The Scarlet Gospels, by Clive Barker

July 12, 2015

It was all so promising: a mausoleum by candlelight, murmured incantations in the blackness of night, a resurrected corpse complaining about its disturbed slumber; hints of some global assault on magic-makers; a demonic bell tolling in the graveyard beyond the crypt’s walls, and the dead man laughing grimly at the fate about to befall the gathered company.

The prologue to Clive Barker’s “The Scarlet Gospels” is the best part of the book. After it, the story flails about for a while before devolving into an apocalyptic parody, completely self-unaware, but collapsing under the weight of its many inconsistencies, unfinished ideas, and technical outrages.

This is a very bad book.

I have never read Clive Barker before, but if this is an example of his oeuvre, his success is a mystery to me, and the praise on the jacket by the likes of Stephen King and Peter Straub incomprehensible.

I am aware by osmosis of the Barker canon: the “Cenobites” are some kind of demonic order, and “Pinhead” is one of their worst practitioners of sadism against humans too curious for their own good. His cruelty and his ability to defy natural law are efficiently sketched in the prologue with great skill, and Barker’s crisp and sometimes lovely writing is used in service of what promises to be a richly frightening tale.

But that tale is never told. The horrifying progeny that’s unleashed at the prologue’s conclusion never resurfaces. The bell warning of the coming of the great demon is never heard again. The iconic “hooks” he uses disappear with a throwaway line, illogically appearing near the end of the book as some kind of sop, I suppose, to long-time readers.

What we get instead of deeply imagined horror is a stupid story involving Harry D’Amour, a “paranormal detective” slipping into “Hell” with some friends to retrieve his surrogate mother who was inexplicably kidnapped at the very moment everything could have been resolved by “Pinhead” merely acting the part he played in the beginning.

As if this half-hearted story weren’t enough, Barker attempts to fill it in with allusions to some kind of moral duality: Hell has its own hierarchy of worshippers and the worshipped, and there is no obvious difference between what a demon or a human calls “Lord”. One is evil, and, presumably (for we are never shown what “good” might be), one is not. This constant lip service to deeper questions of the human conceptions of evil and devotion are placeholders for some hoped-for depth to the story that is never plumbed appropriately. In the end, “evil” is nothing more than disgust: disgust in blood, offal, or anything slightly larger than normal. Indeed, evil is disgust in anything connected to being human: evil is horror at erections, sweat, odour, the human body itself.

Likewise, there is a bizarre moral relativity at play, where there are “good demons” who help the group for no obvious reason. When one demon is sacrificed by another to placate a monster for the good of the group, Harry declaims to the others: “We shouldn’t question their rituals.” But why? What has made this act morally neutral? Isn’t any demonic act by definition “evil”? Furthermore, why do you suddenly care about the internal morality of the demonic when you have thus far been thoroughly disgusted by the very existence of said demonism?

Oh. I see. Barker is saying, Slot in deep ideas about right and wrong right here, Dear Reader, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to exert any effort in developing them.

Laziness of this sort is not restricted to the story. Characters are introduced ad hoc and never developed beyond their presence. (Who is this Lana person, and why do I care about her?) The landscapes of hell are perfunctorily drawn like a poor Mordor, its human travellers a pale and profane Fellowship. Vistas or architectures or scenes or predicaments are said time and again to be likely to produce madness, or to be so incomprehensible to human cognition as to drive one instantly insane. How? Why? What do these things really look like, or feel like? This is mere exposition with no substantive thought behind it. The oldest, most clichéd writing advice of “show us, don’t tell us” goes wildly unheeded here. Barker doesn’t even have the wherewithal to live up to his own untethered ideas: one piece of insanity-inducing architecture clever enough to make the head demon himself wary is easily defeated by a group of sex-obsessed human beings by a simple trail of goo.

There is shorthand for everything here. The hell-bound group are called “The Harrowers”, but by whom? They are never christened by anyone but the third-person narration. The “Scarlet Gospels” themselves are never directly referenced, they are never so named, they never appear, and they don’t actually exist. The title is presumably a connection to the lame-at-birth plot device of getting Harry into Hell for the arcane purposes of the head demon.

And then there are the technical issues: the constant repeating of a proper name within a paragraph to identify an actor/speaker, the awful unfunny dialogue replete with de rigueur allusions to everyone’s gayness, the shocking inconsistencies. How is it that the Leviathan creature whose “upper two segments” are “easily the size of a blue whale” can feed on people wading in shallow water? When Pinhead’s body is transformed so that he becomes a “being that no longer had need of lungs for breathing and bowels for shitting”, how is it that he is disemboweled three and half pages later, “a length of gut out of the Hell Priest’s belly” being pulled out, “uncoiling the demon’s entrails”?

This ponderousness becomes so prevalent that any skeleton of a story that may have been interesting evaporates. I just don’t care anymore. I don’t care about the structure of a universe that includes profane angels and helpful demons. I don’t care about the idea that Lucifer would commit seppuku in order to relieve himself of the monotony of his own diabolicalness. Or that he would mysteriously rise back to life again because the magic swords were withdrawn. Or that he would be defeated to death yet again, only to rise to life, yet again, as an itinerant bum hitchhiking his way across America.

Really, who cares?