Book review: Clive Barker's The Scarlet Gospels - Harry's back
Clive Barker has always delighted in revealing the terrible darkness gathered just beyond the veil, ready and waiting for us to yield to the temptations of our inner ghosts and darkest desires. Shock and terror are short-lived emotions, however: you either recover or their cause kills you. It's also possible that careers in horror are inherently time-limited. It's one thing to make a splash with extraordinary early work, as Barker did with the seminal Books of Blood, novels such as The Damnation Game and Weaveworld, and the successful Hellraiser franchise.
The Scarlet Gospels is Barker's first adult novel since 2001's Coldheart Canyon and sees the return of two of his most compelling characters. Harry D'Amour is a private eye locked in an endless weary battle with the dark, a man covered in tattoos protecting him from spirits and demons. D'Amour first appeared in Books of Blood and has popped up since, notably in the expansive Everville. In this new novel, he is pulled into climactic confrontation with Barker's most iconic creation of all, the high priest of Hell, Pinhead.
Along the way we meet denizens of both Hell and various hells on Earth, the kind of characters at which Barker excels - lustrously damaged and polymorphously perverse individuals. After a contained first section in which D'Amour limps back to New York following a bad experience in New Orleans, the novel's metaphysical remit expands when he declines an offer he shouldn't have refused, prompting a harrowing rescue mission as he tries to save his blind medium friend Norma Paine from Pinhead's clutches.
The story that unfolds between Pinhead and D'Amour is meticulously framed, endlessly inventive and spun with rollicking good humour. The devil is in the detail, naturally, and Barker's unique imagination remains extraordinarily fecund.
Many have tried to emulate Barker's confidence with the appalling, but their work often feels like a mere piling on of words, designed to shock. Barker, one suspects, really doesn't care. Here he's come out with newly sharpened knives.
In The Scarlet Gospels, Barker applies himself to a more focused canvas, and his emotional palette is the richer for it, with striking moments of real tenderness. He's in tight control of his prose, and there's a lightness of touch that's sometimes been missing in the past. In short, this reads like a novel by a man who's glad to be back, and has plenty of sights to show us. It's also a damned good read.
It's a strange old universe. Come see its dark side, if you dare.
The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker (St Martin's Press)