Clive Barker hasn’t returned to his Hellraiser series of stories nor his Harry D’Amour shorts in quite a while, and they’ve never crossed over into the same realm. But his latest novel, The Scarlet Gospels, does just that, taking two of Barker’s most iconic figures (both from literature and film) and pitting them against each other in a battle of forces, where the winner determines if Hell overtakes the earth. It’s a risky proposition to put both of these characters together, because to be honest, the Hellraiser series has very little in common with the private investigations of D’Amour besides that character’s ability to battle against demons because of various mystical powers he possesses. And fans of both series have been waiting a good while for Barker to return to the ideas that, arguably, made him a powerhouse of the horror fiction sphere.
The Scarlet Gospels, then, has a lot to live up to. It’s working with both of those storylines in a way that allows Barker to progress both at the same time, with D’Amour as a protagonist and Pinhead (the derogatory name for the Hell Priest of the novel) as antagonist. This is the best way to tackle such a mash-up, and Barker starts things off with smattering of gory descriptive moments, a buffet of violent scenes that call back to Hellraiser’s ultraviolence.
Then Barker works in D’Amour, a private investigator with the tendency to mimic noir detectives of old. However, The Scarlet Gospels is less like The Maltese Falcon than expected, told from a third-person omniscient point-of-view. Barker’s prose in this novel is pretty blunt, and that’s often to the detriment of his characters; D’Amour is less interesting in this story because it feels like Barker is really forcing the dialogue, some of it so hackneyed that it limits the suspense of the rest of the plot. It’s clear that Barker is attempting to blend both aspects of his universes into one – D’Amour tends to be a bit more sarcastic and wry, whereas the Hellraiser universe is more about pain, suffering, and BDSM – but it’s an aspect that doesn’t work as well as Barker would probably hope.
Part of that stems from Pinhead, who has been built up in earlier stories as such a powerful being in Hell that Barker’s introduction of him here as a lowly Hell-dweller attempting to rise up the demon ranks until he reaches Lucifer’s level of power seems to negate what we’ve seen of him in the past. He’s still a powerful force, and he still has the iconic hooks of death; but The Scarlet Gospels attempts to glean too much humor out of Pinhead. Barker goes one step further than making him into a villain who enjoys pain and suffering, and the dialogue loses a lot of what made Pinhead so terrifying. He becomes a facade of his former self, easier to laugh at than to fear.
There’s also the problem of Barker’s metaphysical descriptions in Hell; as D’Amour and a few of his demon-fighting buddies journey into the great abyss, Barker includes a ton of demon baddies for them to battle, all of them intriguingly different in their descriptions. But as D’Amour vanquishes these enemies, they’re described as dying, except that they’re already in Hell. Where they go from here, what it means to die in Hell, isn’t explained, and this becomes a problem in the final chapters of The Scarlet Gospels when they find Lucifer, dead by suicide until he rises from the grave to fight Pinhead in a tete-a-tete for power over Hell. The idea is interesting, and Barker goes into immense detail about the fighting itself, but otherwise the meaning behind dying, the takeover of Hell, and the potential for Hell to rise to Earth, is lost.
The Scarlet Gospels, then, mainly becomes a story about D’Amour’s journey to Hell to get back his close friend Norma as she’s put through a series of increasingly traumatic events. Barker isn’t averse to depicting all kinds of debauched sexual antics, and this novel is full of them, including rape, masturbation, and other filthy acts. Barker is more successful when he’s focusing on D’Amour, because he seems to have his voice down better than Pinhead’s; though the comedy is somewhat cringe-worthy, that’s the kind of person D’Amour is, and it fits in better than the stuff from the Hellraiser series.
Unfortunately The Scarlet Gospels sounds good on paper but is less effective in execution. Barker’s return to two of his best characters leaves much to be desired, not so much in plot – he’s always a good weaver of story – but in the prose itself, often wavering between comedy and ultraviolence in a way that shifts the Hellraiser tone away from the sadomasochism it used to have; it’s no longer deadly serious, and that means the themes that worked in early stories no longer apply. While fans of Barker’s work may find The Scarlet Gospels an interesting read, it’s certainly not worthy of worship nor his best work by far.