The Scarlet Gospels

by Clive Barker

“Some die too soon. Most live too long.”

The last five of Earth’s magicians are gathered together to resurrect their leader, a man previously destroyed by Hell. The master magician regains life and berates his followers for disturbing his peace, explaining their folly, but they’re panicked by the systematic erasure off all their peers by a renegade Hell Priest. Pinhead has been roving the planet, killing everything with power and absorbing it for himself and is now crackling with strength. He appears before the assembly and brutally dispatches them all, taking for himself the last of the magic on Earth. We’re still in the prologue.

Over the course of the book the occult detective Harry D’Amour, from The Last Illusion and Everville, teams with friends of various strengths and chases the Cenobite into hell itself to rescue his dear friend Norma, an elderly blind woman who can see ghosts. It’s in this setting one of the most spectacular battles ever seen plays out in the mind’s eye as Pinhead locates and presents himself to Lucifer.

We also follow the Hell Priest Pinhead for a great deal of the book, finally learning a few things about his motivations, and for a few brief moments he almost garners sympathy. His plans and goals that we’re given glimpses of, along with the frustrations and obstacles in his path, serve to humanize the character slightly, but usually only between eviscerations.

There have been a few comments about some stilted dialogue that occurs in conversation between the group of humans, and these comments aren’t wrong. It doesn’t happen in the lengthier conversations, but in one-liners tossed back and forth it happened a handful of times where the lines clanged loudly against each other with a discordant, metallic impact. Other than these few lines, a mystery, the rest of the dialogue feels organic and the landscape painted for us is true to the brilliance we’d expect.

There’s a feeling of emptiness after finishing, and the two quotes chosen here are among the many pillars of the story that can create or enhance such a feeling. Things are bleak, and that ray of hope can only be seen after all has been sacrificed, but even then it may only be a penlight. But that is not a condemnation. As is probably obvious, we should look for our wine and roses elsewhere.

The Scarlet Gospels is an often enrapturing, sometimes bleak read showcasing some of the best imagery written of the underworld, including a fight that fires-up the imagination all the way. The creative willpower given to many of the scenes, especially in Hell, is top form Barker like only he could write, and the work stands tall.

“Isn’t there anything you care about?”
“All is death, woman. All is pain. Love breeds loss. Isolation breeds resentment. No matter which way we turn, we are beaten. Our only true inheritance is death. And our only legacy, dust.”

4 stars

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