Monday, March 20, 2023

The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker


Have you ever read a book and thought to yourself, "That was good, but let's never do this again?" That was me with THE HELLBOUND HEART. When I bought the book, I actually had no idea that it was the inspiration for Hellraiser, or, indeed, that Clive Barker had been involved with the production. I knew Barker from his more whimsical offerings: ABARAT and THE THIEF OF ALWAYS. Still horrifying, yes, but in the far more palatable mode of Tim Burton or Neil Gaiman.

Oh my God, this was so not that.

THE HELLBOUND HEART is beautifully written, just like Barker's fantasy, and it has the same cruel streak of dry, ironic humor, but the similarities end there. This is a gruesome, grisly book populated by twisted, unlikable characters. Frank, our first main character, is a morally bankrupt man who has grown weary of what life has to offer him. He has heard that there are imaginable pleasures to be found if one unlocks the puzzles of Lemarchand's box and uses it to summon the interdimensional hedonists: the cenobites. So he unlocks the box and the cenobites come... and Frank has, shall we say, regrets.

While Frank is having his... regrets... we cut to the second main character, Julia. Julia is married to Frank's brother, Rory, and she also has regrets. Namely that she could never get over the impassioned affair she had with Frank before her wedding (they did it on her veil, ffs). They have just moved to the house that the brother's used to share before Frank went missing and Rory thinks it's going to be a new step in their relationship and Julia does too, but she's thinking backwards and Rory is thinking rocking chairs on the porch. Watching this go down is main character number three, Kirsty, Julia and Rory's sort-of friend. She is attracted to Rory and resentful of Julia, and when things start going down, she begins to suspect that Julia is having an affair. Ha, she wishes it was just an affair, because Kirsty is about to have some regrets, too. No character in this book shall go without suffering. I mean, pleasure. Because-- as irony would have it-- the cenobites think the two affairs are virtually one and the same.

Now, I am not a horror fan, but after 30+ years of reading and 10+ years of book-blogging, I know a master craftsman when I see one. This is a good story. I mean, obviously. Imagine writing a short story and then having ti become a booming horror franchise right up there with Nightmare on Elm St. and Friday the 13th. My man is living the dream. The writing is both spare and evocative, and rather than falling into the trap that plagues so many horror writers (especially the splatterpunk ones), Barker never overdescribes. He knows when to leave things to the readers' imaginations-- which is both better and worse for the reader. Now, did I like it? That's a tough question, and while thinking on the rating scale, I'd have to say that it was good, but just a little too awful for me to say that I truly enjoyed it. All the characters are not very nice people, and the story is carried out with this casual sense of inevitability and apathy that just makes what's happening, paradoxically, that much more immediate and horrific.

So yes, HELLBOUND HEART was a compelling, propelling read that had me finishing it-- on a worknight-- in just a couple hours. But now I can't sleep and I'm creeped out and I really don't think I'll ever be revisiting this nightmare of a book again (or watching the movie, because yikes, pins).

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

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