The Short Version: Frank Cotton is a hedonist in pursuits of ever-greater pleasure. But when he opens a mysterious puzzle box, he’s sucked into a hell of torments so great as to defy categorization. When his brother’s wife Julia accidentally discovers a connection to Frank, she begins to try and bring him back – but the Cenobites might not be so obliging…
The Review: Well this sure kicked off this year’s trip to the October Country in fine form. It’s a yearly tradition to read only spooky / autumnal books in October and I felt like starting things off in a seriously creepy way to reassert my place in the season (after a mono-tastic September). The Hellbound Heart was a hell (sorry) of a way to do it.
I’ve read Barker before – two books in his magical/frustrating Abarat series for younger readers and Mister B. Gone – but had always heard that Barker’s true talents lie in the grotesque and bloody horrors of his earlier fiction. I somehow knew this to be true, at least to some extent, without ever having picked up one of his other books: I’ve never seen Hellraiser but I’m familiar with the iconic Pinhead character, who stands alongside Dracula, Frankenstein, Freddy, Jason, the Headless Horseman, and other icons of horror who’ve been ingrained into popular culture. So I picked up this slim volume – a novella, really, despite the cover’s assertions otherwise – with an immense curiosity.
And holy crap does Barker not screw around. The opening pages – a cold open of sorts, as the plot really kicks in a short while later with the introduction of Frank’s brother and Julia – reveal the twisted intricacies of Lemarchand’s box and there’s a certain sense of revulsion that the reader feels when faced with Frank’s greed… but that sense is turned on its ear only moments later when the Cenobites arrive and Frank is pulled into their sadomasochistic pleasure-torture-hellscape. Barker doesn’t turn Frank into someone good by introducing a more evil set of figures, but he does make us feel for him in a way – quite a turnaround in just a few pages.
The rest of the story cracks along at a blistering pace, leaving little room for the reader to settle down. Rory (the brother) and Julia have moved into their newly-acquired home – Rory and Frank’s grandmother’s old house – and set about moving in. There’s an immediately creepy experience in the room where Frank opened the box and that sense of weirdness doesn’t go away. Barker wastes little time with description beyond the bare minimum as he puts Julia on a path towards blood, leaving the house and the characters sketched relatively broadly from start to finish. There’s a screenwriter’s touch here, the sense that someone else will do the filling in of nuance and physicality – and because the novel zips along, I found that I didn’t really mind. The point was not these characters; it was the horror coming for them.
And boy oh boy does he do horror. It’s not the torture porn sort of violence we’ve seen flood our cinemas and televisions today, but there’s a bit of a sense of this being the starting place. Blood flies and drops and spurts, gruesome grotesqueries are seen through a portal between worlds, and the explosive finale has one of the most vivid and shudder-inducing deaths I’ve ever read/seen. Barker really turns up the prose in these moments, not so much gleeful as loving. In the same way that consensual S&M is loving.
His writing comes alive so well in these moments that it makes the rest of the book a bit dull by comparison. There’s a difference between the lack of fully-nuanced characters and rote, flat dialogue. Barker, unfortunately, indulges in a bit too much of the latter. Certain character decisions (including a big one involving Julia’s initial choices) feel somewhat inexplicable – and while he wants the reader to ignore them, just let the movie of it wash over you, it’s hard to deny the (horrific) beauty that he’s capable of… and so you wonder why the whole thing couldn’t’ve risen to that level.
But would it have been a worse book, if it were longer and a little more fully fleshed out? I think it might’ve been. Response hasn’t been great for Barker’s latest novel, The Scarlet Gospels, which brings back the Cenobites (although retcons them a bit) and runs more than twice as long as The Hellbound Heart. It’s also many, many years later and the world has changed, so I suppose we can’t equate the two. Still, there’s something tremendous about the visceral horror delivered by Barker in this novel that I just don’t think you’d get if the reading experience took more than a few hours. I read it in little more than two train trips – and I can only imagine what those other riders on the 6 train might’ve thought if they’d looked at my face…
Rating: 4 out of 5. Coming in at under 150 pages and delivering a pulse-pounding horror story that doesn’t let up straight through the ending, Barker’s novel(la) is an ideal treat for those needing a good fright. Despite their incredibly brief appearances here (they remain mostly on the periphery), the Cenobites are a lasting entry into the horror pantheon – and Barker achieves so much with the balance of banal and beautiful prose. As the box slides open and the bell begins to toll, it’s impossible not to feel a sense of dread crawl up your spine… and so we, the citizens of October, smile.