Reviewing Hell: The Hellbound Heart (1986) by Clive Barker

Stories about Hell don’t get much more influential than The Hellbound Heart. This is the brief novella that gave us Pinhead, the Hellraiser movies, puzzle boxes that open gateways to Hell, and demons dressed up S+M gear. Barker helped lead the horror revival of the 1980s, and this is one of the core books in that decade.

The Set-Up: The Hellbound Heart is almost two things in one: a short story that ranks as an absolute all-time Horror classic, followed by a good but not great novella. The terrifying opening sequence has a world-weary sensualist (Frank) using Lemarchand’s puzzle box to summon the Cenobites, a group of mysterious creatures (demons?) dedicated to pleasure. Midway through the summoning, he realizes that things are going horribly, horrribly wrong . . .

The Cenobites, Pinhead among them, are truly frightening, creatures so dedicated to pain and suffering and hooks that they expand our very definition of the monstrous. Barker has given a completely unique twist on the “summon the devil, you get what you deserve” story, and the first part of the book is as good as any horror story written in the 20th century. Frank—a generally awful person—gets punished so much more than he deserves and in ways that just make the skin crawl. This is the epitome of what written shock-horror can be: gory enough to be frightening without being silly, psychologically real enough to keep you awake at night

The second part of the book pales in comparison to the first, but anything would. I don’t think Barker actually knew what he’d struck on with the Cenobites. The second half of the book (pages 20-164) in my edition deals with Frank from the first part, who’s now stuck between dimensions. An unhappy wife discovers that she can use blood to bring him back to the land of the living, but doing so might catch the attention of the Cenobites.

Barker isn’t able to keep up the intensity through the second half, and I (at least) kept impatiently waiting for the Cenobites to returnWhen they do, they don’t do much. Still, as a psychological horror study, it’s a solid work. 9/10.

Scope: This is a Hell comes to Earth book, not a humans go to Hell book, so the scope is pretty small. The demons aren’t really running amuck and wrecking things. In the first part, though, we get some good glimpses of cosmic horror, and there is a scope of evil in the Cenobites that keeps this from being a small book. 7/10.

Horror: Truly a terrifying work. Pinhead, who plays only a small role in this, is the perfect embodiment of the order, chaos, and suffering of Hell all in one. Take a look at this initial description:

Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jeweled pin driven through to the bone. Its tongue was similarly decorated. “Do you even know who we are?” it asked.

You’ve got elegance and menace at the same time. The images may seems a little familiar now, and thus blunted, but there’s enough horror and gore here to keep anyone entertained. 10/10.

Originality: How often does anyone create a horror figure icon in their writing? Pinhead may not be Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula, but he’s damn close. 10/10.

Enjoyability: The first 20 pages are a clear 10/10, then the novel is only an interesting 8/10. So 9/10 total.

Total: 45/50, a clear classic of Hell literature. A must-read for anyone even vaguely interested in the demonic.

Other Takes: The Hellbound Heart is an older book, so there aren’t as many internet reviews to read. Here’s a sampling:
Nite Owl Jr
Phil Slattery’s Art of Horror Part 2
King of the Nerds
Nerds of Gore
Horror Novel Reviews

Overall positive, although a couple readers found the novella length a little awkward. For the most part, though, everyone agrees that this is a horror classic.


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