Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review: The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker

361 pages

St. Martin’s Press

There is a reason that Clive Barker separated from the pack of horror writers even in the over populated post Stephen King flood of the 80's. Just look at some of the titles. The Damnation Game, Weaveworld and the Great and Secret Show to name three. I am also a fan of some of his less popular novels such as Coldheart Canyon and Sacrament. One of the problems with the Scarlet Gospels is Barker set the bar so impossibly high in his career. To make matters worse and set the bar even higher Barker teased this book for 15 years. Teasing your fans like that with hints and hype in interviews can only make the expectations grow even higher. In reality maybe we should have taken this as a warning.

I have been reading Barker since I was 8th grade. He was one of my heroes from that time. It should be noted first that I consider several of his short stories to be among the best EVER written. I think he has written multiple Masterpiece novels. Hellraiser and Lord of Illiusions are two of my favorite films. I have met Clive twice, and he was amazingly kind to me. I hate to do this, but I didn’t like the Scarlet Gospels despite eagerly waiting and wishing for it for 15 years.

The disappointment level for most fans is quite high. Before I even got a chance to read I heard more than one person suggest the book was ghost written. As I started the book I certainly saw why many people thought this was the case. It didn’t read like a Clive Barker book. For one thing a great deal of the prologue was “Told” in dialogue sometimes with very little description at all. That is something I don’t recall ever seeing in a Barker book. The man’s strength is his verbose and often beautiful use of language.

It is important to point out that beginning writers often have stories/novels rejected for this. One of the most common pieces of advice young writers need is “Show, Don’t Tell.” Huge chunks of this novel is “Told” in characters talking to each other. If you open the book to page 4-5 and read it, you’ll find almost entirely dialogue. I admit at this point I thought there was no way Clive wrote this.

I mean if you read most Barker novels there is no mistaking it’s him. You know you are reading a Clive Barker novel. Do I think it was indeed ghost written? I am going to say no. Lets keep in mind that Clive has had a divorce, and several bouts with serious illness since this title was first discussed in interviews. It is unreasonable to expect the man to write with the kind of power he did in the past. Not to mention it had been some time since Clive had written anything besides Abarat and he had seemed more focused on painting in the last decade. Writing is like muscles, atrophy can set in and it seems there was some lost mojo.

According to Revelations a website devoted to Barker’s work the Scarlet Gospels was originally “230,000 words, the page count of 368 pages reflects its editing down to a final word-count of just over 100,000” That is a lot of cut words. While it has been suggested that several storylines were cut, I suspect it was a over zealous editor at St.Martin who cut chapters down to almost all dialogue. There is a chance that a author's cut might be better or “More Barker.” There is a long novel’s worth of words on the cutting room floor.

Now on Goodreads I gave the book three stars, which is only low if you compare it to a lifetime of five star reviews that I have given Barker in the past. I don’t think it was nearly as bad several of my friends, including a few who just couldn’t finish it. I think Hellraiser nerds will enjoy it. If you go in with the bar set appropriately then you might enjoy it.

There were enough Barker-ish moments of invention and weirdness to entertain me. But I can’t ignore the problems. The story brings together Harry D’Amour the private detective that was in Barker’s film Lord of Illusions and his novel Everville and the Cenobites uniting his mythos. Barker spoiled the end not only in interviews but the dust jacket letting everyone know that Pinhead would die.

Harry and a group of friends end up walking (a lot) around hell and getting inbetween a battle between the Hell Priest (pinhead) and Lucifer. Yes the devil is a character. That is my biggest problem with the book. Barker’s greatest strength is creative imagination. He doesn’t write vampire novels, or use classic monsters. He would also come up with wild new terms and original never before monsters.

The cenobites who were weakened by over exposure in films sequels were a good example. Demons to some, angels to others but they were like no demons we ever saw before. You had a sense they came from reality that was almost beyond our ability to imagine. It wasn’t just characters out of the bible like on CW’s supernatural.

None the less Hell, demons, and Lucifer get very unBarker attention in this story. Once Lucifer and Pinhead are fist fighting in a crumbling castle in hell…well I was checked out. When I read Hellbound Heart or any early Barker novel I would marvel at his imagination. How did he think of that? I am not sure I did that once in 100,000 words of Scarlet Gospels. That is why I think everyone is so Bummed.

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

Seems we feel the same way about Barker! I've been a huge Barker fan since the mid-1980s and have been disheartened by his illnesses and personal life in the past few years, which seem to have sapped his literary energies. SCARLET GOSPELS is not a book I'm personally interested in reading--I'd have much rather preferred the Third Book of the Art! (And I too met him several times at conventions in the early '90s and he was always spectacularly charming and gracious).