On a cart in the hallway outside a small gift shop in the medical center in the town where I grew up, while waiting for my mom, I discovered my future. Paperback books tossed in a haphazard mound with 25 cent tags—prices even I, at twelve years old, felt were cheap. I had only recently discovered Stephen King and horror fiction and I wanted more. One of the books I bought that day was this one:
For me, discovering Clive Barker was like a religious experience. His stories, I found at that age, were so dark, so…wrong. They left a profound impression on me. They made me uncomfortable and I loved them. I remember struggling a little with this book, not understanding everything I was reading. This is the fourth volume of the Books of Blood, the rest of which I did not read until high school.
I hid my discovery. I guarded my secret, stashing my Clive Barker books like dirty magazines, and told no one about what I had found, knowing I would be unable to properly express their true power to others. This discovery during my formative years has had an undeniable impact on not only the person I have become, but on my own writing.
I have now been reading Clive Barker for much of my life and he continues to be one of my favorites. Over the years, a few things about his writing have become clear, the most important being that Barker is not actually a horror writer. Because of his dark themes and some of the gory and perverted things he writes about, he has been labeled as such. But even the stories in the Books of Blood, his early work, often emphasize fantastic elements. Clive Barker is a fantasy writer. Although a dark one. Very dark. Barker himself has a term for what he writes: the dark fantastique.
I have read everything Clive Barker has written. I have read Imajica three times now, Weaveworld more times than that, The Great and Secret Show, the Abarat books, everything. I have consumed them all, absorbed their concepts and imagery, “from the tiniest mote dancing over this flame to the Godhead Itself” (Imajica). I have also read Barker’s latest work, The Scarlet Gospels.
First thing I’d like to say is that before you read The Scarlet Gospels, I’d recommend you read two of Barker’s previous titles: The Hellbound Heart (of course) and an excerpt from the end of Everville featuring Harry D’amour, the protagonist in The Scarlet Gospels. Reading these two things will give you the background you need on the characters.
Second, I’d like to say that The Scarlet Gospels is a well-executed horror novel.
Third, it was, for me, a major disappointment.
The Scarlet Gospels lacks passion and depth. It flows like a video game, from one action sequence to the next with little development in between. The characters are not well-developed and we’re dependent on prior knowledge to provide any background. I will admit Harry D’amour is one of my least favorite Barker characters, but that does not make up for how hollow The Scarlet Gospels comes across. It is like a movie sequel, deficient the complexity of the original.
Being a huge fan of Clive Barker’s, it hurts to write these words, but it feels as if Barker handed off an outline to a ghostwriter and then signed his name to the project. The writing level, plotting and characterization are just not there. I know he can do better!
I am still, of course, an advocate for his work and will never forget how it has affected me personally and shaped my creative life. Much like Barker, I used to think I was a horror writer, but am beginning to see a shift in my writing more and more toward the fantastic. Perhaps I have somehow myself become a writer of the dark fantastique.
I highly recommend Weaveworld, Imajica, and The Great and Secret Show (my personal favorite), and continue to look forward to his next work.