The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

Fontana 1991 PB

Re-reading Barker’s fiction, The Hellbound Heart presents itself as something of a quandary. Overshadowed as it is by its adaptation as Hellraiser (1987), the question is, is this novella a standalone piece of fiction, or just a stage in the production of the film? In his biography of Barker, The Dark Fantastic, Douglas E Winter writes: “Clive insists that The Hellbound Heart was not conceived as a template for a film… but as he wrote the short novel, he realized that it was ideal for low-budget film-making.” But an October 1987 interview by David J Howe for Starburst, quotes Barker as saying that he wrote the novella “with the specific intention of filming it. This was the first and only time that I have done that, but it was useful in that I worked through a lot of the visual problems in the novella and the final screenplay didn’t take that long to draft.” The only reason this matters to me, in this re-read, is I thought the first two-thirds of the novella didn’t quite click, and I wondered if this was because the focus was on a film as the finished product — and so, the visuals and outward drama, rather than the inner lives of the characters. But equally, it could just be that sometimes fiction does take a while to click, even in its finished form.

1987 Legend PB

The Hellbound Heart was first published in 1986 in Night Visions 3, an anthology edited by George R R Martin, which gave a third of its space to each of Ramsey Campbell, Lisa Tuttle, and Clive Barker. Barker’s only contribution was the novella.

The story of both novella and film are virtually identical. Julia is in a passionless marriage to Rory (Larry in the film), which was ruined before it even got started thanks to a one-night stand with his far more adventurous but driven-to-extremes brother Frank. When the couple move into Rory’s now-empty parents’ house, it turns out the long-missing Frank is there with them, only in an all-but-disembodied state. He used the house to experiment with an occult ritual involving Lemarchand’s Box (the Lament Configuration in the film), to summon the demonic Cenobites. Thinking this would open up whole new realms of hedonistic indulgence, Frank quickly finds their version of “extreme” is way more extreme than his, and now he just wants to escape back to reality again. Blood from a cut to Rory’s hand starts the process of reforming his sundered body. But to complete the process — and fully escape the Cenobites — he needs more blood and bodies. The besotted Julia agrees to provide them. Unaware of any of this, Rory asks his somewhat pallid friend Kirsty, who’s silently in love with him (but is his daughter in the film, which works better dramatically but less well thematically), to talk with Julia. Kirsty finds herself facing the Cenobites, and does a deal that will either return Frank to their S&M hell, or let them take her in his place…

As I said, for me, the story only really kicks into gear, as a piece of written fiction, in the last third or so, when Kirsty becomes the protagonist. Julia, the main mover of the first part of the story, doesn’t have the presence she does in the film, with the result that when the narrative wanders off to follow Frank or Rory, it feels less like a diversion and more like the story’s still in search of its narrative centre. But when Kirsty takes over, even though she’s presented as a much less passionate woman — she’s “the girl with the pale handshake” who “had long ago decided that life was unfair” — her perspective is the one that makes the full horror, weirdness and threat really click into place.

1991 Harper PB, art by Kirk Reinert

The Hellbound Heart does that thing horror does so well, of both indulging in something and issuing a stern warning against it. Here, that thing is one of Barker’s key themes, the “further reaches of human experience”, and the quest into other realms for its fulfilment. It’s clear, here, that Julia is suffering, as a human being, by living such an unfulfilled life with Rory, having been awakened to something stronger, darker, and more passionate by Frank (even though that relationship probably contains just as little love). But there are no gradations here between dour lovelessness and the Cenobites’ realm of unbounded “pleasure”. Because the Cenobites have taken things so far that they, too, have stagnated, caught at the point where what they provide has long since ceased to be pleasure in any sense of the term. Right from the start, they’re presented as an image of over-repletion, tired, empty and chilly:

“A fitful phosphorescence came with them, like the glow of deep-sea fishes: blue, cold; charmless.”

“…he saw nothing of joy, or humanity, in their maimed faces: only desperation, and an appetite that made his bowels ache to be voided.”

They’re accompanied by a scent of vanilla — a byword for blandness — “the sweetness of which did little to disguise the stench beneath”. The quest for the far reaches of human experience has taken them to a dead end, a one-note world (like the bell that tolls when they appear). Frank, who just wants his sexual fantasies made real, ends up in the position of a jazz enthusiast turning up to hear some legendary saxophonist, only to find their art has advanced to the stage where they honk the same, single note, as loud and long and ugly as they can, on a bent instrument with a split reed.

According to Winter:

“The evil of appetite is a repeated theme in Barker’s work, and in The Hellbound Heart he offers a searing condemnation of lust in the guise of love — and the pursuit of pleasure in fulfilment of a spiritual void. Frank’s sin is not his self-indulgence, but his hollow — and thus hellbound — heart…”

But elsewhere, though very briefly — in the one moment where the character of Julia starts to come to life in the novella — we get a glimpse of how the promise of pleasure, in a world devoid of it, can attain an almost spiritual dimension, capable of transforming everyday reality. Watching the news on TV while she thinks of the promise of the slowly-regenerating Frank, Julia is already in another realm of being:

“What did the world have to tell her? Little enough. Whereas she, she had news for the world that it would reel to hear. About the condition of the damned; about love lost, and then found; about what despair and desire have in common.”

2008 Voyager PB

But, like all of Barker’s fiction that deals with transcendence, transformation, and elevated realms of being, this is still just about the body. The Cenobites — “angels to some, demons to others” — are utterly physical, “their anatomies catalogues of disfigurement”. Their realm, their power, lies entirely in what they do to your body, your nerves. Frank’s return from death means not some magical rebirth, but the disgusting business of remaking a new body out of other, freshly-slaughtered bodies. In bed with Rory, trying to distance herself from her own despair, Julia thinks of herself as nothing but a body with its physical processes, reducing herself to the least she can be as a human being. Next to the Lead Cenobite (better known as Pinhead), the book and film’s crowning image is of the body revealed beneath the skin: Frank as nothing but a pulsing, naked nervous system, “this too vulnerable body”, as Julia thinks of it.

It seems odd, then, that the centre of this tale would turn out to be the supposedly passionless, pallid Kirsty (though even in her, the ever-lubricous Frank sees possibilities), but probably she only seems passionless in comparison to Julia and Frank. Kirsty loves Rory and will do anything for him (he just doesn’t ask much); hers, then, is a very human form of passion. And she can see the horror in Frank and the Cenobites that Julia can’t, because Julia is blinded by her own desperation. (Perhaps the real villain of the novella is Rory, for being so inadequate to the women in his life.)

Perhaps, though, the reason the first part of the book doesn’t have the impact I wanted it to have is simply because I already know the story from having seen the film so many times. (If so, it’s something the film doesn’t suffer from, as that’s still a thrill to watch.) It’s hard — certainly for me, having never got used to watching pre-Hellraiser films till after I’d seen Hellraiser — to really appreciate what a game-changer the world presented by this novella-and-film-combo really was, for the horror of its day. It sits alongside Alien and The Thing as a milestone in the genre.

The puzzle box, for instance, did away with years of the same old cinematic occult rituals (pentagrams and women sacrificed on altars). And it wasn’t just a visual coup; the box captured as never before the difficulty and self-absorbed, driving obsession of such a magical operation (while also no doubt chiming with an audience who’d grown up trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube, and were now glad they hadn’t).

And then the Cenobites themselves: a whole new class of demon, with the suaveness of the vampire, the grossness of the zombie, and that added Barkerian element, a philosophy, and the eloquence to defend it.

Hellraiser is a more finished form of The Hellbound Heart, and one that works all the better for having actors bring it to life. It’s a rare film whose strong emotional drama matched the impressiveness of the day’s cinematic effects (whose new levels of “rubber reality” all too easily dominated 80s genre films, to the point where they were visual spectacles first and human dramas second). I’ve only seen the two immediate sequels (both have nothing on the first film) and the very latest reboot, which neatly franchise-ifies the first film’s elements into something that feels just a little bit too packaged to retain the raw-nerve edge and sense of danger of the original. As for Barker, Hellraiser proved him to have a cinematic sensibility as developed as his literary and artistic ones, thanks to its occasional arthouse touches of surrealism and dark beauty (seen best of all in his short film The Forbidden) — though, I have to say, that’s an element of his work as a director that didn’t survive into his subsequent movies.

And speaking of what’s next (skipping over my favourite Barker novel, Weaveworld, which I’ve reviewed before): another novella-and-film pairing, with Cabal/Nightbreed.

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