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The Scarlet Gospels: Clive Barker kills Pinhead!


The prologue to The Scarlet Gospels dives into a flurry of blood and guts, gore and ricocheting ideas. It is compulsive reading. 

"Book One: Past Lives" of The Scarlet Gospels mashes film noir with horror and though it is not a new concept, it works beautifully. It was creepy, grisly and unsettling enough to have me unnerved when walking after dark. It is compulsive reading.

Chapter 3 in "Book Four: Fallout" of The Scarlet Gospels is one of the funniest bits of satirical writing I have ever enjoyed. It is compulsive reading.

Everything in between is very good and drags one along between the high points. Author Clive Barker is a smooth skilled writer and the descriptions are evocative and occasionally haunting. Who knew there were so many vivid ways to describe flowing blood, decaying flesh, explicit violence, uncovered lightbulbs and sexual arousal? 

If the dark fantasy elements aren't as horrific and engaging as the opening, it is more than compensated for by the reverse-Biblical structure. The protagonists journey to, literally, Hell, and Barker has a great time subverting Christian theology. The only problem being that the epic quests, battles, vistas and creatures, while perfectly delineated and presented, suffer from the same fate as a CGI climax in a film: there is lots of sound and fury but it doesn't feel real or of any consequence. Pinhead battling Lucifer is an enthralling set piece, but nowhere near as engaging as the possibility that evil magic is lurking all around us. 

I would classify myself as a Clive Barker fan, but admittedly have not read enough, or seen enough of the films, to have a sense of the universe he has created. While I visually recognize Pinhead, after all he is an ubiquitous pop culture/Halloween fixture, I had no concept of his central role in Barker's vision. Nor had I made the acquaintance of demon-hunting detective Harry D'Amour. That didn't spoil the fun of The Scarlet Gospels, nor did it leave me confused at any point. And it inspired me to acquire a copy of The Hellbound Heart, the novel in which the two first appear.

Barker drops tantalizing clues that echo in horrific and delightful ways. The pleasures of sado-masochistic sex and the concept of an eternity of torture in Hell resonates in a deliciously uncomfortable way, and, in a throwaway sentence, speculates that music is the remnants of the lost language of angels. Either idea is enough for an entire novel. There are also matter of fact gay characters (though the banter around a trans character is problematic) and a casual poly-sexual sensuality that is refreshing in the horror/dark fantasy genre.

The Scarlet Gospels won't keep you up at night in fear, but it will keep you up at night reading.