the Edward Lee crowd***, you're in the right place. But I don't believe this'll go on the shelf next to Imajica, The Great and Secret Show, Books of Blood, and Everville.
More, as always, below.
- The Priest
The Hell Priest is on the rise. The being, more commonly known as "Pinhead" much to its chagrin, a name that earns its users a free disemboweling via unnervingly large fish hook, is collecting magic for some bizarre purpose, gleefully torture-murdering his way through an ancient occult society for their combined powers. He's grown tired of playing games with his boxes and humans who don't understand the world of pleasure. He wants more. He wants the big brass ring.
He wants Hell.
But his plan has a few parts that need to be ironed out. Blank spaces that need to be filled in. Things that need a decidedly human touch. And the Priest (I am going to call him the Priest, because I do not want to wake up pregnant with a devil-baby or disemboweled or with angry comments from Clive Barker) has just the person in mind. Someone with a long history with Hell. Someone whose job it is to watch and follow and won't flinch from what he has in store for existence.
Someone like Harry D'amour.
Harry, meanwhile, has found an equilibrium for himself. He's not happy, no one with his history of nightmares and exorcisms would be. His life has made him a lot of odd circumstances, a few friends and enemies, and an extensive collection of protective tattoos (Kadrey did it better.). He's wary, but he doesn't think anything of it when he's asked by the ghost of a businessman to investigate the remains of his house. He also doesn't think anything of it when that businessman runs a creepy occult sex ring (dammit, Barker) that might be the reason behind his death. He's paranoid, running all the usual wards, but it isn't until he finds the ornate puzzle box (yes, that one) open and chiming its little tunes on the floor, warded from his interference as the doorway to Hell slowly opens. After a brutal battle with a gibbering half-headed sorcerer, Harry awakes to find that the Priest has a job for him: Watching his ascent in Hell. When Harry understandably tells the Priest to get bent, the Priest kidnaps his blind psychic friend and drags her to Hell, forcing Harry and a motley band of allies to go rescue her.
Because while God doesn't have a plan, and it's possible Satan doesn't, the Priest definitely does. And he will do whatever is necessary to ensure his captive audience sees.
So, first, the good. Barker's universe has always been compelling, and while Scarlet Gospels borrows less from the bizarre and utterly alien geometries of his books and more from the kind of conventional versions of Hell seen in the later Hellraiser movies, it still packs a lot of awesome visuals, the kind of thing that might occur if one took some downers and fell asleep watching a The Cell/Hellraiser double feature. In particular, I loved the Quo'oto, a gigantic lake-dwelling centipede with a human face and rows of venom-tipped needle-sharp teeth. When it shows up, it absolutely dwarfs everything else on the page, both in scale and sheer aesthetic.
In fact, Harry's journey through Hell could make for its own book, being less epic and full of fancy than Imajica, but adhering to the same lines. Barker really lets his imagination run loose here, but at the same time makes significant callbacks to previous works. The Inquisition headquarters in Hell bears a certain resemblance to the Hell Temple in "Down, Satan!" and the Priest even kills a recognizable Cenobite or two from the films. Hell is also a masochist's paradise, from the man who seems to have fifth-degree burns all over his body to the description of the Chief Inquisitor as a being with jeweled scales pinned to his soft, decaying flesh to the point he looks like a lizard. Barker does a good job with the atmosphere, as well, making everything feel lavish without robbing it of menace.
But here's where everything begins to break down. Menace. Barker's villains have none. No, not even the Priest, who spends the prologue disemboweling two people, giving a third an exaggerated pregnancy, and turning the fourth into a gibbering, capering half-headed slave. But he doesn't really seem, for all his knowledge of the occult and dark arts, like he's really that nasty. In fact, halfway through the book, he's curb-stomped by Harry D'amour personally in an attempt to kidnap Nora (there are at least two or three of those), only to win at the last moment because...contractual immortality? The Priest and his subordinates never seem to terrify, and win against superior opponents mainly because of preparations we neither see nor hear about, or in some cases because shut up and get the fuck on the plot train. This is a guy who made a decorative mural a scary proposition, and one of his most recognizable villains gets...nothing.
This is compounded by the ending. That freaking ending. Where Harry, who had previously curb-stomped the Priest so hard some of those nails went in, is held at bay by powerful magics that seem to come from nowhere and, while his wards can protect him from everything (even the hooked chains from the puzzle box are kind of paused by Harry's wards), they are powerless against the Priest taking him out. Granted, there's justifiable reasons at that point for why both characters are at different power levels, but this is someone that halfway through the book, Harry beat the crap out of and lit on fire, and here he is immobilized and stuck as the Priest works his magic. And honestly, it feels like a cop-out. It feels like a way for Harry D'amour to exit the picture or be changed so much that no one ever brings him up again to Barker unless Barker wants it. Which is great for Barker, but not so much for the people reading it.
And...I understand part of that is how much I empathize with Harry, and that this is the end the creator chose for the book. It's better than the billion other ends that could have awaited him, and gives him a way out without completely closing out the story. The book ends with Hell getting what it wanted out of D'amour, D'amour still alive, and the adventure sort of continuing. That's not a bad thing. But it didn't sit well with me, and since this blog is mainly my opinionated ramblings on a variety of book-related subjects, well, I'm not going to recommend it on the strength of something I didn't like about it. Make of that what you will.
In the end, though, if you're looking for a good book by Clive Barker and don't mind the massive middle finger to his readership, or maybe if this is your first brush with one of the best neo-gothic writers on the scene, it's a pretty cool introduction to his world even as it's brutally and quickly ripped apart.
- City of the Snakes by Darren Shan
- Queen of the Dark Things by C. Robert Cargill
AND MANY OTHERS TO COME
*Originator of the oft-quoted in meatspace "I WAS BORN TO MURDER THE WORLD!" line
**Originator of the fun to quote but annoying for others "DO I LOOK LIKE SOMEONE WHO CARES WHAT GOD THINKS?!" line I think I once used when LARPing as a walking abomination
***I don't believe I have many Ed Lee fans on my blog****, but you gotta make sure.
****Or many fans, now that I've gone on unofficial hiatus for AN ENTIRE GADDAMN SUMMER.