As the dustcover blurb proudly proclaims, Clive Barker was once hailed as the ‘future of horror’ by none other than Stephen King and there are certainly parallels to be drawn between the two writers. For example, while both men have had careers defined by their written fiction, both have seen some of their stories turned into successful Hollywood movies. Indeed, the frequently rather loose cinematic adaptations has tended to hide the craftsmanship behind the original source material. By any standards, let alone those of horror fiction, both men are skilled writers who will be discussed by literary critics for years to come.
But there are differences between the two men, and ‘The Scarlet Gospels’ neatly epitomises both the strengths and weaknesses of Barker when compared with King. Whereas King is likely be remembered as one of the great American novelists of the twentieth century, having written across a number of different genres, Barker is very much an exponent of dark fantasy, blending traditional horror fiction with the fantastic and the erotic.
Similarly, while both King and Barker will revisit earlier stories in their later books, the way they do this is very different. For King, ‘small town America’ is the common thread, but the exact locations and characters will change, though often not by very much, giving his horror fiction in particular a same-ish quality that stands in stark contrast to the sheer inventiveness of a lot of what Barker creates. Barker is very much a create of imaginary worlds, frequently building into his stories connections with earlier works, whether shared characters or locations.
Such is the case with ‘The Scarlet Gospels’, the lead character, Harry D’Amour, having appeared in several short stories, novels and even a film. Reusing existing characters isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean that Barker’s novels have much more consistency to them than King’s. Somebody reading or for that matter, watching ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ wouldn’t automatically assume it had been written by the same person who wrote ‘Carrie’ or ‘Misery’, but the same cannot be said for ‘The Scarlet Gospels’ when compared with, for example, ‘Weaveworld’ or ‘The Great And Secret Show’.
Fortunately for the reader, even if Barker’s output is less varied than that of King’s, within the dark fantasy genre his writings are interesting and thoroughly realised. ‘The Scarlet Gospels’ starts off with some viscerally disturbing scenes that have the power to shock even the most seasoned horror fiction reader. Barker delights in describing the most depraved sexual scenes, debasing his characters in barely imaginable ways before his protagonists transcend their fleshly limitations to become more focused, powerful and ultimately triumphant heroes.
If that sounds religious, it should do. Barker’s books frequently make used of Biblical imagery where ‘Weaveworld’, for example, drew its inspiration from the Genesis story and the angel set to guard its gates after the expulsion of Adam and Eve, ‘The Scarlet Gospels’ is centred on the story of Lucifer’s fall and the way he was punished by being removed from the presence of God.
Indeed, the very idea of what constitutes Hell or, for that matter, Heaven resonates strongly throughout the book. The literal Hell is a fully realised world both terrifying and intriguing, as you’d expect from any exercise in world-building that Barker sets out upon. But he also describes situations in New York and New Orleans where metaphorical heavens and hells overlap: sadomasochistic dungeons where the patrons are exposed to extremes of pleasure and pain and truly can it be said that one man’s heaven is another man’s idea of Hell.
Of course, Barker’s most famous creations, the Cenobites, slot into this sort of ambiguity without any problems at all. The lead antagonist is in fact the so-called Hell Priest, better known to cinema-goers as Pinhead from the ‘Hellraiser’ films. But whether or not the Hell Priest is true to his literary origins is somewhat debatable. In their first outing, ‘The Hellbound Heart’, the Cenobites were not actually evil in nature but amoral beings dedicated to the most extreme experiences of pleasure and pain. If they seemed hellish at all, that was more about how others perceived the gifts and experiences they offered. Over the years, Barker has tweaked the Cenobites into more overtly evil entities, which may make them better antagonists for his books and films, but as literary creations turns them into much more traditional, even commonplace villains.
As well as his novels, Barker is known as an artist and filmmaker, and ‘The Scarlet Gospels’ certainly feels ready for a cinematic adaptation. Besides using his best known film character in the form of Pinhead as the chief antagonist, the Hell Priest, the pacing of the book has a blockbuster-level speed that ensures the book is an easy read. True to form, Barker goes beyond simply shocking the reader with a succession of steadily more terrifying scenes, managing to turn Hell into an interesting alternate world with its own rules and beauty that will be sure to fascinate the reader.
Whether or not Clive Barker was or is the future of horror is open to debate, but ‘The Scarlet Gospels’ does at least prove that he remains one of the most skilled and imaginative exponents of the genre.
(pub: Macmillan, 2015. 360 page enlarged paperback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4472-6698-3)
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