Book Review: The Scarlet Gospels

The Scarlet Gospels
Publisher: St. Martins’ Press
Cost: $19.88 (Hardcover)/$12.99 (Kindle)
Page Count: 368
Release Date: 05/19/2015
Get it Here: Amazon.com

I’ve always been a huge fan of Clive Barker’s writing, comics and movies. Chief amongst them all has been Hellraiser. I loved the first two movies and even some of the bad ones have shining moments – generally due to the incredible portrayal of the lead Cenobite, Pinhead by Doug Bradley. The novella the franchise was based on, The Hellbound Heart was an excellent read, but notably different from the movie in many ways. Still, I devoured it. When I was in High School I discovered the Hellraiser put out by Epic, an imprint from Marvel Comics. These were amazing. Not only did Barker give these comics his blessing, but some of the best authors and artists in the industry teamed up to give their take on the Cenobites and the work of Phillip LeMarchand. Neil Gaimain and Dave McKean’s Wordsworth for example, taught me the word Coprophilia and that human flesh tasted like pork. I even owned a Lament Configuration. Mike Mignolia, the Warchoskis and even Clive Barker himself contributed to the series, creating characters, terminology and a mythology that outgrew even the movies and is still referenced to this day. This series would be followed up by three successive BOOM! Comics series. While not as good as the Epic run, the BOOM! Comics were a lot of fun and gave us an entirely new continuity separate from the Epic line and saw both Kirsty Cotton and Harry D’Amour play major roles at enemies and even unwilling allies of Pinhead and his master, Leviathan.

On the flip side we have Harry D’Amour. I enjoyed The Last Illusion from Books of Blood and his cameo in The Great and Secret Show but his was Barker’s novel Everville where the character really took center stage as Barker’s main protagonist. To be honest, I always well D’Amour was like John Constantine-lite as a kid and it wasn’t until Barker’s own cinematic adaption of The Last Illusion into Lord of IllusionsQuantum Leap fans) and Kevin O’Connor and Famke Janssen were fantastic too. Of course, one can’t deny the incredible job done by the recently departed Daniel Von Bargen as Nyx either. It was this film that I think best showcases Barker’s love for Harry D’Amour and what the character is all about. I feel a little dirty recommending the movie over one of Barker’s novels but he DID write the screenplay for Lord of Illusions so it’s not like I’m saying something horrifying like Hellraiser: Hellworld is better than The Hellbound Heart. It’s not. Laugh at anyone who thinks that by the way.

I bring all of this up because the book I am reviewing today, The Scarlet Gospels is something Clive Barker has been trying to write for a decade and a half. It is the story of Pinhead Vs. Harry D’Amour. An ultimate act of fan service in every way, The Scarlet Gospels is something I first remember hearing about in the late 90s or early 00’s and have never stopped wanting to see the final product. Well I was sent an advance review copy and completely devoured it. Of course, technically this meeting has already happened in the Boom! Comics and so I re-read them on a flight from Washington D.C. to Seattle to see if this would be a sequel or novelization of the comics – especially since the press blurb that came with the book mentioned a companion comic book mini-series to go with the novel.

Surprisingly to me, the Boom! Comics are a completely different continuity from the book. Indeed, every version of these characters that has come before The Scarlet Gospels are not part of the continuity or canon of this book. It is unaffiliated with the movie, either comic run or even previous takes on the characters from Barker’s own books. This Pinhead here is not the same one I read about in The Hellbound Heart twenty years ago (and many, many times thereafter) and the same can be said for D’Amour. This is an alternate universe of sorts where the two franchise characters have different pasts and personalities than have been written for them. For all intents and purposes, these are two VERY different characters that just happen to have the same name and physical appearance of ones you have read before. If you go into The Scarlet Gospels not knowing or accepting this, you will be disappointed, confused, angry, lost or some combination of the aforementioned feelings. I had to read the book a second time without any of my preconceived notions or prejudices in place to appreciate the book for what it was. So if you expect this to be Doug Bradley vs Scott Bakula or any other take on D’Amour and Pinhead, DON’T. You are just setting yourself up for sadness. You might actually be better off if this is your first exposure to both characters as you will be reading the book for what it is and not for the hype you have built up for yourself.

That said there are numerous references to previous incarnations of these characters besides their names and appearances. However they are homages or subtle wink’s to completionists and/or the most hardcore Barker fans. You’ll see the term “Harrowers” come up for D’Amour’s group of hellblazing (literally) companions. This term was originated by Barker in the Epic Comics Hellraiser continuity back in the 90s as a group of humans that actively fight Cenobites. It also shows up in the Boom! Series under the leadership of Kirsty Cotton, with the same purpose, but very different characters and motivations. Cenobites like Chatterer and Butterball get cameos but much like Pinhead, they have completely different personalities and backgrounds. There is a very vague “read it too fast and you’ll miss it” reference to Nyx, but that is really it. These references, homages and subtle bits of fan service are meant to be rewards to Barker’s most devoted fans – almost a puzzle of their own for you to piece together on some level. However, by having completely different characterization, backgrounds, personalities and continuity from the earlier takes on these characters, the assorted references serve to confuse or taunt readers more than reward them. Perhaps paying to close attention to them is akin to wielding the Lament Configuration. Pleasure and pain all in one downward spiral.

There are huge differences in The Scarlet Gospels continuity that you need to be aware of two. First, Pinhead is not Pinhead in name. No, Pinhead is an insulting term that only serves to antagonist the lead antagonist. Indeed the character is never truly name (despite Barker’s promises on social media that this would take place). Instead he is referred to as simply a Cenobite or the Hell Priest, both of which there are many. Here the Cenobites are a religious order in hell, akin to Dominican Friars or whatever analogy serves you best. They are not angels to some, demons to other. They are simply a class of hell’s residents, nothing more and nothing less. As well, Hell is extremely different from not only any other version of the Hellraiser mythos, but any take Barker has done before. This is not the cold logical labyrinth of Leviathan. Nor is it the realm of feces, filth and flesh that we have seen from Barker before. In fact Hell in The Scarlet Gospels is described as a mixture of a weird parody of ancient Rome and the Midwest/Bible belt. It’s just instead of humans like you or I, the everyday joes are demons. Also spiders, flies and cockroaches are like ten times bigger than in our world. The hell is this book is essentially Earth. Only a few demons like the Hell Priest display any supernatural abilities. They bleed, poop, feel pain, cry and die exactly like a human. They just look different. For some, this will be a huge letdown or a disappointment. For others it will work really well because in many ways Barker is saying Hell is a state of mind. I have to admit I prefer the Leviathan based version of Hell to this one or the multi-layered one in the Boom Hellraiser comics, but this was an interesting take and as long as you check decades of preconceptions and previous continuities at the door (Cover?), you will enjoy this. If you want something more akin to the movies or comics, you will HATE this take on hell.

It’s also worth noting here than Pinhead is not the silver tongue one-liner spewer than Doug Bradley has made him into. He is not an alluring anti-hero at times, terrifying creature beyond human fathoming the next. Instead, this Cenobite that bears the visage of the movie Pinhead (but not that of The Hellbound Heart lead cenobite – different “pins”). Instead he is pretty much a religiously zealous thug. He is prone to acts of simple wanton violence throughout the book. He is more one to use fists and feet rather than meathook and verbiage to best his enemies. The hooks do come into play on rare occasion in the book, but more to trap people in locations or on himself. (Again, this is a not any Pinhead you have encountered before. Think of it all the Steve Jacksons in the world, some of whom even look alike.) D’Amour is also more physically and verbally aggressive than in previous incarnations. He is more likely to hit a demon than use his renowned cunning and experience to defeat it. In some ways, the two lead characters of The Scarlet Gospels are as if they are viewed through the lens of director Michael Bay rather than their classic 90s incarnation. Which again is fine if you go into the novel knowing this. Longtime fans of the Doug Bradley version of Pinhead will most likely be angry or disgusted by how base and unimaginative his acts of violence are here.

So now that we have rid ourselves of all the preconceptions from previous incarnations of Barker’s characters, canon and continuity, we can begin to talk about the actual Scarlet Gospels novel itself. The novel is essentially an excuse to pit a new version of Pinhead against a new version of D’amour against each other. That much is painstakingly and transparently obvious. You know what though, fan service can be exceptionally well done sometimes. Look at the classic 80’s X-Men Vs. The Teen Titans. That was a terrific graphic novel that still holds up today. I’m not sure about The Scarlet Gospels though because while it is a good read, it is a novel far removed from what nearly everyone expected which is going to cause some fan rage.

The novel begins with Pinhead slowly but surely killing all of Earth’s mages and harvesting their secrets and artifacts for his own use. The novel begins with the setup of something reminiscent of the cinematic version of the character, but it quickly changes gears to show you that this is a completely different Pinhead in all ways but visual appearance. Meanwhile Harry D’Amour’s side of the novel involves flashbacks to his young adulthood and time as a cop until he is contacted by a ghost with a mission for him. That missions brings Pinhead and D’Amour together for the first time in THIS universe, although as mentioned they interacted a lot in the BOOM! Hellraiser comic series and in an excised chapter of this book where the two meet during Harry’s childhood at a boarding religious school. The only reference to that point in Harry’s life is a trite bit of him being raped/molested there. I should go off tangent and bring up that roughly half the book’s original page count is missing from the final version of The Scarlet Gospels including many things and events Barker has talked about publicly for a decade. Whether that has hurt or hindered the book we will never know unless a “Director’s Cut.” People who have been following the saga of this book will definitely notice that it feels expurgated or like there are huge gaps in the narrative and characterization, while those who aren’t ardent followers of all things Barkers will enjoy the book for what it is rather than lament on all the cool stuff that has fallen to the wayside. There is a secret song in the center of this book and its sound is like razors through flesh…or an editor’s red marker through the original draft of this text.

For some reason Pinhead really wants D’Amour. Not dead mind you, but for a very important mission. Why does it have to be D’Amour? The book never gives a reason why. Perhaps the missing chapters that explain Pinhead’s ties to a young Harry would clear this up, but because of their absence we are left with no reason at all save that the author has deemed D’Amour to be of incomparable value to the Hell Priest. You just have to go with it. Much like many aspects of the novel. This is not great literature, but it is still fun. Repeat the credo of MST3K while reading this book except replace the word “film” with “book.”

So what is this mission the unnamed Cenobite is on? I don’t want to give any real spoilers but let us say he is on a religious pilgrimage of sorts. Pinhead seeks his maker and to utterly change the landscape of Hell. Unfortunately this means Harry and a group of his friends are along for the ride. Half of the book is setup for the journey to hell and the other half is surviving and escaping it. Like any Barker book, not all of the humans that accompany Harry make it out of hell unscathed, but this hell is far more banal than what you would expect. There is no madness and torment everlasting to be had – nor even some Lovecraftian awareness about reality and man’s place within it. No, as mentioned earlier, Hell is just another place in the universe. It is no more or no less frightening than a trip to the moon or less sanity taxing than what super heroes face in their four color monthly pulp magazines.

It must be said that The Scarlet Gospels is NOT a horror novel. Anyone that tells you it is, is not only wrong, but they obviously haven’t read the book. At no point will you be horrified or terrified by the events that take place in these pages. You might feel a bit of repulsion or disgust from the occasional light description of gore and rape, but Barker does not go overboard in these areas and leaves much of it to the imagination of the reader. You will not be scared or have nightmares from this book. Again, The Scarlet Gospels is not a horror novel and at no point does it try to be. The book is closer to a dark adventure/fantasy hybrid but in truth the book is primarily a character study of the two main characters. Much of the book is spent inside the heads of Harry and the Hell Priest. It is a look at what makes them tick and drives them to the insane extreme actions they take. This is an in-depth look at two very different beings and what makes them who they are. The Scarlet Gospels is about as much a Horror Novel as Dowton Abbey or the film Amadeus. In both of those aforementioned products you have vividly described scenery, occasional bits of gore, some death and of course, terrible people doing terrible things, but the core is about the drama and relationship between characters. Amadeus is perhaps a really good analogy for The Scarlet Gospels, but it’s up to you which character is Mozart and which is Salieri. I would say the roles switch regularly between D’Amour and Pinhead until the climax of the book when Pinhead is most definitely Salieri, a new “diabolus ex machina” takes on the role of Mozart and Harry is kind of left as a narrator/confessor to the whole affair. If you go into The Scarlet Gospels expecting Barker’s usual horror writing style, you will not know what to make of this book. If you go in thinking more along the lines of his fantasy or wanting to see Barker really focus on the mindset and personalities of two distinct characters more much of his word count, you will be quite impressed by what is here. Again, this is NOT a horror novel nor scary in anyway. This is not a bad thing, just a continuing trend within the book of it being something completely different from what the target audience is both expecting and wanting. This is a well-written, disturbing and imaginative novel, but it is more in line with the morality plays of “olden tymes” than the horror and viscera one normally associates with Barker’s name.

In the end, neither D’Amour nor the Hell Priest make it out of The Scarlet Gospels in any form close to what they started the book. I will tease you with the revelation that one doesn’t make it out alive, while the other is given an entirely new outlook on life by the other. Both characters also get what they primarily wanted out of this little adventure in hell, although the core of the novel seems to be “what you thought you wanted doesn’t always turn out to be the case once you have it.”

So is The Scarlet Gospels worth purchasing? That’s hard to say. I’ve read the book twice now and had two different reactions to the piece. If you are a Hellraiser fan, you will be disappointed by the portrayal of Pinhead here, doubly so because it is Barker of all people turning the character into something far different from how he has ever written him before. That said, this is because it IS a far different take on Pinhead than Barker has ever written before, outside any of the previous continuities. You may be better off sticking with the films and comics. The same can be said for readers who are passionate about Harry D’Amour. This is not the same D’Amour by any stretch of the imagination and so the more you love the character, the less you will probably like the version of him presented in the book here. If you are new to Barker or his most famous creations, you will probably enjoy this book far more as you are free of preconceptions of how they should be. Those new to Barker will find this to be an entertaining dark fantasy affair where the emphasis is more on the inner workings of the protagonist and antagonist than any action of long running trend of death and violence. The Scarlet Gospels is going to be a very polarizing piece, not just for Barker fans, but for fans of the different franchises spawned by Barker’s imagination. One of the times I read the book I was profoundly disappointed because it was nothing like what I felt it should have been. Then I read the book forcing myself to divorce myself from all that I know about the characters and how Barker usually writes and I found myself really liking the story for what it is. The one thing that both reads had in common though was the fact it felt like there were huge chunks of the book missing, which in fact, there are. I would love to have an unedited version before the editors got a hold of this. As such I can’t say The Scarlet Gospels is amongst Barker’s best works, but it is also by no means in his worst. It is a compelling and entertaining read, but I’m not sure who the target audience for this actually is because if anything, The Scarlet Gospels will polarize many a fan to argue with each other across the Internet about the pros and cons of this novel. My best advice would be to try the novel and if you don’t like it, get the BOOM! Comic series for Barker’s take on Pinhead Vs. D’Amour in the Hellraiser continuity. You might like that better, especially if you’re strongly attached to the Doug Bradley version of Pinhead. All in all, I would say The Scarlet Gospels is a must read for many, but a must read for very few.

Pain and pleasure, indivisible with only the reader’s perceptions and taste determining which side one falls on. In many ways The Scarlet Gospels is a Cenobite itself.