Written by Clive Barker — Harry D’Amour is an occult detective created by horror author Clive Barker three decades ago. He’s appeared in short stories, novels and film adaptations (1995’s Lord of Illusions), and now D’Amour takes on one of Barker’s most hellish characters. The Scarlet Gospels pits the detective against the sadomasochistic Cenobite known as Pinhead (because of the nails that cover his head). It’s a name this Hell Priest hates, so the wisecracking D’Amour is not averse to throwing it in his metal-clogged face.
When a novel features an iconic baddie from the Hellraiser films and is partly set in Hell, it’s clear we’re not in a typical crime territory. Pinhead is a terrifying character and he begins this story by snuffing out the last of the elite circle of magicians on Earth, and absorbing many of their powers. Barker made his name in the 80s with visceral horror and his ability for such shocks has not deserted him. But even as Pinhead’s meting out appalling cruelty – one magician is retained as a horribly brutalised servant – there’s a dash of dark humour that ensures you keep reading.
The Scarlet Gospels is in the tradition of the occult detective sub-genre, which includes such early works as Carnacki, the Ghost Finder (1910) by William Hope Hodgson and recent novels by John Connolly, Phil Rickman and Ben Aaronovitch. Titan recently published Dark Detectives, an anthology of stories featuring paranormal investigators. The Devil’s Detective, a new novel by Simon Kurt Unsworth, is also set in Hell.
D’Amour first encountered the agents of the devil when he was a New York City cop. Having realised he was sensitive to the supernatural, he’s since had his body inked in protective tattoos, each of them a talisman that warns against specific demonic threats. Two decades on from that first supernatural encounter, he’s celebrating his 47th birthday by getting drunk in New Orleans when a job comes up. With the help of a blind medium, Norma, Harry takes on cases involving the recently deceased.
When a dead lawyer seeks to protect his reputation by sending Harry to a secret house used for sexual assignations, it appears to be a straightforward case. But when the detective discovers a lamentation configuration – a puzzle box that provides a gateway to hell – it’s clear that he was bait in a much bigger battle. Pinhead appears and makes an unusual request of this detective who’s been dabbling in the diabolical for the last few decades. The Cenobite wants him to chronicle a planned coup in Hell, a collection of infernal epistles to be known as the Scarlet Gospels. When Harry refuses, he suffers at the hands of the Cenobite’s demonic hooks.
The detective escapes from the collapsing house and heads back to New York, where he gathers with like-minded friends including Norma and his tattooist. During this brief respite, he even indulges in a few detective’s bad habits including cigars and Benedictine liqueur laced with cocaine (Sherlock Holmes himself might have enjoyed that tipple). But Pinhead and his magician servant reappear, which prompts Harry and his friends to follow them on a mission into Hell.
By this point, you’ll have decided whether this is your kind of detective novel or not. Of course, The Scarlet Gospels requires a suspension of disbelief – and even then it still has some silly moments. But for anyone with a penchant for elaborate horror, Barker still delivers plenty of grisly invention alongside an episodic adventure that’s just as gripping as Dennis Wheatley’s satanic thrillers.
The Scarlet Gospels is a little uneven and it’s not among Barker’s finest novels, though it’s certainly an entertaining and bloody journey that’s full of sharp, funny dialogue. And you have to marvel at his imagination: Hell is a place of bizarre architecture, carnivorous fog and giant blood-drunk flies, as well as an intriguing hierarchy of demonic figures and their underlings. The novel concludes with a battle royal in which Harry has a ringside seat for Pinhead’s audacious plot.
The Scarlet Gospels is not your typical detective novel, though it’s a lot of fun. Hopefully we haven’t heard the last of Harry D’Amour.
Read our guide to some of the best paranormal mysteries here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars