Having recently reviewed Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart, I was informed that there were other print stories (none by Barker himself unfortunately). Hellbound Hearts is not a true sequel to Barker’s original tale of sexuality and brutality. Instead it is an anthology of stories from other authors tied into the same literary universe or have some tangential connection to Barker’s novella. This anthology possesses many strong horror stories that keep the spirit of Barker’s work fresh without aping his novella too directly.
The universe of Hellbound Hearts mixes horror and erotica as juxtapositions of the human condition. As a primary impulse, sexuality has the potential to be one of the darkest aspects of any human being, fraught with insecurities, dark corridors, and twisted desires that some hide from everyone they know. Sexuality also has the distinction of being a liberating force in an individual’s life. As some of the stories show, the Cenobites were once humans who sought release and self-actualization. Stories like “Sister Cilice” by Barbie Wilde and “The Confessor’s Tale” by Sarah Pinborough deal with sexuality as liberation, in fact ascension (if one could call becoming a Cenobite liberating). The Order of the Gash and its members are often portrayed as outright evil in some of the films. In the original novella and the two stories mentioned above, the Cenobites provide a means for transcending the limitations of human morality. Both stories focus on outsiders, those who cannot reconcile themselves with the hypocrisy of the mundane world. For such individuals, the ecstatic and supernal Order of the Gash gives them the release to become something simultaneously wondrous and terrifying.
It should not be forgotten that Clive Barker’s original vision is steeped in physical and spiritual torment. In stories such as “Our Lord of Quarters” by Simon Clark and “Prisoners of the Inferno” by Peter Atkins, little doubt is left for the audience that demonic, evil forces are at work. Part of the transcendence of the Cenobites is the ability to avoid the trappings of simple, black-and-white human moral thinking. The evil nature attributed to the Cenobites extends from their callous indifference. Their cold, calculating nature is a sharp dichotomy with their stated mission to explore and experience sensation in all its myriad forms. The argument Barker and authors in this anthology make is that too much sensation leads to desensitization is anything but subtle. One could see it as a hammer rather than a rapier in many of the stories.
This isn’t to say there are no authors in the book without a stylish sense of restraint. “Mechanisms” by Christopher Golden with illustrations by Mike Mignola is a slow-building, atmospheric ghost story that shares The Hellbound Heart’s ties to mysterious machinery and otherworldly beings. Obsession is Golden’s story hook and he uses it to build the tension of the story, relying less on horrifying scenes of gore and more on an unsettling ambiance.
One general complaint I have with the stories is that more than a few are all build-up with little payoff. The majority of the stories build to the entrance of the Cenobites, leaving the appearance of the demonic beings for the climax and denouement. Upon reaching the halfway point in the anthology such stories become rather formulaic and uninspired. There’s enough variety in the anthology to make up for such straight-forward narratives though.
Overall, Hellbound Hearts is a good anthology collection but not a great one. The few misses are overwhelmed by the quality of the stronger stories, which has the unfortunate effect of making the lesser stories stand out even more. Fans of Barker’s work will enjoy these dalliances with the Cenobites. There’s little doubt this universe is ripe with storytelling opportunities and the authors featured here have taken full opportunity to explore the ecstasy inherent in horror.