Clive 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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
“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.”