There’s something bittersweet about this horror novel. In The Scarlet Gospels, Clive Barker returns to his most famous creation, the cenobite/demon Pinhead. Pinhead, with his bone white skin and nails driven into his skull, is still burnt into the American popular consciousness, largely due to the Hellraiser movies. With The Scarlet Gospels, Barker concludes Pinhead’s story. It’s hard not to see this as a kind of farewell by Barker, a wrapping up of loose fictional ends. All in all, The Scarlet Gospels is an interesting and powerful novel about Hell, almost worthy of Barker’s nearly-unmatched legacy as a horror writer.
The Set-Up: The Scarlet Gospels pulls two of Barker’s fictional worlds together: the world of cenobites, the fetish/hook-obsessed beings first introduced in The Hellbound Heart, and occult detective Harry D’Amour from works like Everville. When D’Amour runs into the puzzle box that pulls the cenobites into our world, his troubles begin—Pinhead is full of evil plans, including taking over Hell. D’Amour eventually heads into the underworld to rescue a friend, and that’s when the fireworks (hellworks?) begin.
The Scarlet Gospels is a somewhat strange novel. Pinhead is the real draw. When he’s not on scence, the book is kind of boring. D’Amour is more of a vehicle to create scenes with Pinhead than a compelling character of his own. Pinhead is also transformed in this book—he’s now a demon in Hell, and his motivations/desires more clearly explained. This makes him more relatable but a little less scary and awe-inspiring than he was in earlier works. Once we get to Hell, though, the book picks up, and the central conflict is a lot of fun. 7/10.
Scope: By the time the book really gets rolling, you’ve got most of what you could want in Hell: large scales battles between demons, frightening landscapes, and plenty of sadistic hooks and torments. 8/10.
Horror: Pinhead might not be as scary here as he was in The Hellbound Heart, but we’ve got some truly frightening and disturbing demons here, including a gibbering human that’s basically split in half. While Barker isn’t making the same impact as he did earlier in his career, he’s still got that ick factor. 7/10.
Originality: Nothing compares to The Hellbound Heart; that’s the book where Barker basically reinvented demonkind, adding in the black leather/fetish gear/sadism angle we all know so well now. In comparison to that book, this pales; the Hell is pretty typical, and Pinhead seems something of a shadow of his old self. 6/10.
Enjoyability: Want to revisit Pinhead? This is your chance—you’ll either like that or you’ll feel Pinhead was already perfect. If you want to say goodbye, this is your chance—there’s something nice about that, but also sad. I don’t know if those are two emotions I’d normally connect with Hell. 7/10.
Total: 35/50. A strong work about Hell, but not a must-read. For Barker, that’s The Hellbound Heart.
Other Takes: There’s lots of great reviews of The Scarlet Gospels out there. Some reviewers noted that it wasn’t the book they were expecting; you think Pinhead and you think gore, horror, and death, and this is more a supernatural battle in Hell. Here’s a list of other reviews to check out:
Some Day and Never
The Fireside Table
Slush Pile Heroes
Geeks of Doom
Blood on Wax
Memoirs on a Rainy Day
A mixed set of reviews. I still think The Scarlet Gospels is worth reading if you’re invested in Pinhead/Hellraiser at all; it makes for a nice, if not quite satisfying, conclusion to Pinhead’s story.