Review: The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker (2015) St. Martin’s Press

I recently finished reading The Scarlet Gospels, by famed horror author Clive Barker. I usually like Barker’s work and have been a fan of his for a long time but this book was a huge let down. I haven’t always liked everything he’s done but usually the darker stuff he creates is great. The last Barker book I read was Mister B. Gone and I loved it. His descriptions of demons and Hell in that book are a world above what he penned in Gospels.

I’ve read several reviews on The Scarlet Gospels now and they range from utter disgust to elation – there seems to be no middle ground. I’ve also seen several people accuse Barker of using a ghost writer for the last 2/3 of the book. After reading it, I’m not so sure about that theory but I will tell you this: it sure ain’t the Barker of old!

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I learned a few things about Clive Barker over the past few years that changed my opinion of him. Probably the biggest thing that shook me was learning that he loathes what the Hellraiser film series has become.

One of my favorite books is an anthology called Hellbound Hearts, which has Hellraiser as a theme with short stories by various authors. It’s an amazing book and one that I did not want to end. I cannot say the same about The Scarlet Gospels. I had hope that Gospels would be as good as Hellbound. Alas, not even close.

If you read the introduction to The Books of Blood 1-3, Barker tells us that he hates being known as the “horror guy.” He’s spent the past few years delving into other subject matter, including young adult fantasy fiction. So when news broke that he was returning to Hell, I was both shocked and skeptical.

Still, I also learned that Barker almost died and I know that kind of experience can change everything about a person, including their creativity flow. Not to mention that he lost his parents, his longtime partner and another friend he considered a son as well. Oh, and he’s also revealed that he was a male prostitute for a time, early in his writing career when he was struggling to make ends meet.

So it’s no surprise then that The Scarlet Gospels feels like anything but Clive Barker because the man who wrote The Hellbound Heart is not the same man and that’s okay.

What’s not okay is The Scarlet Gospels. It sucks.

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I’m not going to explain the entire plot here but basically, Pinhead wants to take over Hell and Scooby Doo and the gang must stop him. No, really.

The book starts out well, with a wealth of gore that pays homage to the series’ past. But then everything goes downhill from there. The characters are…silly, for lack of a better term, but it’s difficult to take any of them seriously. This “adventure” feels like a ‘Scooby Doo Goes To Hell’ episode…jinkies.

And if you just cringed at the word “jinkies” then you now know what it’s like reading the dialogue in The Scarlet Gospels. It’s awful, goofy and just overall bad.

The characters themselves are right out of a comic book, if said comic book were the LGTB Super Friends. And there’s not a thing wrong with LGTB characters – actually, it was refreshing to read material with characters like that in a mainstream book but Barker sees fit to mention it ad nauseam, ultimately distracting from the story. We get it – they’re gay. Can we get on with the story now, Clive?

And Barker dubs his protagonists as “Harry and the Harrowers.” Really. That’s reason enough to hate the book right there but it gets worse. I mean, how do you go from the perversions and evil of Frank Cotton to Harry and Harrowers? That, I would like to know.

As for the “harrowers” themselves, I pictured the old Black woman, Norma, to be like the old Black woman in the TV version of Stephen King’s The Stand. She was equally annoying. As for the others, they’re boring, predictable and remind you that they’re gay every five seconds, when they’re not harrowing.

One of the reasons the original Hellraiser works is because it allows for the audience to fill in most of the details regarding Hell. It would be foolish to try and describe the minutiae of Hell unless you were really going to go the extra mile (see: Dante). Barker’s version of Hell here reads like a trip through New Jersey after dark.

Is it seedy? Sure, I guess…scary? Not a chance. It’s also silly and we spend a majority of the book there, slogging through scene after scene of boring dreck. Barker’s Hell in Gospels feels more like a watered down Midian in Nightbreed. Hardcore Barker fans might like that but to Hellraiser fans it’s painful and pitiful. he also makes it a point to create a language for some of the demons in Hell, which comes off sounding cheesy and contrived.

I have to admit that the only other introduction to Barker’s character, Harry D’Amour, is from the film Lord of Illusions. I loved Lord of Illusions! It’s a favorite flick and so when I imagined D’Amour battling Pinhead, I was stoked because in my mind, I was picturing Scott Bakula battling Doug Bradley. But what we get in Gospels is Fred from Scooby Doo going up against The Creeper (also from Scooby Doo). It’s lame. And that’s putting it mildly.

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I could go on and on, as there are so many things wrong with this novel but let me focus on a few things. For one, Satan is in the book. And it turns out that he hates his job and wants out. Fair enough. Near the end, he escapes Hell and winds up hitchhiking to New York City. Sounds promising right? Wrong.

He meets a woman along the way and fancies her. They fuck. He then tries pizza for the first time in his life, is awestruck by the bright lights and big city and exclaims: I shall spend the rest of my days eating this same thing in the Big Apple…who knew Satan was such a hick? 

If that sounds at all entertaining to you then you will enjoy this book. If, on the other hand, you’re like me and laughed out loud after reading that part, then you will hate this book. Because it’s a bunch of little scenes like that all strung together. Wtf, Clive?

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This is actually an interesting point because Barker has written himself into the story with Satan. You see, Satan hates the world he created the same way Barker hates the Hellraiser world he created. And like Satan, Barker sought an escape and wanted to destroy his creation. Mission accomplished.

There is absolutely zero explanation as to how Hell being destroyed will effect the earth or the universe etc. You’d figure with a cool premise such as the end end of Hell, that it would unleash some kind of demonic/zombie apocalypse upon the earth, yeah? Nope. All we get is hipster Satan. And that’s just ONE of the reasons this book sucks so bad.

Ultimately, everything ever associated with Hell or Hellraiser gets destroyed in the book. Barker said in an interview that this was him pissing on the franchise. Well, he’s also managed to piss on all the fans as well because this book is utter shit. And I hate saying that because writing a book is never easy but he didn’t even try here.

Hopefully Barker will stick to young adult fantasy stuff from here on out and leave the Hellraiser and horror stuff to people who care about it and will do it justice. Don’t waste your money on this book because it’s garbage. Instead, check out Hellbound Hearts, which pays homage to a series its creator left behind long ago.

Rating: 1 Star.