Back in 2015, I was delighted when I heard that a new horror novel by Clive Barker had been released 🙂 Not only that, it was also a sequel to Barker’s “The Hellbound Heart” – the novella he used as a basis for the film “Hellraiser“.
Unfortunately, I heard this awesome news during the 3-4 year period when I didn’t read much. But, I added “The Scarlet Gospels” to my list of books that I meant to read sometime.
Yet, when I got back into reading regularly again, it took me more than fifty novels before I eventually got round to reading another Clive Barker novel (one from the 1980s called “Weaveworld“). It was then that I remembered “The Scarlet Gospels” and, to my delight, I was able to find a cheap second-hand hardback copy of it online 🙂 So, this review has been a long time coming 🙂
So, let’s take a look at “The Scarlet Gospels”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in a gloomy, candlelit crypt. Five magicians have gathered around the grave of their fallen friend, Joseph Ragowski, in order to raise him from the dead. When – much to his annoyance – Ragowski returns to the realm of the living, the news isn’t good. The five magicians who raised him are the only magicians who are still alive. Something has been systematically killing the world’s magicians and stealing their knowledge. Something that has just found the crypt…….
Meanwhile, hard-boiled paranormal detective Harry D’Amour is drinking in a bar in New Orleans and reminiscing about his past. He has been sent to the city by his old friend Norma, a blind medium who has been contacted by the ghost of a recently-deceased lawyer who wants someone to get rid of his secret occult love nest before his family find out about it.
When Harry finds the house, everything seems relatively normal. But, after a bit of searching, Harry finds a secret chamber filled with magical grimoires. And, whilst searching this hidden room, he finds a mysterious puzzle box that starts to solve itself…….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is Wow! Oh my god, this novel is amazing 🙂 Yes, it might lack some of the sophistication of Barker’s earlier works, but it more than makes up for this by being this utterly badass combination of an old-school splatterpunk horror novel, a hardboiled noir detective story, a heavy metal action thriller that could give the original “Doom” a run for it’s money, an epic dark fantasy story, a cheesy late-night horror movie and so much more 🙂 This novel is one of the coolest novels I’ve read in a long time.
I guess that I should probably start by talking about the novel’s horror elements. First of all, imagine the movie “Hellraiser”. Compared to this novel, “Hellraiser” is a Disney movie. In addition to some intriguing paranormal horror and some delightfully grotesque body horror, this novel is the kind of gloriously over-the-top ultra-gruesome splatterpunk novel that could easily have come from the 1980s 🙂 Seriously, imagine all of the grisly horrors of the original “Hellraiser” movie, but turned up to eleven, and you might begin to come close to the macabre majesty of this novel! Seriously, this is a Clive Barker novel 🙂
But, although this novel isn’t exactly scary, it is a joy for any fan of the horror genre to behold 🙂 The novel is saturated in gothic darkness, “film noir” gloom, cackling malevolence and diabolical delights. It is the kind of novel where, like in any good 1980s/90s horror movie, you can practically feel the ominously gloomy lighting. It is the kind of gloriously uncensored, over-the-top, darkly imaginative medley of the macabre that will probably cause you to grin with immature, rebellious delight for at least an hour or two after reading the first half of the story.
Another interesting thing about this novel is that it’s a thriller novel. Yes, it slows down a little bit in some of the later parts, but it is about a million miles away from the slightly slower and more contemplative fiction that Barker is famous for.
The first half of the book is a little bit like one of those awesome noir-influenced gothic horror thriller movies from the 1980s/1990s like “Jacob’s Ladder” or “Angel Heart” or something like that. The second half of the book is kind of like a cheesy heavy metal-influenced 1980s dark fantasy epic 🙂 Seriously, this story is a lot more fast-paced and gripping than I had expected 🙂
The novel’s fantasy elements are kind of interesting too. Although the novel starts out like a really cool urban fantasy novel, it eventually turns into more of a dark fantasy/high fantasy story.
Even though the scenes set in hell initially seem to be pulled straight from a heavy metal music video or a level of the original “Doom” (which certainly isn’t a bad thing), the novel’s mythos gradually becomes a bit more interesting and a fair number of the hellish locations and creatures display some of Barker’s uniquely twisted imagination 🙂 Likewise, the novel also includes a rather interesting take on the topic of Lucifer too, and some truly epic scenes later in the story too 🙂
Yes, compared to the sophisticated imagination of some other Clive Barker novels like “Weaveworld”, “Abarat” etc.. this novel isn’t as unique or imaginative. But, surprisingly, this doesn’t matter. It’s a badass, fast-paced horror thriller novel that is almost like heavy metal music in book form. Yes, some aspects of the location design might be a little bit cheesy or cliched (eg: a building covered in lots of spikes, which are also covered in spikes etc..) but this is half of the fun of a story like this 🙂
Another cool thing about this novel is that, like any good Clive Barker novel, it isn’t for the prudish or narrow-minded either 🙂 In addition to taking a glorious delight in frequent descriptions of the male anatomy, this novel is the kind of story that is both gleefully anti-conservative and “politically incorrect” as hell. Seriously, this novel is a rebellious delight 🙂
As for the characters, they’re something of a mixed bag. Whilst many of the supporting characters (eg: a muscular tattooist, a cute guy from New Orleans, a medium etc..) don’t really get that much characterisation, this kind of lends the story a wonderful “cheesy B-movie”-like quality. Plus, it leaves more room for the stars of the story to really shine. Whilst Harry D’Amour is a typical hard-boiled detective, the real star of this story is the Hell Priest. Or, as he hates to be called, Pinhead.
And, yes, if you’ve seen Doug Bradley’s performance as this character in “Hellraiser”, then this novel will be such a delight to read 🙂 In addition to having lots of wonderfully malevolent lines of dialogue, the Hell Priest also has a really interesting story arc which really helps to explore and define this mysterious monster. In a story that mirrors Lucifer’s fall from heaven, he is a chillingly tragic figure whose ruthless ambition proves to be his undoing.
As for the writing in this novel, it works surprisingly well. Whilst some parts of the novel’s third-person narration have the kind of rich, descriptive style that you’d expect to see in a Clive Barker novel, other parts of the story are written in a more unsophisticated and “matter of fact” kind of way. This helps to keep the story reasonably fast-paced and, although some of the story’s dialogue is corny (even by B-movie standards), the less sophisticated parts of the narration really help to add some fun to the story. Seriously, as long as you don’t go into this novel expecting to read a work of literary fiction, then you’ll probably enjoy the narration.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good 🙂 From what I’ve read about the long history of this novel, it was originally going to be a giant tome at one point. Fortunately, the hardback edition I read had been edited down to a much more efficient 361 pages 🙂 Not only does this help to keep the story streamlined and gripping, but it also means that the pacing is really good too. Yes, it slows down a little in some of the later parts, but for the most part, this is very much a thriller novel 🙂
All in all, this novel is amazing 🙂 Yes, it isn’t as sophisticated as some of Barker’s older stuff. But, this is like comparing an elaborate classical symphony to a modern album by a 1980s heavy metal band. Yes, one might be more complex and sophisticated, but the other is a lot more fun to listen to. And, yes, this what I love about this novel. It is fun. It is a gloriously over-the-top heavy metal horror movie of a novel 🙂 And it is just so much fun to read 🙂
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get six six six.