REVIEW: Hellraiser by Clive Barker and Mark Allan Miller

Frank Cotton’s insatiable appetite for the dark pleasures of pain led him to the puzzle of Lemarchand’s box, and from there, to a death only a sick-minded soul could invent. But his brother’s love-crazed wife, Julia, has discovered a way to bring Frank back—though the price will be bloody and terrible . . . and there will certainly be hell to pay.

Warnings: Graphic violence, suicide, homophobia, rape/noncon, religious iconography

Category: M/F, M/M

The Hellbound Heart, The Scarlet Gospels, and Hellraiser: The Toll make up the three novels and novellas that comprise the Hellraiser book series, which spawned a huge horror film franchise in the Hellraiser movies. So for Halloween, I thought I would review a beloved horror series that has a huge bent towards sadomasochism and BDSM. Although after the first book, the books and the films diverge entirely into different canons, these are still very fun and gratifying reads. While the first two books are written by Clive Barker, the final book, Hellraiser: The Toll is based on his story ideas but written by Mark Allan Miller.

Barker’s prose is immediately gripping and poetic. He writes very evocatively, so that even in the midst of some of the most brutal violence and gore there is a sense of haunted beauty to the words and the macabre storylines. There is, throughout all three books, a very clear love of the unknown and a fascination for the brutality depicted that sings through the prose, and I adored reading his style. Miller, although tonally slightly off from the previous two books, manages to capture Barker’s imaginative style very well also for the final instalment. The first book reads as a combination haunted house slasher story, and is very closely followed in the plot of the first Hellraiser film. The Scarlet Gospels, however, branches substantially, and departs from the horror format a little. It’s more of an action adventure novel as the main character Harry d’Amour is made to journey into Hell to rescue his friend and mentor from the clutches of the evil Hell Priest. This was a journey story and a fascinating one, steeped in gore and viscera, and on a much larger scale than the previous, smaller story. And finally, The Toll brings us back to smaller scale story telling in the courting of Kirsty Cotton, while teasing tie ins to the larger tale.

The characters that populate the world of the Hellraiser novels can feel a little hit and miss. Julia is perhaps the one we become the most connected to in the first book; her experiences and desires permeate the story, allowing us to empathize with her decisions and her actions no matter how horrific. Frank Cotton, as well, managed to be an intriguing character, for his maddening desire for the height of pleasure and hedonism. Book two however, gloriously gives us the Hell Priest (nicknamed ‘Pinhead’) himself, and his POV chapters are phenomenal. His ambition rises off the page, and the careful way he dominates every person and task in front of him is glorious to behold. It managed to make him just knowable enough to be sympathetic, but still mysterious enough to be frightening and awe inspiring. And Harry d’Amour, the lead of the second book, made an incredibly good foil to his sadism. The two of them carried the story in such interesting ways, at odds with one another and evenly matched in willpower and determination. Unfortunately the side characters are more lacklustre, and needless for the narrative. It was hard to get invested in them as they mostly didn’t do much, nor did we often see anything through their perspectives. Barker is good at writing leads, but a little bit less imaginative with side characters to populate the world.

The worldbuilding takes a few different turns across the different books. While in The Hellbound Heart, the Cenobites seems less evil and more simply unknowable; beyond human comprehension, bound to the rules of a different dimension, The Scarlet Gospels takes a turn towards the religious however, and makes them explicitly demonic entities out of literal Hell. I preferred the picture of them we got in Hellbound Heart, and the worldbuilding of Hell and it’s political landscape and fantastical sceneries seemed to be a little bit too over the top for me to take seriously. I would have preferred less of the religious iconography in favor of more extra-dimensional madness, and I was a little disappointed with the way that the journey through Hell ended up making the scope of the world feel a bit more limited rather than as mysterious and uncanny as it had seemed previously. Especially given that we barely got a glimpse of the Order of the Gash before they were taken out of the picture entirely, I would have loved more of an exploration of them and how they came to be before the Hell Priest’s rise to power! There is also some inconsistencies and retconning in the lore as aspects from the changes the movie made to the original story were kept for the later books. I will say however that the most brilliant piece of worldbuilding is how the author worked in his own disliking of the nickname ‘Pinhead’ into the narrative and character. I’ve got to give big props for pettiness!

While the sexual content is few, and brief, in these books there is an undeniable sexual energy to the nature of the violence and the torment. Sometimes it is explicitly so, as in the case of the faceless demon that masturbates while burning his victims alive, and other times it is more implied, as the Cenobites promise experiences of tormented pleasure. It is heavily sadomasochistic, joy derived both from the giving and receiving of pain being a central tenant to the Cenobites and their ways. The Hell Priest, especially, is often depicted taking pleasure in dominating and torturing his foes, and the power exchange of the interactions is breathtaking. Every single interaction between him and his victims or adversaries is stunning, and you can really feel the sexual tension between them, and the feeling of lust as separated from the physical act of sex, replaced with the desire for gruesome violence. I adored the concept of the Cenobites, and would read an entire anthology of just the Hell Priest torturing various people for his quiet, ruthless charm. There is a line about how while he usually favors his famous hooked chain weapons, he has a set of small knives on his person that he reserves for more intimate torture, which just absolutely sends shivers down my spine.

A thoroughly fascinating collection of strange, gory stories filled with extremely creative violence and charisma. While I didn’t find them frightening in the traditional sense, the stories are haunting in more of an ethereal, almost guro fairy tale kind of way. And, while I didn’t always love the narrative choices Barker made, his writing was so beautiful I didn’t mind overly much, and loved the ride I took with him through Hell and back.

Have you read the Hellraiser books? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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