Genrenomicon #2: The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker
The Gist Of The Tale: Frank’s life is a downward spiral of voracious hedonism. Instigating an affair with his brother’s fiancee, Julia, is hardly the most extreme of his carnal acts. In his quest for deeper indulgences, he procures an occult puzzle box, said to offer sensual experiences beyond worldly reach. Successfully opening the box summons the beings called Cenobites, and Frank realizes too late that the pleasures they have in store for him are hellish indeed.
The Writer Of The Work: Clive Barker, gifted with talents beyond writing alone, adapted this novella into his own classic film, Hellraiser. In the book a bald, unnamed Cenobite bears a grid upon its head, with pins imbedded at the points of intersection. It speaks with the voice of a young girl, and would evolve to become Pinhead, one of the most iconic horror characters ever created. The character is portrayed by Doug Bradley in the film, whose voice is instead deep, elegant, and ominous. He is brought to life by excellent make up in a film full of truly astonishing special effects. In 2015, nearly three decades after the publication of The Hellbound Heart, Barker released his novel The Scarlet Gospels, which he openly promoted as a conclusion to Pinhead’s story. The many unwelcome film sequels to his own excellent original was a contributing factor in wanting to finally put the monster to bed.
The fantastical elements of Clive Barker’s Hellbound Heart are kept shy of full explanation, a brilliant authorial touch which gives them an eerie power. There are mentions of Hell, and of secret texts hidden deep in the Vatican, but little else is detailed. The Cenobites, animate S&M nightmares whose depleted, neglected skin is elaborately threaded with leather and jewelry, are described in the way you might describe someone from a memory - certain distinct observations, enough to be real and tangible, but otherwise mere impression. It is the remnant of humanity in them that disturbs, the dark mirror of our unchecked desires. There is a beauty, a distinct craft in Barker’s prose that can seduce, pivoting to disturb you when the story’s horrors arrive. And here the horrors are not only of a supernatural kind.
Frank’s encounter with the Cenobites has left him in a limbo between the mortal plane and the dark beyond from which they arrived. Now a mere physical husk, a miserable, stripped scaffold of bone and sinew, his capacity for persuasion is yet undamaged. By way of their brief physical union, Frank awoke in Julia her own taste for transgression. She is the perfect choice to help him regain his foothold in our world.
Julia is haunted by her encounter with Frank, a primal, fiery exchange which occurred just before her wedding. The memory of it sharpens the sting of her marriage, which has by contrast become a prison of mundanity. The life we end up with is not often the life we want. Julia’s deep resentment toward her own unremarkable existence makes her amenable to Frank’s pleas. That she is willing to kill, in order to reignite their sexual spark, reveals the true depth of her bitterness.
To reassemble his body, Frank needs raw material: human flesh. Julia obliges, and her hunt for and procurement of said flesh plays out with unnerving reality. She selects men from corner bars and dives, luring them back to Frank’s barren room. The victims range from overbearingly lascivious to pathetic. Barker draws them as unlikeable, even predatory, but not without a very basic humanity. It’s a choice lesser writers might shy from. The men meet their ends in exchanges that are convincingly harsh, clumsy, and bleak. We are not spared the vivid, tragic details. Perhaps a majority of the story is centered on Julia, and the reader is strapped in for the ride, witnessing every step of her descent into evil.
What is striking about The Hellbound Heart is its intimacy. Within the borders of its brief page count, we learn the innermost longings, sexual and otherwise, of its main characters. The book’s shy protagonist, Kristi, is secretly in love with Julia’s husband, but never has a chance to tell him. We are privy to her hidden vulnerability, which sets her well apart from Frank and Julia.
Barker is able to intermingle these very human undercurrents with the fantastic, and does it with a success that few authors achieve (it so happens that he ranks among my very favorite writers of all time). Stark, true crime flavored horrors are counterbalanced seamlessly with surreal, otherworldly darkness, and both are powerfully effective. The “real” and “unreal” aspects of fiction are the same word, spoken in two different tongues. Here they speak of what humans are capable of, to fill the voids in their hearts. It’s telling, that what people are willing to do to each other - to do for each other - can be just as haunting as any vision of hell.