To Hell and Back: A Review of The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

Review by Billy Lyons

Published by St. Martin’s Press

Available Here

One day way back in the eighties (when I was in high school and dinosaurs roamed the earth), a friend gave me a copy of Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart. To hear him tell it, Barker was the best supernatural writer since Henry James. I doubted if such a thing was even remotely possible, but took the book anyway and promised my friend that I’d give it a try. My decision was greatly influenced by the fact that my favorite writer, Stephen King, had recently proclaimed Barker to be “the future of horror”.

The Hellbound Heart introduced the world to a brutal order of demons known as The Cenobites, and their most notorious adept, The Hell Priest (aka Pinhead). The novella spawned a hit movie along with several less-successful sequels. Its theme was a familiar one to horror fans: there is an invisible world surrounding our own, one filled with demons and devils who wait patiently for someone ignorant (or stupid) enough to pull aside the veil and allow them in to work their bloody mischief.

After reading The Hellbound Heart my feelings were mixed. While there was no doubt that Barker was one of the most innovative horror writers of the late Twentieth Century, it seemed to me that he was trying too hard, and that the brutally graphic violence and in-your-face sexuality found in The Hellbound Heart greatly overshadowed its characters, plot, and pretty much everything else. And while I have no problem with graphic violence or sex in what I read or watch, I tend to lose interest quickly if it’s merely gratuitous. As a result, I never read more than two or three of Barker’s novels. I greatly admired his creativity, but his writing just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Fast forward twenty-nine years. I’m a lot older, hopefully a little wiser, and browsing the New Arrival section of my library looking for a good book. I’m not having any luck and am just about ready to give up and go home when I see The Scarlet Gospels, Barker’s first novel since 2001, way down on the bottom shelf.

My first instinct is to pass it up, but I’m desperate for something to read, so I take it off the shelf, and just like thirty years ago, I’m persuaded to take it home on the strength of its reviews. On the book jacket are high praises from Stephen King and Peter Straub (two thirds of my own personal Horror Writing Trinity, minus Richard Matheson). Could it be possible that Barker’s writing might have matured in the thirty or so years since I’d last read him?

The answer is a resounding yes.

The Scarlet Gospels is the conclusion to the story introduced in The Hellbound Heart and features hard-boiled paranormal PI Harry D’Amour, one of Barker’s most memorable and likeable characters (D’Amour is also featured in The Last Illusion and Everville). The story begins with D’Amour in New Orleans, working what he believes to be a routine case, when he crosses paths with The Hell Priest.

It seems that Harry’s body of work, which often involves battling demons and other infernal forces, has given him a certain degree of infamy in Hell. It is for this reason that The Hell Priest seeks out D’Amour and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. He wants D’Amour to become his Witness, and chronicle his upcoming revolt against Hell’s established powers.

D’Amour refuses. This leads The Hell Priest to capture Harry’s most beloved friend and mentor, Norma Paine, and drag her into Hell, knowing that D’Amour will be forced to follow him into the Abyss in hopes of rescuing her. Harry capitulates, and along with a ragtag band of his closest friends, descends into Hell to settle the score with The Hell Priest once and for all. Along the way he comes face to face with all the considerable horrors that Hell has to offer and must fight to save not only his life, but his very soul.

The main reason why I enjoyed The Scarlet Gospels so much in comparison to Barker’s previous works is that his writing has matured to the point where he describes the grotesqueries of Hell in a more reasoned manner. It was almost as if I was reading a kinder, gentler Clive Barker.

But even though Barker’s writing has matured, be assured that it hasn’t mellowed. Not in the least. It is a book about Hell, after all. The uncompromising, unrelenting violence and gore so familiar to Barker’s fans is just as prevalent as in his earlier pieces (this is definitely not a book you want to read on your lunch hour), but is presented in a more subdued manner, one that goes with the flow of the story instead of smacking the reader squarely in the face. To me, at least, this is a major improvement, and kept me turning the pages well into the night.

Another reason why The Scarlet Gospels is such a good read is Barker’s considerable writing skill. Even though he’s never been what you would call a slouch in the writing department, in The Scarlet Gospels the writing is impeccable. So tight that you could flip a silver dollar off the pages, so clean that you could perform surgery. If at some point in my life I am able to write half as well as Barker does in his latest novel, I can die a happy man.

The Scarlet Gospels is perhaps the culmination of the story Barker has been trying to tell throughout his career. Every page is replete with the savage, yet almost serene, pain and sorrow that is so characteristic of his unique vision of Hell and its denizens.

It is also a novel I was surprised to enjoy much more than I expected. Even more astonishing to me is the fact that for the first time in almost three decades, I find myself looking forward to see what Barker does next.

So, if like me, you find yourself scouring the library shelves searching for a good read (and have the stomach for it), give The Scarlet Gospels a try.

It really is one Hell of a good book.

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