The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

A review of the supernatural horror novel The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker.

The Scarlet Gospels is a horror story that is both hideously gruesome and immensely fun. Clive Barker brings two of his most celebrated characters together and pits them against each other in a battle of wits and magic. The protagonist is Harry D’Amour, a paranormal detective and former police officer who can sense the supernatural. He has appeared in a few of Barker’s stories, but here he really comes into his own. That could well be because his antagonist is the legendary Pinhead.

Following on from his seminal novella The Hellbound Heart, Clive Barker wrote and directed its film adaptation, Hellraiser. That spawned a notably successful franchise of sequels, comics, tie-ins and merchandise that permeated popular culture and brought Barker’s visions of Hell to the fore. The one element that particularly displeased Barker following his departure from the series was the moniker of his lead Cenobite, who he never intended to name. Pinhead, as he has come to be known, is a wonderful villain, but the epithet became Barker’s pet peeve. That, amongst many other things, is addressed in the Scarlet Gospels.

The story is one of two perspectives and styles. Whilst Pinhead (or the Hell Priest, as he is here called, other than the occasional jab at the loathed nickname) is a horror story spliced with dark magical fantastica, the world of Harry D’Amour is noir-esque magical realism. What is truly engaging about the story is the setting: instead of having the supernatural encroach on the real world, Barker sets his tale outside of our realm completely, with modern day normality instead being the element that intrudes.

The narrative begins with the Hell Priest gathering magicians and stealing their knowledge and books. These are not stage performers, but rather genuine sorcerers with power that can be acquired. The Hell Priest, not content with torturing those who open the Lament Configuration and summon the Cenobites, has decided to increase his power to find and confront the great (and missing) Lucifer himself, to gain insight into his own soul. D’Amour, on the other hand, has travelled from New York to New Orleans on assignment, where he encounters the Hell Priest. From that first moment, or even before, their paths are linked, and so begins both their quests. The Hell Priest takes D’Amour’s friend (an elderly blind woman) to Hell to coax the detective into witnessing his ascent (or descent) to meet Lucifer; D’Amour travels to Hell to rescue her, with a motley crew of psychics and miscreants in tow.

It sounds bizarre, and it is, but that is not to say this is a poorly-written acid trip. The characterisation is strong, the mythology incredibly detailed, and the horror grotesque. The plot powers forward and Barker’s mildly formal prose, whilst old-fashioned, quickly dissipates as he writes with a natural rhythm. There are moments of pure disgust, but there is also a lot of fun between the book’s covers. The Scarlet Gospels is as entertaining as it is vile, and that is quite a feat.

Originally from Thanet, J A DuMairier enjoys writing and long walks in the country.

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