Review: “The Hellbound Heart” By Clive Barker (Novella)

Well, although I’d originally planned to read a different horror novel for the next book in this month’s horror marathon, I was having a terrible day and needed to read something that was both short and familiar. So, I found my copy of Clive Barker’s 1986 novella “The Hellbound Heart” and decided to re-read it.

If I remember rightly, this was a novella that I first read when I was about eighteen or nineteen after realising that the movie “Hellraiser” (directed by Barker himself) was based on it. I was going through a bit of a Clive Barker phase at the time and I remembered enjoying this book, even if it was slightly different to what I’d expected. So, naturally, I was curious to see whether it was similar to what I remembered of it.

So, let’s take a look at “The Hellbound Heart”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

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I read the 1997 Voyager (UK) paperback edition of “The Hellbound Heart”. Unfortunately, I probably can’t show the book cover here since one small part of it is very much “not safe for work” and would probably fall foul of some content rule or another.
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The story begins with a man called Frank trying to solve a puzzle box called the Lemarchand Configuration. Jaded by a life of hedonism, he has heard that this box is a gateway to realms of even greater pleasure than anyone can even imagine. However, when he solves the box, a bell tolls and a gateway to another world appears.

From this gateway, hideous beings called Cenobites emerge and drag Frank into their realm – where pain and pleasure are considered to be one and the same thing.

Several months later, Frank’s brother Rory and his wife Julia show up at his house. Since the inherited house is technically also owned by Rory and because Frank hasn’t been there in months, Rory decides to move in. Initially, things seem fairly mundane as they go through the rigmarole of moving in. Julia is unhappy with her life with Rory and Rory’s friend, Kirsty, secretly has a crush on Rory too.

But, after Rory injures himself with a chisel and spills blood on the floor of one of the house’s abandoned rooms, Julia notices that the blood mysteriously disappears from the floor several hours later. Not only that, Frank’s spirit starts calling to her. In order to take physical form, Frank needs more blood….

One of the first things that I will say about this novella is that, although it takes a while for the story to really get going, it definitely improved with a second reading. In short, I noticed a lot of hidden depths that I missed the first time round. But, if you want an intense fast-paced splatterpunk horror thriller, then you’re better off reading the excellent sequel “The Scarlet Gospels” instead. Even so, this novella is fairly impressive- if more understated than I remembered.

In terms of the novella’s horror elements, they mostly consist of a combination of suspenseful horror, body horror/gory horror, claustrophobic horror, cosmic horror, monster horror and character-based horror. In a lot of ways, this novella is more of a slow burn, with the level of horror gradually increasing as the story progresses.

Interestingly, upon re-reading this novella, I realised that it is also a vampire novel in disguise. If you’ve ever read Whitley Strieber’s “The Hunger“, then you’ll probably notice this. Frank’s jaded hedonism, his predatory attitude, his need to drain the life from other people and the fact that he is awakened by spilled blood are all very vampiric qualities. And, like with Strieber’s “The Hunger”, this novel offers a much grittier and more claustrophobic take on the vampire genre too.

One of the major themes in this novella is passion and hedonism. In addition to a lot of the novel’s main events being motivated by desire (which might explain the title of the novel), the fact that the Cenobites have gone so far into hedonistic excess that they cannot distinguish pain from pleasure is one of the things that makes them such compelling antagonists. Likewise, the fact that Frank first encounters them because he has become so jaded by a life of hedonism that he cannot take joy from it any more also seems to be a critique of hedonism too.

Like H.P.Lovecraft’s horror fiction, this is also a story about curiosity and forbidden knowledge too. It is a story about strange, nightmarish worlds existing a mere fraction of an inch from reality. It is a story where the miserable banality of the ordinary world can seem like heaven compared to the horrors that lurk just behind it. Yet, at the same time, this novella is pretty much the opposite of Lovecraft. The characters aren’t motivated by cold scientific curiosity or menaced by indifferent cosmic horrors – both the characters and the cosmic horrors are motivated by very carnal desires.

In terms of the characters, they’re very well-written. All of the main characters come across as realistic people with compelling motivations and imperfections, which the events of the story flow from. This is one of those stories where the plot really seems to emerge from the characters, rather than the characters merely following a plot.

In terms of the writing, it both is and isn’t a good fit with this story. Barker’s third-person narration is fairly formal and, whilst this does add a lot of atmosphere to the story as it progresses, it can also get in the way of the story a bit during some parts of it. Although many of Barker’s other horror novels also use a slightly more literary style, it is a lot more noticeable in this novel than it is in – say – “Cabal” or “Weaveworld“.

In terms of length and pacing, this novella is interesting. At an efficient 128 pages in length, it is the kind of story that can be enjoyed in a couple of hours 🙂 As mentioned earlier, the story starts off in a relatively slow-paced way, with everything gradually building in intensity as the story progresses. So, although some earlier parts of the story might seem a little bit “boring”, stick with it and it will improve.

As for how this thirty-three year old novella has aged, it is pretty much timeless. Yes, the writing style is a little on the formal side of things, but the focus on the timeless elements of the human condition (eg: love, desire, curiosity etc..) and the mixture of timeless mundane life and unearthly horror are as effective today as they probably were in 1986.

All in all, this is an intelligent, compelling and atmospheric horror novella. Yes, the narration is perhaps slightly too formal and the story takes a while to really get going, but this is a timeless novel that improves with each reading of it. Yes, I preferred Barker’s fast-paced sequel, “The Scarlet Gospels”, to this novel – but “The Hellbound Heart” is a surprisingly sophisticated, and refreshingly short, horror story 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

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