It's been almost 30 years since The Hellbound Heart novella was published and he's finally circled back to the story of the Cenobites and that dreaded puzzle box. It's highly anticipated for fans who grew up watching the (admittedly awful) Hellraiser movies with it's icon of horror, Pinhead – a demon of suffering whose head is covered in rusty nails.
The Scarlet Gospels is a road trip through hell, literally, with a misguided band of unlikeable characters trying to save their friend who is captured by the smug Hell Priest (as Barker prefers to call him instead of Pinhead) for reasons so arbitrary and vacuous they are outright laughable. The book goes nowhere slowly and doesn't have a good payoff, which is the final nail in the coffin.
Yes, it sounds dire, but Barker is a visual artist and his gift is creating fully formed, bizarre and outlandish worlds that they feel like real places. In this case, he creates hell as a formal society with a caste system, streets with employed denizens, and much daily banality but then there's those unnatural touches like gravity defying architecture, black trees and sewage rivers, and a sky made of stone. His worlds are all encompassing for the reader, and I could spend ages reading this imaginative prose.
There's also some highly graphic passages that make this worth a read for horror hounds. Barker is at his best when the horror is visceral and ghastly, and this book goes to great lengths to make you queasy. It's never outright scary or thrilling, but it is entertaining for those with nefarious proclivities. Unfortunately, his graphic nature is a double-edged sword. There is also some truly unnecessary vileness (the rape of old woman) that add nothing to the story or the character development apparently thrown in for shock value. This cheapens the strides Barker makes.
As he loses his reader with a trite plot, other problems emerge, like the stilted dialogue (never one of Barker's strengths), and thinly-written stereotypical characters (the gruff detective, the sage but blind psychic, the quip-spouting queen) whose motivations are as murky as hell's health plan. Why does the Hell Priest choose to go on his mission? Why is it so important that some puny human sees what he's doing? Why do this group decide to dive into hell to save this woman? Barker has previously said that at one time the novel ballooned up to 2000 pages but has since been whittled down to a slim 368 pages. Perhaps all the devil was in those cut details, because the book in severely underwritten.
The book has been promoted as a definitive end to one of Barker's most enduring sagas, and unfortunately it is unsatisfying all around. Perhaps in a few years, he'll release an expanded edition that patches the many holes, but until then The Scarlet Gospels can only be recommended for the diehard Hellraiser completist.
The U.K. edition of the book received a
fantastic bloody design and red-edged pages.