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.

Review: “The Scarlet Gospels” By Clive Barker (Novel)

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.

This is the 2015 Macmillan (UK) hardback edition of “The Scarlet Gospels” that I read.

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.