Pinhead returns for more hellraising
Published 07/06/2015 | 02:30
When horror writer Clive Barker first came to public attention in the late 80s, he was, with grim inevitability, hailed as the 'new Stephen King'.
Of course, being described as the new Stephen King is as much a rite of passage for an emerging horror writer as it was for a new singer-songwriter to be referred to as the new Bob Dylan.
Things didn't quite work out like that for Barker - and it probably didn't help that King himself had endorsed the young Liverpudlian's joyously gruesome work. While he never enjoyed the mainstream success or critical acclaim of the Maine maestro, he has always peddled a rather unique blend of transgressive gore with a healthy dose of demonic, sadomasochistic violence.
For all the books, comics, movies and video games that he has been involved in creating over the last few decades, none of his characters have ever struck a chord with the public quite like Pinhead, the cenobite 'Hell Priest' who came to fame in the 1987 classic, Hellraiser.
As compelling as he was terrifying, Pinhead ultimately became a sort of Freddy Krueger - originally meant as a fiendish villain, who somehow morphed into a figure of fun, complete with kids' Halloween masks.
Pinhead is back in Barker's keenly anticipated Scarlet Gospels, which sees another of his recurring characters, the demon-hunting detective Harry D'Amour, lock horns with Pinhead.
This being a Clive Barker novel - his first for adults since 2007 - nothing is left in the author's locker.
Following a disastrous job in New Orleans, which sees D'Amour almost sucked into hell, he returns to New York where he soon learns that a life of hunting and killing demons has marked him out for special attention for Pinhead, who kidnaps one of Harry's friends, forcing him to venture into hell itself to rescue her.
The hell on show here is less Milton and more Chuck Palahniuk (his 2011 novel, Damned, was also set almost entirely in hell), as we discover the almost humdrum nature of the Ring of Fire - squabbling demons, bureaucracy, and a palpable sense of the absurd, mean this version of Hades is more like a really, really horrible Middle Eastern country rather than a repository for the damned.
The explorations of hell's geography will certainly entertain, but as Harry and Pinhead clash, and as Pinhead endeavours to kill Lucifer in a final battle to become Pope of Hell, one thing becomes depressingly clear: The Scarlet Gospels is not unnerving, or disturbing, or likely to leave an impact once it has been finished.
It has some fine set pieces and, as we have come to expect from Barker, plenty of fiendishly clever observations. But Pinhead, rather like the shark in Jaws, works best in smaller, mysterious doses.
By the time the last act unfolds, and hell has descended into anarchy, the initial jolt of the opening passages has long dissipated.
Nonetheless, fans of Barker will still be relieved to finally get their hands on a book, which has been in the works for more than a decade, but is only seeing the publishing light of day now.
The Scarlet Gospels
Macmillan, hbk, 288 pages, €20