The Horror of Depravity – A Review of Clive Barker’s “The Hellbound Heart”

The line between pleasure and pain is often so thin as to be completely nonexistent. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of sadomasochism knows that receiving and inflicting pain can be a singularly euphoric experience. Few books ever explore this dichotomy as openly as The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker. Barker managers to plum the common human psyche, the dark recesses of our collective unconscious so to speak, and present a vision that can be seen as a cautionary morality play. Because sexuality is a primary impulse (in much the same way that food is) it can be both exhilarating and dangerous. Barker captures the darkest aspects of human sexuality in his tale.

For those younger people not familiar with the horror genre of the 1980s, The Hellbound Heart is the basis for the once-successful Hellraiser film franchise (specifically the first and second films; the remaining sequels have only a tangential connection to this work of fiction). For those expecting the book to be like the film, I’m sad to say you’ll be in for a disappointment. Barker’s prose is sparse on grand details and lyrical in its composition and style. The descriptions he does include (particularly of the Cenobites) are detailed enough that a reader can conjure their own personalized vision that suits what they find horrific. The author still manages to infuse his creations with a sense of both dread and wonder, even a twisted form of reverence for the single-minded devotion they possess.

The imagery and mood is where Barker excels in this novella, despite the lack of outright gore in the story. Too often horror writers go for the shock value of what they think will frighten or sicken their audience, preferring extraneous details and gore to create this desired reaction. Barker eschews this approach, preferring instead for a minimalist horror aesthetic while maintaining enough elements that can induce revulsion. The first chapter of the novella is the most descriptive attempt at describing sensory overload I’ve encountered in print.

Fans of the film series (which is inexorably linked to this novella) also know of Pinhead, the lead Cenobite played with such deliciously evil verve by Doug Bradley. That character appears only a handful of times in the book but his (or should I say its) presence is felt nonetheless. The Cenobites represent unfiltered carnal desire and the consequences of such explorations. I liken them to extreme versions of the Libertines of Renaissance Europe (such as the Marquis de Sade). They can also be viewed as a collective Id driven to such a place where the extremes of pain become a devilish form of pleasure. There is a decidedly Judeo-Christian idea of punishment for excessive sexual desire that drives the concept of the Cenobites and their Order of the Gash. Barker has described himself as Christian in the past (despite being against organized religion) and also claims to use Christian theology and cosmology for inspiration. The Cenobites are not evil in the traditional sense, only coming for those that summon them to this world. They can be viewed as cartographers of the body’s sensory system.

Speaking of those who summon, the characters we are introduced to in the novel are foils for each other. Rory and Frank Cotton (as well as Julia and Kirsty) are mirror opposites, Jungian archetypes set against one another. The specific archetype is the Shadow, which is the other half of one’s personality. Frank is the moral degenerate who initiates the sordid drama with his unearthly obsession with experiencing some transcendent (one might say luminous) form of depravity. I see Frank as something close to a Sadian character (and the Marquis does receive an honorable mention as a previous speculator into the Order of the Gash) because he is never satiated. Julia (wife to Rory, previous lover of Frank) represents disgusting beauty, those that are physically attractive but spiritually putrescent. By contrast, there is Rory, who is a rather milquetoast but good and decent man. Kirsty can be described as the Innocent, the white lamb of the story that must overcome attempts to soil her good nature. Each character provides a counterpoint to the other. The morality play aspect of the story is in regards to how the plot plays out. Barker uses Frank’s overwhelming need to escape his responsibilities as a decent, moral human being to caution against losing one’s moral compass. Frank has fallen so far down the levels of decency that his very presence degrades those around him, making everyone in the story tainted simply by association.

The book does have some flaws, though. While Barker is efficient in moving the story forward, it does feel excessively rushed at times. While I found the descriptions of the Cenobites and the settings to be sufficient to keep the story moving, others might find them lacking. I would have liked to have spent more time in this version of reality conjured from Barker’s imagination. The world that could produce such trinkets as the LeMarchand Box intrigues me deeply and strikes me as a morally bankrupt landscape worthy of further exploration. There are hints throughout the novella, particularly at the end, that suggest there are many realms connecting to the prime plane of existence. Another fault I’ve found is that, at times, the characters can be rather one-dimensional but that is to be expected when basing characters on stock traits. I would have enjoyed reading a more fleshed out (no pun intended) background for Frank, Rory, Julia, and Kirsty. Also the lead Cenobite known as the Engineer intrigued me greatly but was hardly seen, leaving me to conclude it serves as a largely Luciferian construct.

The Hellbound Heart feels like the work of a young man, full of energy and (to use a sexual metaphor appropriate for the material) in a hurry to reach climax. It is this frenetic energy and the fascination with the sinister aspects of the human psyche that give Barker’s novella the adoration it has received for close to three decades now. I enjoyed the novella and would recommend it to anyone who wishes to see Barker during the beginnings of his literary career.

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