NOTE: This is the sixth in a series of 31 reviews of scary short stories and novels. As part of All Hallow’s Read, I will be sharing all the scary stories that I think you should consider giving to someone for Halloween. Because this is a tradition intended for people of all ages, some of these titles will be for children and young adults, while others are meant strictly for adults. Happy Reading.
The Hellbound Heart
By, Clive Barker
There is no one, and I mean no one, who can scare me better than Clive Barker.
I know I’ve already mentioned a few times that I am surrounded by a lot of unfinished books. Many of them were penned (and I mean that literally – the guy writes in longhand.) by Mr. Barker. His quality of writing has everything to do with it. Not meaning it’s bad. Exactly the opposite. Clive Barker is too fucking good.
I first read about him in the pages of Fangoria magazine. The writer had been to visit Barker and spent time in his gallery. Clive is a damn good painter as well. The art he saw was so powerful they stayed with him. He woke in the middle of the night, sweating, the images Clive had committed to canvas haunting his dreams. This intrigued me. Art and imagery so powerful that it literally sticks to you. Every now and then reminding you it’s still there.
When I abandon a Barker novel it’s because I can’t stomach that level of mental penetration. Even his fantasy work managed to burrow deep. Take Imajica for example. As far as I can tell, not a horror book. A few tropes pop up, but it is largely fantasy. Ten years ago, I bought that book from a secondhand shop. It remains unfinished to this day.
I got to a point in the book where Barker was describing someone’s death. Nothing gory. Just a natural death caused by illness. Something about his prose got under my skin. It was as though I was the one dying. My body failing, beginning to rot before my heart had the chance to stop beating. Thinking of it even now gets me a little paranoid.
There was another sensation as well. Like Clive himself had managed to reach under my skin and feel around. Very unsettling.
But, a pretty good image to serve as a lead into today’s choice.
Hellraiser is a brilliant film. You can tell because it spawned an embarrassing number of embarrassing sequels. Usually horror films with that level of depth and originality spawn such a long line of crap. Ones that connect on some primal notion stick with you long past their welcome in paler and paler forms of their formerly textured selves.
At a time of teen slashers, it told a story of adults. When monsters were villains out to kill the humans, Hellraiser showcased the monstrousness of humans out to kill themselves. It is repulsively beautiful.
The central image of Pinhead alone is so striking it’s like a pin of its own struck through your head. That’s why they put him on the poster, despite having such a small part in the overall film. A poster, btw, which fascinated and terrified me at the same time as a child.
Well, all of that greatness came from a small novella published in 1986. (Even my favorite threat in all of film. When Kirsty promises to return her uncle Frank to the cenobites, they inform her that if she’s lying, if she cheats them, they will “Tear…her soul…APART!” If that doesn’t give you chills, you’re already dead.)
The Hellbound Heart, like the film it inspired, is brilliant. Not only does it tell a riveting story, with real poetry, stuffing one’s mind with astonishing images unlike anything you’ve ever conceived, it creates a fully realized world and mythology, while hinting at so much greater, all with an intoxicating, foreboding, atmosphere established in its very first line:
“So intent was Frank on solving the puzzle of Lemarchand’s box that he didn’t hear the great bell begin to ring.”
What box? What bell? Who’s Lemarchand? Who the hell is Frank? Why is he toying with some puzzle?
The answers to these questions are obvious if you’ve already seen the film. Yet that takes nothing away from the power and mystery of that opening. To a fan of the movie it’s like being shown a bit of the magic within the magic. Another way at looking at this world. For someone who is not familiar with the material, I envy their chance to experience this fresh.
That entire first chapter blew me away. Things don’t exactly turn out the way they do in the film, but it is done so effectively. Film is a visual medium, the opening had to be dramatic. Prose is something else, something suggestive. There was room to get inside the reader’s head, and it does.
I won’t spoil it. But I will say, you will experience what Frank experiences, and the pleasure and pain of it will be truly indivisible.
Surprisingly, this novella did not scare me the way his other work did. I think it’s because so much of it had been revealed in the film. That didn’t stop it from seeping beneath the skin. As I type this now, Clive’s hands move somewhere through my abdomen, stirring only slightly, but enough to remind me it’s still there.
A little PS…After decades worth of crap Pinhead stories, done without Clive’s input, the prodigal son will return with the epic horror novel The Scarlet Gospels. Barker will be putting the pin in Pinhead, telling the ultimate odyssey through hell, featuring another one of his well respected (though not as often molested) characters Harry D’Amour. With delight I shutter at the prospect of having another Clive Barker novel to not finish.