The Scarlet Gospels – Clive Barker

ScarletUKJoseph Ragowski has been resurrected, brought back from his quiet death because the last members of his dwindling magic circle need him, desperately. Where once they numbered hundreds there were only five left remaining, now six with Joseph returned, but irretrievable are the magical texts taken from every bloody killing.

The name may be unspoken, but they know who has culled their order, the hallmarks of his work in every desecrated body he has left across the globe: “He was hanging from the ceiling by chains. They were attached to hooks that had been put through his flesh… He looked as though he had died screaming.”

In New York City, detective Harry D’Amour has a recently deceased client, Carston Goode, who needs some business tidied up in his second home, an indiscretion of pretty young men and petty black magic which he doesn’t wish his grieving widow to discover.

ScarletUSA city which was home to many of Anne Rice’s stories as well as American Horror Story: Coven; the links between New Orleans and the dark arts are as well established as its reputation for partying and surviving catastrophe, but in Goode’s secret house of sin Harry finds more than he expects: a Lemarchand Box which he is unable to resist, primed to lure him in and open the gates of Hell.

Barely escaping the trap and recovering from his injuries, Harry returns to New York to regroup with his friends, the blind psychic Norma Paine, a ghost talker, and the towering tattoo artist Caz whose protective inscriptions are etched into Harry’s skin, but the Priest of Hell is not easily dissuaded from his quarry.

The very name The Scarlet Gospels recalls Barker’s earliest collections of short stories –

Every body is a book of blood;
Wherever we’re opened, we’re red.

– and at its brilliant opening chapters this new novel is vintage Barker, a glorious orgy of life and death, sex and violence, blood and spit and bile and excrement and semen, a celebration of flesh and spirit violated and reborn, but the lesson of the Hellraiser movies was that less is far, far more, that Pinhead (a nickname he understandably despises, extracting penance from those who utter it) works best as a barely glimped symbol of fear and dread, a voice of the darnkness given terrible form.

ScarletLtdSending folded origami curses on the wind to incapacitate his brethren while he stages his coup in Hell, the Priest of Hell weaves his magic in paper with ease but Barker struggles to do the same and the daily domesticities and mundane goings on of the damned who inhabit Pyratha, first city of Hell where sits the Monastery of the Cenobitical order, dissipates the urgency and momentum established during the earthly chapters.

Elevated to principal character for sections of the book as he negotiates the petty jealousies of the squabbling political hierarchies of Hell, the Cenobite loses his mystery and becomes another manipulative functionary, albeit one whose ambition encompasses the most devilishly grandiose schemes, but as a weary travelogue of a pedestrian Hell it recalls the folly of Anne Rice’s Memnoch the Devil, though Barker is blessedly incapable of that level of deluded self-indulgence.

As a razor toothed satire this might have had more bite (as in, for example, Glen Duncan’s scathing I, Lucifer), but the Priest of Hell is not noted for his sense of irony. Instead, seen close up, the weariness beneath the sneer becomes apparent, diminishing a character who was previously an unassailable icon.

ScarletDEPerhaps it was Barker’s wish, to unmask his most famous creation, to delve into his innards in the same manner as the Hell Priest has done to so many unfortunates, in what is planned as his final appearance. As a creator who has seen his monster taken from him and humiliated in many film sequels over which he had no control or input it is certainly Barker’s right to have the last word.

It is apparent that Barker has not written a novel intended for an adult audience in fifteen years, the interim having been spent catering to younger readers. While the prose of the early scenes was grimly descriptive, in the collapsing Hell the endless parade of superlatives become meaningless, every tower the highest, every massacre the bloodiest, every crash the loudest. The narrative linear to the point of trite, the passage to Hell being facilitated by conveniently located magical portals, The Scarlet Gospels lacks the twists, depth and sophistication of The Great and Secret Show and Everville.

Having suffered from serious illness in recent years from which he has now largely recovered, the return of Barker is in equal measures anticipated, welcome and disappointing, but it is to be hoped that having warmed himself over the coals of Hell and survived that should he now turn to the promised final volume of the Books of the Art that it will be a true return to form of a living legend of imaginative literature.

The Scarlet Gospels is available now from Macmillan and as a limited illustrated edition from Clive’s website