I wrote for a horror website called Ginger Nuts of Horror until the site’s proprietor, Jim McLeod, kicked me off the site and called me, a Jewish man, a Nazi for expressing my political opinions in my own virtual space. Because I had the temerity to call him out on it, he instituted a purge, deleting all of the articles I’d written for Ginger Nuts of Horror. The following review of Clive Barker’s novel The Scarlet Gospels is one of the articles he deleted.
The problem with raising the bar is that you always have to reach higher just to maintain. Any substantive discussion of the horror genre must include Clive Barker: he’s shaped dark fiction in a way few writers have the skill or imagination to accomplish. We all have favorite authors, some of whom take familiar tropes in surprising directions or amaze us with their power of description. They’re great, but they aren’t Barker, a man who isn’t just in a class by himself, but created a new classification to be the master of. On his worst day, he’s still fantastic.
So what happened with The Scarlet Gospels?
There’s no need to reiterate plot synopses or discuss the novel’s importance to the horror genre. This piece is more a post-mortem than a standard review, so if you haven’t read it yet, I would suggest that you do so right away. Further on, there will be spoilers. Despite its flaws, The Scarlet Gospels is an amazing read, and I found myself drawing it out, rereading some passages and taking breaks to savor the experience. You don’t do that with a book you hate.
Nevertheless, The Scarlet Gospels fell short. We’re used to something visionary from Barker, something that will paint a new picture of grotesquerie in the mind’s eye, frame it, and hang it in a place of honor. What we got instead was a pencil sketch.
The novel’s greatest flaw is its inherent sloppiness. This is a book Barker wanted to be done with so he could move on to something else. Despite the shattering events in the novel, from describing the death of a beloved horror icon to the literal destruction of Hell, there’s no feeling of the epic, no sense that what’s happening has import beyond the limited perspective of the characters. The ending is abrupt and anticlimactic, providing us with glimpses of majesty but no resolution. Is this the first in a new series? Will there be a Second Gospels? If not, do we really need to know that pizza is Lucifer’s favorite food?
The novel’s main antagonist, Pinhead, was always going to be a massively difficult character to pull off. Everyone comes to The Scarlet Gospels with a series of preconceptions, even those who aren’t Barker fans, precisely because of Pinhead’s looming presence in the horror genre. For some time, Doug Bradley’s scarified, nail-studded face was horror. In literature, however, he was a cipher: a minor character in The Hellbound Heart. What we expect from Pinhead must necessarily be an amalgam of Doug Bradley’s performances in a series of movies Barker himself had little to do with (aside from the first), and some comic book appearances. With that in mind, Pinhead is still Barker’s demon to kick around, and what the Hell Priest does or doesn’t do is up to Barker, not us. You can’t write a character by committee.
Pinhead’s fate was not unexpected: defeat by Lucifer, humiliation, and disintegration. Barker himself said, “One of the things I’m trying to do in the story with D’Amour and Pinhead is, I actually want to kind of make Pinhead feel fucked. I want people to make fools of him as he breathes his last and with no hope of resurrection. No sequels. I swear the way he’s going – I have plotted this – the way he’s going is so total, is so complete that the most optimistic film producer in Hollywood could never dream of resurrecting him!” Fair enough, but at the end, he very much resembled Kuttner Dowd from Imajica. Dowd, Imajica’s antagonist, had been defeated, almost killed (thrown into the well beneath The Pivot and then mashed by chunks of The Pivot when it disintegrated). Despite terrible injuries, Dowd was able to recover long enough to cause more grief before a true death by killing Oscar. Compare this to Pinhead’s end: after Pinhead’s maiming at the hands of Lucifer, he was still able to rape and murder Norma, as well as blind D’amour. Note also how blindness is used as a theme in both Imajica and The Scarlet Gospels: Quaisoir blinded by rebels, D’amour blinded by Pinhead. Pinhead’s mission on Earth to steal magic is also reminiscent of Imajica’s Tabula Rasa organization. It can be argued that these similarities of theme and character are part of Barker’s inimitable style, but not convincingly so: they’re retreads. We’ve seen them before.
D’amour’s treatment in the novel was colorless. He could have been any tattooed detective: hard-drinking, hard-boiled, on hard times. While the flashback with the Masturbating Demon was interesting, it didn’t provide us with any insight as to D’amour’s character. His relationship with Norma felt forced: we simply had to assume their love for each other, without any build-up. Their closeness was just a spur to get him to travel to Hell. Amazingly, not one of the events of Everville were referred to in any meaningful way whatsoever. I thought that the Iad Ouroboros were scratching at the shores of Quiddity, ready to body surf to Earth. What happened to them? Is D’amour’s fate now to mirror that of Jennifer Love Hewitt in The Ghost Whisperer?
Is This Hell?
Hell, as depicted in the novel, had little to do with the Hell we’re familiar with. Where were the sinners? Did they all just live in Fike’s Trench? In which case, what happens to them when they die in Hell? Hell has mansions and temples and a Monastery of the Cenobitical Order, but without the underlying purpose of punishing sinners, Hell in The Scarlet Gospels may as well have been the back streets of Yzordderrex or The Fugue. It’s a fascinating place, full of dark wonder and bizarre architecture, but it isn’t Hell. Barker redefined it into something unrecognizable. If Pinhead’s job as a Hell Priest isn’t to punish sinners, then what is his job? Where does the Cenobitical Order fall in the infernal hierarchy? The Unconsumed, one of Hell’s leaders, says to Pinhead, “A Cenobite is to work within the system. You seem content to work outside that system.” What system isn’t he working in? Without knowing this, Pinhead’s ouster lacked narrative punch.
Damn You Christian Hypocrites
If there is one central theme running throughout The Scarlet Gospels, it’s explicitly anti-Christian. Every time Christianity is mentioned, it’s linked to hypocrisy, abuse, and evil. Carston Goode, the ghost who brought both Norma and D’amour into the events of the story, was one such hypocrite. Despite “a deep-seated faith in the generosity of the Lord his God,” Goode is a sorcerer with a secret life of sexual deviance.
D’amour himself is a survivor of childhood rape at the hands of classmates at St. Dominic’s All Boys Catholic School, where “The Fathers all had their favorite” boys to molest (for his part, D’amour “had more kick in him than any of the Fathers were willing to handle.”). Despite how awful this must have been, D’amour’s childhood sexual abuse simply received a couple of throwaway paragraphs in service of telling us that D’amour abhors the smell of old books. Was that really the best way to explain why D’amour hates that old book smell, or was Barker simply falling back on the hackneyed theme of Catholic pederasty?
After the Harrowers’ escape from Hell, they are picked up by the Reverend Kutchaver, who rails at them when he learns that Dale and Caz are gay: “’I have watched damned sodomites like you.’ He pointed at Caz. ‘And you’—now at Dale—‘driven by demons whose faces were foul beyond words.’” Unable to bear the presence of the Harrowers, Kutchaver abandons the car, shouting obscenities in a most unreverend manner. Another anti-Christian scene: tiresome, clichéd, and overdone.
Lucifer’s destruction of Hell is itself a gigantic “fuck you” to God, and the angels are depicted as idiotic buffoons, easily dispatched. God, one presumes, is as absentee in Heaven as Lucifer had been in Hell; in any event, He seems to have taken little notice of the events of the novel. This is where the sloppiness of The Scarlet Gospels cheapens the climax: with a Hell that’s unrecognizable as Hell and a suicidal Lucifer as the unwilling, uncaring landlord, why should Hell’s destruction carry any meaning whatsoever? Why should we care about what Lucifer does as Alice Morrow’s boy toy? Lucifer’s fate echoes our own: we’re left at sea, lacking closure.
Regardless of your personal feelings about Christianity, isn’t the theme of Christian hypocrisy just a little bit tiresome already? Outside of the Christian fiction genre, wouldn’t it be nice to find a devout Christian in fiction who isn’t a homophobe and/or a sinful hypocrite? The default inclusion of the theme of Christian hypocrisy strikes me as unnecessary at best, or a sop at worst to readers of a certain mindset. (I should probably point out here that I’m not a Christian, nor have I ever been. My criticism is born out of an appreciation of quality, not offense at content.)
There are other minor examples of sloppiness: the contradictory description of the Unconsumed, where in one sentence it says, “his body was now blackened by heat,” and a few sentences down, it says, “Yet somehow, the rest of him—his skin, flesh, and bone—was unaffected by the volcanic heat in which he sat,”; the strangeness of everyone expecting that Lana, a lesbian, and D’amour would come together romantically at some point; and how Pinhead was able to go on a magician-killing spree without being summoned by a Lemarchand Box; but my point here isn’t to utterly trash the novel. I understand that as fans it’s very hard for our expectations to be met, and that disappointment is often as much a function of reader angst as the writer’s efforts. The Scarlet Gospels is a good book. I liked it.
I just think it could’ve been better. It should have.