The Scarlet Gospels

The Scarlet GospelsThe Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Barker’s long-anticipated novel features occult detective Harry D’Amour, last seen in the stories “The Last Illusion” and “Lost Souls” and the novel EVERVILLE, coming up against the Cenobite known as Pinhead, last seen in the novella “The Hellbound Heart” and of course the HELLRAISER films. It’s the crossover event of the year and, being most definitely a horror novel and not a fantasy, a much awaited return to form for the author. For the most part, it lives up to my heightened expectations. The story hits the ground running and doesn’t let up, with much to celebrate along the way. The Cenobite’s initial appearance in the novel is terrifying, exhilarating, and so welcome I found myself falling instantly in love with the novel. We get to see Hell, and the Monastery of the Cenobitic Order, and we get to enjoy brief cameos from other Cenobites who have appeared in the Hellraiser mythos. Harry D’Amour and his blind, psychic friend Norma Paine, who has also appeared in previous Barker works, are given a creepy, supernatural mission in New Orleans that leads them on a collision course with our favorite Cenobite, who, it turns out, has a bigger, more epic plan in mind than simply killing Harry. Barker’s trademark sensuality is on display everywhere — many of the monsters sport erections! — as is his usual compassion toward those who are often on the fringes of society.

I’m giving this book five stars because in many ways it’s everything I’ve been hoping for from Barker for a long time now, but that highest of ratings is not without some caveats. Because as enjoyable as the story is, it’s also rather sloppy. An intriguing plot development arises at the very end of the prologue but never comes to fruition. Harry suffers a magical attack in New Orleans from an interesting character I would have liked to learn more about, but we never learn why she attacks him and she is immediately dismissed and forgotten. But it’s in the novel’s final third that it truly begins to falter. Not every line of dialogue needs to be a quip, especially when the characters are faced with the horrors of Hell. Near the end, the Cenobite performs an act of violence on one of Harry’s friends that, to me, felt wildly out of character, which I admit is a strange thing to say about a character who revels in pain and violence. Unfortunately, the climax is particularly unsatisfying, with Harry and his friends playing no active part in the outcome. Instead, a third major player appears and does everything. In fact, Harry has nothing to do with the Cenobite’s ultimate fate, and worse, isn’t even there to see it. The pages where Harry and the Cenobite ought to be having their final confrontation are devoted instead to a painfully didactic scene where Harry and his friends meet an anti-gay hellfire-and-brimstone preacher in a limousine.

Make no mistake, despite my criticisms THE SCARLET GOSPELS is everything you could want in a Clive Barker horror novel. Until that final third, it delivers on its promise, and though it falters in the end it’s still well worth the time of any Clive Barker fan. Five stars may seem like a lot for a novel that I had so many issues with, but even as my mind registered those complaints I couldn’t stop reading. Yes, I wanted more and better, but THE SCARLET GOSPELS is its own kind of masterpiece: flawed, brutal, thrilling, frustrating, and compelling. You don’t want to miss it.

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