Pinhead & The Scarlet Gospels

scarlet-gospels-uk-coverClive Barker’s new novel may open with the resurrection of a magician, but its primary purpose is not to revive the magical past, it’s to lay a ghost. Or, rather, exorcise a demon. For here, in a literary kill-off move that’s surely been played out too many times for anyone to believe it’ll work, Barker does a Reichenbach Falls on his most famous creation: the Hell Priest.

Who?

That’s Pinhead, to you and me — or the Lead Cenobite, if you’re a purist, as that was how he was credited in the first Hellraiser film (while in The Hellbound Heart, he wasn’t even the lead) — but apparently the entity in question prefers to be addressed as the Hell Priest. At least, until he slaughters the rest of his order and embarks on a new career as would-be King of Hell. (The Devil, in this version of Hell, having been absent for some time.)

It’s here, I think, Barker’s trouble begins. If you’re going to kill someone off, you’ve got to at least get their name right. I don’t even think he gets the location right. The Hell Priest is to be killed off in Hell, right? But Pinhead — the creature who, to me, made his one and only definitive appearance in Hellraiser, and whose name ought to be Pinhead, because it shows the proper degree of fear-hiding-behind-irreverence that such truly terrible monsters are often treated with — doesn’t belong in Hell. The ‘Hell’ in Hellraiser is figurative, not literal. ‘Hell’ is a state you go through — toils and torments raised to religious levels — not a place. (Certainly not as quotidian a place as Barker presents in The Scarlet Gospels: a Hell with uniformed police, bicycles, money, and other much-too-mundane details, far more reminiscent of the Hell of Barker’s mostly disappointing previous novel, Mister B Gone. It does have some glorious architecture, though.)

The Forbidden 03

To me, Pinhead is a far different creature to this troublesome Hell Priest. His origins — along with those of Barker’s first (and best) feature film — lie in an experimental short film, The Forbidden, first glimpsed on The South Bank Show in 1994. Here, Barker presents us with a variant on the Faust myth, in which a lone magician in search of ‘the further reaches of experience’ summons a ghostly lover, then passes onto more esoteric pleasures, culminating in his being skinned alive. The Forbidden is scattered with abstract, purely cinematic sequences (which can be seen sneaking their way into Hellraiser, too — as in the shot of an unfurling, blood-red flower that precedes Kirsty’s waking up in hospital), some of which are of Barker’s ‘nail-board’: a square wooden base, criss-crossed with regular score marks, six-inch nails hammered into each juncture. Moving a light around it, Barker explores this for its abstract visual qualities (as he does the lights-through-slats that precede the appearance of the Cenobites in Hellraiser), but it’s unmistakably the origin of Pinhead:

‘Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jewelled pin driven through the bone.’ — The Hellbound Heart

Contrasted with the Faust character’s visions and torments, the image of the nail-board contains, I think, a sort of boiled-down abstraction of crucifixion: nails (significantly, these aren’t points-upwards, as you’d expect from an image of torture), crosses and wood, simplified and multiplied, as though transcendence were being sold by the yard, and made available to anyone with a DIY temperament.

Hellraiser 01

Moving from the nail-board to Pinhead, you see a man (or creature) who is in his own, permanent, self-crucified state, the very image of pain and transcendence unified. Summoned by Uncle Frank — who’s more interested in a far different meaning of the phrase ‘getting nailed’ — the Cenobites are ‘Angels to some. Demons to others.’ So they are, in Hellraiser, not evil, and do not belong to Hell. Instead, they’re a gateway to extreme experience that transcends the idea of pain being opposite to pleasure, or of evil being opposed to good. Heaven is their Hell, and vice versa; one is reached through the other. Their whole point is that they do not belong in a duality. Which means that, by putting its ‘Hell Priest’ in a very traditional Hell, The Scarlet Gospels, to me, strikes a false note. The Hell Priest that Barker is killing off isn’t the Cenobite known to the rest of us as Pinhead; he’s an imposter.

(Mind you, the Hellraiser movies have been doing just as convincing a job of removing Pinhead from his original ‘beyond good and evil’ meaning and turning him into a standard movie monster since the second film. And this, no doubt, is the version of the creature Barker wants to kill off.)

Scarlet Gospels (US cover)I’ve said before that Barker’s work is all about unifying the divides between, for instance, imagination and mundanity, between day-to-day experience and the transcendent extremes. For much of it, The Scarlet Gospels is too concerned, I think, with a storyline that doesn’t allow any of this deeper theme to come through. It reads like a checklist of what a Clive Barker novel ought to be: a very gruesome beginning, and then a lot of excessive, perverse, blood-soaked demonic goings on after that, but very little of the higher themes like transcendence.

Which isn’t to say there’s no transcendence. As well as being about the Hell Priest, The Scarlet Gospels is about two other characters with a literary pedigree: Harry D’Amour, Barker’s longstanding supernatural PI, and Lucifer. Both of these are transformed by the events of The Scarlet Gospels, in far different (and more convincing) ways than the demise of Pinhead (which can’t help being unconvincing — he’s been offed too many times in the movies).

The Scarlet Gospels isn’t the best of Barker, but that’s not to say it’s not worth reading. If at times it feels a little dated in its constant excess, it also feels like a reminder of the days when major publishers put out stuff that actually seemed dangerous and transgressive but which also had artistic intent. Barker is an artist, and I’d certainly like to read more of him — but moved on, not dwelling on the same old stuff in the same old way. And I wonder if there aren’t signs Barker might want this too:

Now Harry realized with terrifying clarity that he no longer wished to be the witness of such sights. This was not the world in which he belonged.

And:

“I have heard this story. I have seen you. I have seen all of you! In countless incarnations!” the Devil shouted to the crowd who attentively watched his every move. When he spoke again, it was slow and deliberate. “I do not want this anymore.”

Weaveworld by Clive Barker

Tim White cover for Clive Barker’s Weaveworld

Weaveworld, published in 1987, was Clive Barker’s breakthrough novel. It was also his breakout novel, as it saw him transform himself from being the hottest new horror writer in town (with The Books of Blood and The Damnation Game), to being a hot new fantasy writer, or perhaps just a hot new writer full-stop. And of course, with the movie Hellraiser out the same year, Barker seemed to be announcing himself as an impressive creative force whatever the medium. He painted and illustrated, he wrote and produced plays; what was more, he was eloquent and outspoken in his views on the importance of imagination and the fantastic in art. I’d read some of his Books of Blood stories, but Weaveworld was much more my thing. After it, I read pretty much every novel he wrote as they came out (in paperback, anyway), faltering briefly at The Thief of Always, perhaps out of post-Imajica exhaustion (825 pages!). That ended with 2001’s Coldheart Canyon. I bought Coldheart Canyon, and it sat on my to-read shelf for about a year before I admitted to myself I wasn’t going to read it. I’ve never even glimpsed at his Abarat books (perhaps feeling a bit cheated that he never got round to finishing his Books of the Art series). I read (and reviewed) Mister B Gone when it came out, as a toe-dip back in Barker’s world, but aside from the angels at the end, I mostly wished I hadn’t. I’m not sure, really, what happened. Perhaps it was simply Barker exhaustion (he does write long novels, and perhaps even marvels and wonders can wear you out). Whatever it was, I recently re-read Weaveworld, to see if I could sample a little of what it was that made him so exciting back then. Would it still be there?

It was. It is.

Weaveworld is about a magical land hidden in a carpet. But really, this magical land is made up of fragments of our world — nooks of wonder and beauty we came to ignore, or never discovered, and which the Seerkind (the people of the Weaveworld — or the Fugue as they call it when not in its woven state) took as their own. The Seerkind are mostly human in appearance, but have “raptures” — crafts such as weaving, singing & dancing, that work like magic spells. To the Seerkind, we ordinary humans are Cuckoos, and our non-magical world is the Kingdom of the Cuckoo. And although we Cuckoos have, in the past, pursued and persecuted the Seerkind, it was a far worse enemy that forced them into hiding, an awful power known as the Scourge, which of course threatens them again as soon as they wake. The novel follows two ordinary-ish people from our world, Cal Mooney and Suzanna Parish, who come into contact with the Weaveworld, only to find themselves inextricable parts of the struggle of the Seerkind to wake, find a safe place to unpack the wonders of the Fugue, and survive the onslaughts of their many enemies.

Two things make Barker an outstanding writer of the fantastic. The first is the wildness and freedom of his imagination. Before him, the defining style of supernatural horror was that of Stephen King, who made his horrors all the more believable by placing them in settings designed to feel as familiar as possible, and written in a voice that assured you the writer was an average Joe like you, speaking down-to-earth, yeah, you-know-the-kind-of-thing speak. Barker blew that approach away by writing horror and fantasy like an Old Testament prophet. Where, with King, one subtly-built up supernatural element was enough to fuel a blockbuster novel, Barker has monsters and magical beings by the dozen before we’re a quarter of the way through. If King is the fireside storyteller, making you gather round while he whispers his tales towards their slow climax, Barker takes the Barnum and Bailey approach, full of fireworks, cymbal crashes, dancing girls and lion tamers. (And there’s a lot of the performer in his works — his Seerkind are, mostly, performers, Bohemians; perhaps naturally, considering Barker’s first career as a playwright & actor.)

That comparison to the Bible links to the other thing that made Barker such a notable new voice — the conviction with which he wrote, his belief in the transforming power of the imagination. In Weaveworld, when humans encounter the magic of the Fugue, it often has a near-religious effect on them. It changes their world, it opens them up to new possibilities, new beliefs. (Of Suzanna: “All she knew was that she was suddenly alive to a space inside herself where the haste and habit of her adult life had no dominion.”) Because, ultimately, Weaveworld isn’t about a magical world and a real one, it’s about one world which is both magical and real, it’s about the healing, the weaving together, of what can be imagined and what is accepted as real, between the mundane and the magical. The Seerkind aren’t ethereal beings, they’re “flesh and blood like you”; the Fugue is a place in which you can meet with wondrous experiences, but that is true of the real world, too, because the true place those wondrous experiences occur is in the mind:

“Magic might be bestowed upon the physical, but it didn’t reside there. It resided in the word, which was mind spoken, and in motion, which was mind made manifest;… all mind.”

“Imagination,” Barker writes, “was true power: it worked transformations wealth and influence never could.”

Two of the most interesting characters in Weaveworld are the villains, Shadwell the Salesman (whose name unfortunately reminded me of Siadwell, the comic Welsh poet from Naked Video in the 80s) and Immacolata the Incantatrix, who has a cold hatred for her fellow Seerkind. These, like so many Barker villains, aren’t merely evil; they are led to evil ends by understandable (if unordinary) motivations. Something to note about Barker’s monsters — they’re not just killers and beasts, they’re philosophers. They like to explain themselves. They have an aesthetic. (Just not the sort you’d expect to be expounded by the local art society.) In a sense, like the Seerkind, they’re performers, too, artists of a brutal kind, Bohemians gone bad. One of the things Barker seems to be saying is that all experience, potentially, can be transcendent experience, and that includes the painful experiences, the dark experiences, and the dark drives and motivations, too. At the end, the Scourge is not defeated, it is healed. The “Old Science” of the Seerkind (which perhaps could better be called Art) is used to “seduce it into confessing its profoundest desire: simply to see its own true face, and seeing it know how it had been before loneliness had corrupted it.”

Which reminds me of Barker’s own words about himself in the 1994 South Bank Show episode about him:

“My life has absolutely been transformed by the imaginative possibilities offered to me by artists. Isn’t that one of the reasons we go to books and paintings and theatre and movies? We go because we want our lives enriched. And that enrichment is a kind of change. We want our pain illuminated, and if it’s illuminated, maybe it isn’t quite so terrible… I think my kind of fiction, and I get this in conversations with people and in letters, is to some extent about saying these journeys are journeys which we’re all taking. And it’s okay to take them. And it doesn’t mean you’re crazy. It doesn’t mean you’re marginalised. Just because you’re bringing your dreamscape into your daily life, into your conscious life, doesn’t make you fit for the madhouse. It makes you very healthy.”

Barker’s art is working the Seerkind’s sort of magic. He’s not merely peddling wonders to make a sale, to get a wow and a round of applause. He very much has a belief in what he’s doing, in its power to affect people, and for their ultimate good. Even if it takes them into some pretty dark places on the way.

Goodbye, South Bank Show!

Going since January 1978, The South Bank Show has finally been choked to death by the all-encroaching polystyrenisation of terrestrial TV. In the shopping mall that is weekend broadcasting, it came to resemble a beleaguered secondhand bookshop — quirky, cranky, unapologetically interesting — in the midst of a wasteland of junk food franchises. And now it’s gone.

And with its goes the second-best TV theme tune ever!  And that’s not faint praise. First place goes to the Alice-down-the-rusty-plughole theme to pre-eighties Doctor Who, which is religious music, as far as I’m concerned. (Third goes to Big Ron for Have I Got News For You.)

There were two criticisms people who didn’t like The South Bank Show had about it. One was that it was always about people you’d never heard of. It wasn’t, but when it was, then — duh, dat was duh point. The other was that it was pretentious. “Pretentious” in the sense of “It embarrasses me when people talk about things with any degree of curiosity or intelligence, so I’ll call them pretentious then run giggling for the exit.” So I don’t care about “pretentious” as a criticism either.

My favourite episode was the Clive Barker interview from 1994. I videoed it and watched it till the tape stretched, went snowy, and got tangled in my VCR. Then I transferred it to audio (having no way of getting it onto digital video at the time), and still listen to it on occasion when I need a dose of inspiration. (You can find it on YouTube, though the sound’s not in sync. I’d quite happily pay good money to have a proper DVD of it.) But The South Bank Show didn’t do much fantasy, nor horror. (There was a J G Ballard episode, and the inevitable show on The Lord of the Rings when the Peter Jackson film came out, but that was about it.) In fact, it hardly ever did the writers, musicians or artists I wanted to see on it. But I still watched it without fail. Even when I knew enough about whoever was on it to know I didn’t like them. I either ended up liking them, or spent a good hour arguing with the TV. Now that’s entertainment! Generally, though, it was just the air of books, art, films, or whatever creative pursuit it was — the atmosphere I like to breathe. I usually recorded it and watched it the following Monday evening, as a welcome corrective to the first weekday back at work. Now what am I going to do?

Well, it’s not the end of the world. Melvyn Bragg is still doing In Our Time on Radio 4 (which gets podcasted — thank you BBC!), and because it’s Radio 4, he can be as obscure and pretentious (or interesting and curious, as I prefer to put it) as he wants to be.

And Imagine… But, no, that’s no substitute. It ought to be, but it just isn’t. To my taste, Alan Yentob puts himself that little bit too much in the picture. Melvyn Bragg always began The South Bank Show with a quick, “Hello, tonight’s film is about so-and-so,” and then we were off. Alan Yentob has to make it a personal journey — his personal journey. We have to have interpolated shots of him wandering around with his hands in his baggy trouser pockets, looking thoughtful. The one Imagine episode I should have liked the most — on Haruki Murakami — was in fact about nothing but Alan Yentob, with no Murakami in it at all. And, yes, Melvyn Bragg did appear again to do the interviewing, but he always asked intelligent questions. Alan Yentob does the interviewing too, but, sorry, he just asks naff questions. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe it was just the crap theme music which put me off from the start. (I mean, the show’s called Imagine. So why have the least imaginative theme music on TV? Even QI‘s plunky piece of nothing is a step above Imagine‘s. They’ve changed it for the latest series, but I can’t remember what the new music’s like, so it may be an improvement, but it’s still not Variations.)

But there’s BBC4, so that’s alright. It’s not like the demise of The South Bank Show is leaving TV a total cultural wasteland. (There’s the Culture Show, too. A bit magaziney, and it somehow always ends up covering the same subjects as Late Review, but at least it interviewed Alan Moore, which The South Bank Show never did.)

Still, The South Bank Show has always been my favourite, and I’ll miss it. And so, till Melvyn Bragg reincarnates into a younger looking boffin with a redheaded Scottish sidekick… Oh no, that’s the other programme. Oh well, goodbye, South Bank Show!

Mister B Gone by Clive Barker

cb_mrbgoneSeveral pages into Clive Barker’s latest book, Mister B Gone, I found myself thinking, “Ah, I get it — it’s for children!” But I couldn’t quite be sure. It didn’t actually say that it was for kids in any of the publisher’s blurb, but it seemed the only explanation for why Barker’s latest, which starts out with such a grand, attention-grabbing gambit (“Burn this book”!) so soon became… Well, I don’t want to say a disappointment — this is, after all, Clive Barker — but I was, as a reader, disappointed. After all, this is the author of Weaveworld and Imajica, the director of Hellraiser, the creator of Pinhead and the Cenobites — “demons to some, angels to others” — writing what he, of all writers, is surely best qualified to write, the autobiography of a demon, thus taking us to realms of higher (and lower) experience that no other writer can take us to. But what I got was this:

“He worked at the furnaces in Hell and when he got home from the night shift he would have such a temper me and my sister, Charyat, would hide from him. She was a year and two months younger than me, and for some reason if my father caught her he would beat and beat her and not be satisfied until she was sobbing and snotty and begging him to stop. So I started to watch for him. About the time he’d be heading home, I’d climb up the drainpipe onto the roof of our house and watch for him…” [p. 4]

There’s a test Ursula Le Guin suggests putting to fantasy — a “dirty trick”, she admits, but a useful one — in her essay “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie”. What you do is take a passage from a fantasy novel and swap all the fantasy-sounding names for Earthly-sounding ones. If the passage then sounds totally Earthly, then it wasn’t really fantasy to begin with. If you take “the furnaces in Hell” and “Charyat” in the above passage and swap them for, say, “the local steel mill” and “Charlene”, then what you have is most certainly not the autobiography of a demon. At least, not the one I was expecting from Clive Barker. So I thought he must be writing a book for children, and starting out with a passage that would enable a young teen to more easily identify with the demon Jakabok Botch, who soon takes to writing fantasy stories as a way of coping with the violence of his father and the rundown indifference of his housecleaning drudge of a mother — just as you’d expect in a book written for imaginative children who might themselves take to reading fantasy stories to cope with what life is starting to throw at them. But, as I continued reading, I got too many signs this wasn’t a book for children. Someone was described as having a testicle-sized brain. Well, maybe that would be great for a target audience of teenage boys, so maybe — but no, then we get increasing levels of violence, and sex, so this can’t be a book for children. What, then, is it?

In an interview at Dreamwatch Total Sci-Fi Barker explains his own intentions:

“There was another version of this book that I absolutely didn’t want to write, which was the one which was filled with over the top Grand Guignol scenes and very ripe, salty language — all that stuff. And I’d done that kind of demon before. I’d also done the elegant demon, in Pinhead. I wanted this to be a man with two tails, but the burn marks he receives erase so much of what would have made him demonic. But now his past is making him hopefully a much more accessible character. Because I think if you were to meet him you might feel the kind of pity you would feel for Quasimodo.”

That other version of the book, “filled with over the top Grand Guignol scenes and very ripe, salty language” — that was the book I wanted to read! If you’re going to have a main character as a demon, make him a demon, not just a man with two tails! Otherwise, you might just as well write a book about a man with two tails. At least, then, the reader would know what to expect. Letting the reader know what to expect is half the battle of telling a good story. (Fulfilling that promise is the other half.)

Anyway, I stuck with it. (This review does, by the way, have a happy ending.) The character of Jakabok niggled a little bit longer. One moment he was doing the sort of good-deed-disguised-as-evil you’d expect the hero of the children’s book version of Mister B Gone to be doing — playing nasty tricks on hypocritical priests who preach one thing then go and do the opposite — then, suddenly, we find him bathing in baby’s blood. Quite why he’s turned to doing such genuine, nasty evil is never explained. It’s as if Barker has one conception of the character and I, the reader, have another, and I’m spending the first half of this book trying to adjust mine to his.

Then, at last, at last, things pick up. Botch arrives in Mainz. We get a specific date — 1438 — and for the first time the book actually seems to be set somewhere and somewhen (prior to this, its vague medieval setting could be any age from storyland). A man named Gutenberg has created something that will change the world, and the air is filled with the forces of Heaven and Hell fighting out over who will control this new invention. (It is, of course, the printing press.) What brings Barker’s story alive is the appearance of angels. Suddenly, his demons aren’t just men with prosthetics — they are what the angels are not. We begin to feel vast cosmic forces at war; Botch’s story starts to make sense as a footnote-sized glimpse of a much larger story, one we — along with Botch — get the merest hint of. For this glimpse, Botch is punished (by being imprisoned in a book — the fact that the book you’re reading is not just the autobiography of a demon, but is the demon itself, is one of the more interesting, though occasionally over-laboured, aspects of this story); but not before he gets to understand one terrifying Secret about the war between Heaven and Hell which at last makes reading Mister B Gone worthwhile.

Barker has always written best when he’s contrasting the normal world with a fantastical world of revelations and transformations, recasting the old language of religion to suit a modern world sadly bereft of all that imaginative wonder. Mister B Gone is a book that only finds this Barkerian spark in its last third, after rather too much storyless rambling (not to mention tediously undramatic dialogue, so much of which consists of exchanges like: “Really?” “Really.” and “Today?” “Yes. Today”). But, when the angels appear, when the angels appear…