So, let's start back in the year 1986, when Clive Barker first published The Hellbound Heart, a novella concerning Frank cotton, and his unusual nihilism and taste for the very exotic in the boudoir. Frank opens The Lament Configuration, a puzzle box that also serves as an interdimensional doorway. Promising pleasures unheard of, Frank instead winds up guests of the Cenobites, sort of extradimensional sadomasochists. Frank, as we find out, wasn't expecting that. Anyway, Frank's brother, Rory, and his lovely wife Julia move into the house where Frank opened the box. And Rory bleeds on the spot where the Cenobites grabbed Frank. Frank comes back, he and Julia rekindle their... um... extracurricular activities. A friend of Rory's, Kirsty, who loves him, witnesses Julia bringing men home (to help Frank rebuild himself through murder), and goes into to confront the hussy. Long story short, Frank kills Rory, Kirsty opens the box, makes a deal, and everyone winds up dead but Kirsty, who not only gets to meet The Engineer, but also gets custody of the box. She sees Frank and Julia's reflection in the box, and wonders if another box would take her to whatever paradise Rory wound up in. Anyway, a year later, Barker adapted the novella into a movie. Kirsty becomes Rory's daughter, and we become acquainted with this guy:
Yes, that was supposed to hurt.
whom in the book and the movie is never really named. He did, however, pick up the moniker Pinhead from the special effects guys, who had to spend 4 hours making Doug Bradley look like that for what amounted to about 10 minutes or so of screen time. The movie series continued for 9ish movies, but only the second one had Barker's involvement. Then again, after the fourth one, they tended to shoehorn Cenobites into preexisting scripts just to use the Hellraiser franchise name. Also of note, despite the names, the dimension of the Cenobites was never really named as an Abrahamic place of torment. Later, Barker returned to his Cenobites in Comic Book form, and that set of stories (which I'm summarizing via wiki, since I never read them), involves Ol' Pinhead leading a revolt in Hell after Kirsty kills off the original appearing Cenobites. Somehow, by the end, Kirsty becomes Pinhead. (There was a bit in the second movie where we find out about the human origins of the Cenobites.)
Next up, we need to introduce Harry D'Amour.
Well, HELLO, Harry!
Harry first appeared in The Last Illusion (which evidently showed up first in Books of Blood, but I first ran across in a collection that also included Cabal, which was later turned into Nightbreed.) Harry is a paranormal Private Investigator, covered in protective sigil tattoos that let him know when trouble is coming. Harry shows up again at the end of The Great and Secret Show and becomes a major character in the follow up, Everville. (Harry evidently also becomes a Cenobite and leader of Hell's armies in the comic books.)
Which finally brings us to Clive's new book, The Scarlet Gospels, which as you may have guessed, centers around Harry and Pinhead (or The Hell Priest, as he's generally referred to in the book. Pinhead is a derogatory nickname characters use to insult said Cenobite.)
We open with a necromantic rite designed by the last Magicians of a secret order to raise Joseph Ragowski, former leader of said order, from the dead. Joseph isn't exactly happy about being woken up, and pretty much tells his raisers that it's kind of pointless, since a certain demon has pretty much killed off everyone in the order to get at the rarest magical tomes each hoarded away. We get graphic descriptions of how said demon dispatched folks, then ol' Hell Priest shows up in the flesh, so to speak. Let's see... all but one of the summoners dies, one after giving birth to Pinhead's baby. The survivor is to become HP's puppy.
Cut to: Harry D'Amour is in New Orleans on a mission on behalf or Norma, a blind woman who sees and talks to dead folks. (Pretty sure Norma showed up briefly in Coldheart Canyon.) A dead gent who was quite the upstanding man in life had quite a secret life hidden away in New Orleans. Which means Harry's on payroll to go clean up his affairs post-mortem. Well, among some rather... um... explicit games the man had been playing with barely legal boys, Harry finds the Lament Configuration. Which does indeed open somewhat of its own accord, and Harry meets Hell Priest. Only there's no "I'll have what she's having" in this meeting. HP wants Harry to chronicle the undertaking he's working on, or else. HP uses large hooks on chains and his "puppy" to try to convince Harry to do so. HP doesn't really want to take "No" for an answer. Harry escapes, and winds up getting healed with a little help from Dale, who dreams the future. (Most of the healing comes from a Hoodoo woman, but she tries to kill Harry using a monster straight out of Dogma.)
Anyway, Harry heads back to New York, which is about the time the book starts getting interesting.
See, we get an idea of what HP is actually doing, as he is found in violation of his Order's rules of NO MAGIC. As such, he gets kicked out by the Cenobite's leader. So, like any good S/M demon, he uses his magic to kill off everyone else in the order. After doing so, HP and his "puppy" make a visit to New York, where they wind up kidnapping Norma, which winds up with Harry, Caz (Harry's tattoo artist), Dale (who dreamed of coming to NYC), and Lana (a stone cold woman who's probably buried in one of his other books) descending into Hell to rescue her.
What follows is a travelogue of Hell, as the Harrowers chase the Hell Priest on his quest to meet his maker. While the journey is fascinating, I can't go into great detail in here without spoiling some of the bigger surprises in the narrative.
What I will say is that some of the plot threads reminded me of some of the bigger stories in Neil Gaiman's Sandman graphic novels, and as I stated above, there's a scene early on where I half expected Silent Bob to show up with air freshener. Also, I think he raided some of his own comic work from the Pinhead series for some of the plot. Which doesn't really matter, since the narrative as a whole holds together, despite retconning the original source material to a large degree. Not that pretty much everything that came after The Hellbound Heart didn't change things to suit their need as well. The Hell Priest's motivations are a bit shaky, and his turn towards chaos seems a bit oddly defined after an eternity of ordering the Damned, but honestly, it seems more a case of demons being bound to the rule that affects humanity: there are things Man (and Demons) aren't meant to know.
I will also say Barker writing, as usual, is filled with a visual flair, his words paint such pictures in the mind. It's been one of his gifts from the beginning. I also love some of the droll references that slip in, like the largest city in Hell being built on 8 hills, just to outdo Rome. While this won't replace Imajica as my all time favorite Clive Barker novel, it is probably one of the best things he's written in a long time.