Wednesday, April 08, 2015

The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker, Reviewed by Charlie Jack Joseph Kruger

There is a run of authors that I see as the sorta 'big 4' of modern horror. Stephen King, Peter Straub, Thomas Harris, and Clive Barker. Of these four, Clive Barker has always been the dangerous one. Stephen King, even at his most sickly and cruel never touched the vicious profanity and sacrilege that Barker bathes his writing in. Peter Straub moves with focus and precision, keeping his horrors tight, and in short controlled bursts, ever ascending to the dizzying bacchanal of Barker's flirtations with anthemic depravity. And Thomas Harris, a supreme master of terror and function, makes every move with such baffling conviction and contemplation that his 'Hannibal' trilogy is unrelenting without ever embracing the moist sadosexuality of Barker's best demons. Clive Barker has always aimed for the carnal. With 'Cabal', 'Hellbound Heart', 'Damnation Game' and the varied 'Books of Blood', he wrote from behind a veneer of hyper-sexuality and knuckle-breaking disregard for tact. His characters have been invasive, exploitative, and most of all, cruel.

For the past few books, Barker has seemingly pulled himself away from the carnal death-dreams of his earlier work, and set himself in both young adult, and mild-fantasy novels. Even the character of Harry D'Amore found himself utilized in stories less guttural and viscous, and more charming and even tongue in cheek. With 'The Scarlet Gospels' both of these modes of storytelling, the profane and the winking self-aware, collide. And they collide well. The classic Barker-esque descriptions and situations paired themselves well with the more mature, more flavored prose and dialogue of his later career.

Set as a sequel to Harry's stories, and to 'The Hellbound Heart', peppered with references and moments to 'Coldheart Canyon', 'The Great and Secret Show' and others, this book seems like a last will and testament. As I read through the intoxicating novel, I felt like I was in a graveyard, watching stories, characters, ideas, fragments of Barker himself, being put to rest. Being given endings, traumatic or serene, that are permanent. The climactic swelling of the novel begins almost as soon as the book is opened, and it is sustained skillfully by Barker.

It would have been easy for him to extend this story, make this another massive swollen novel of 600-800 pages plumped with tirades, trails, side-stories, and fragments of other books brought into clearer light... but thankfully Barker instead chose brevity. The most horrifying moments of Barker's career have been found in his shorter fiction. The novellas 'Cabal', and 'The Hellbound Heart' and again, the 'Books of Blood' hold his strongest punches. And so almost as if knowing that, Barker doesnt let this book roll on too long. He keeps it focused, concentrated, condensed. He keeps it pure. And that purity is ghastly.

Another massive strength of this novel is the iconic authority of the Hell Priest (the unlovingly named 'Pinhead') and how Barker plays with it. For example, the novel never explicitly states it, or makes it clear between the two covers, wether it is a sequel to 'The Hellbound Heart', the movies 'Hellraiser' or 'Hellbound: Hellraiser 2', or some amalgam of them both. It simply exists in another time, with our spiked demon at the helm once more. And because through 9 films (yeah, there are a lot of debates to be had about that number, and i'll have them, but this isnt the place) and countless pop culture appropriations and effigies the Hell Priest has become a social power all unto himself. As a result, he needs no introduction, no description no details, and no explanation. He is as much an assumed character as Satan himself is. And any reader of Barker's is already familiar with Harry D'Amore, so again, no introduction is needed. Because there is no need for table-setting or preparation, this book is effective in being a full on 360 page climax. A final action set after a 30 year initial incident.

While the book's ending is surprisingly neat and tidy, I was left wanting more. Not because the story is incomplete, or that the writing is lacking, but because by the end of the novel, our familiar (and new) faces have become weathered and honed. They become, in effect, new characters. Characters I want to explore more heavily. Characters that Barker should be proud of.

This is a phenomenal return of one of my favorite contemporary authors. This is a must-read book for 2015.

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