Most are familiar with Clive Barker’s 1987 splatter-punk film Hellraiser. Though he wrote and directed this film which spawned a successful movie franchise, not many are familiar with the novella it was based on. Barker is one of the more successful names within the gory sub-genre of splatter-punk, but this is possibly also due to the fact that his name is also prominent with his films and visual artwork in galleries and comics.
The Hellbound Heart is essentially a story about a puzzle box that opens a gateway to a demonic dimension inhabited by Cenobites – scarred, deformed beings that look like they are caught inside traps from a Saw film. The beings promise pleasure beyond earthly comprehension to anyone unlucky enough to open the box. But Cenobites view pleasure as being an extension of pain and they ‘gift’ humans with extreme suffering.
In The Hellbound Heart our main characters are Rory, his unsatisfied wife Julia, and their friend Kirsty. While renovating an old house Rory cuts himself and his blood feeds the lifeforce of the previous inhabitant, who was also the last owner of the puzzle box – Rory’s brother Frank who disappeared. Julia, who had an affair with Frank before she got married, obsesses over him and helps to free him from the eternity of suffering he is entrapped within.
Kirsty sees Julia bringing a man home while Rory is at work, and thinking she might be cheating on him, sneaks into their house to catch them in the act. She discovers the man isn’t Julia’s lover, but a sacrifice and is confronted by Julia and the half-formed body of Frank. While she attempts to escape she finds the puzzle box and takes it with her. As she flees she encounters people on the street, and the trauma causes her to collapse. She wakes in hospital where she solves the puzzle box and summons the Cenobites who try to take her back to their realm until she tells them about Frank, and negotiates her freedom if she leads them to him.
This novella is short, but this works to its advantage. some horrors can become bogged down with unimportant sub-plots and filler that keep the reader waiting for the scares but never adding anything. The length of this book means that it never slows down – it is a short but relentless read.
Barker’s prose is crisp and uncluttered but the characters do suffer somewhat by not having enough time to develop thoroughly enough. But this isn’t a book about people. This is a book about horror and demons and gore, and Barker delivers perfectly on this. There are numerous scenes of pure uncensored viscera and hellish visages, and they are equally intriguing and disturbing.
Not a book for those who prefer substance over style, this book puts more emphasis on the latter while still delivering enough substance to be justified while still entertaining. A good introduction to both splatterpunk and Clive Barker for those who are unfamiliar.
“They had their hooks in him, the flesh of his arms and legs, and curled through the meat of his face. Attached tot he hooks, chains, which they held taut. There was a soft sound, as his resistance drew the barbs through his muscle. His mouth was dragged wide, his neck and chest ploughed open.”
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Good review but I disagree. I think this book is about people. The Cenobites are major players in the story but the book itself is more about Julia and Frank than anything else. I think the book adds a lot of context to Hellraiser. I like the movie more after having read the book.
I still think the people are more of a vehicle for Barker’s story than the crux of the story itself. Just re-reading it this morning: the very first line is Frank opening the box, and the rest of chapter one (sixteen pages) is dedicated exclusively to Frank and the Cenobites. I understand what you mean that the book focuses and follows the human characters, but thematically I don’t feel that they are the true focus; a bit like in A New Hope and how Lucas actually follows the minor characters of the droids for so much of the film, considering that the film isn’t actually about them and that their actions are insignificant in the overall outcome of events.
Thanks for reading my review, and I’m glad you liked it – even more so, thank you for commenting. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the book.
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