If any one character has defined Clive Barker as a writer, it’s Pinhead. The demon from his The Hellbound Heart novella has gone on to star in nine films and several comics, and one of the great pleasures of The Scarlet Gospels is the sense of an author reclaiming ownership over one of his creations.
The book finds the Cenobite Priest (shockingly, he’s not fond of the Pinhead nickname) literally tearing through the world’s magicians. When supernatural PI Harry D’Amour (another of Barker’s recurring characters) comes across him, he’s caught up in the demon’s attempts to conquer Hell, and will have to venture into the Inferno.
The Scarlet Gospels gets off to a hell of a start (sorry, not sorry), as a group of arrogant magicians try to come up with a plan to escape Pinhead before he arrives and puts them through the kind of torture that takes you right back to Barker’s early work. There’s a terrific energy and an eagerness to remind readers just what his villain is capable of; Pinhead is cruel and his punishments are entirely horrifying.
By contrast, Harry’s journey is breezy fun – although his first encounter with a demon will not be forgotten in a hurry – until he’s forced to enter Hell.
Unfortunately, it’s here that the book starts to lose steam. Barker creates a political hierarchy for a functioning Hell, but tears it apart so quickly that it feels like you have wasted your time, especially as it’s followed by an extended chase sequence that drags its feet.
Similarly, Harry’s band of heroes aren’t as endearing as they’re intended to be and their levity sits in odd contrast to Pinhead’s brutality. There’s some striking imagery, however, and Barker still finds ways to cut through the familiarity of demons squabbling in the absence of Lucifer.
True to form, The Scarlet Gospels is skin-crawling and shocking, it’s just a shame that the lead-up to the main event drags. That being said, fans of Barker should definitely read this.