Written by Clive Barker the novella ostensibly tells the story of the relationships between Frank Cotton, his brother Rory, his sister-in-law Julia and Rory’s besotted friend Kirsty; whilst revealing the chaos that Frank brings upon them all.
It is arguably as much about relationships, lust and love as it about horror.. ..but most people just remember, or comment on, the horror. The novel also has concerns about fears associated with the body; there are clear links made between this to both lust and love.. .. as such various commentators have assumed that the novella makes more than just a passing reference to the AIDS epidemic. Barker has never really commented on these interpretations, neither agreeing with them nor necessarily denying them either.
The novella is the main introduction of the Cenobites, although they are also mentioned (in passing – as the ‘the surgeons’) in ‘Weaveworld’ (which I am currently re-reading and will no doubt be talking about at some point); the main plot device being a magical puzzle box called the Lemarchard Configuration.
It was re-released as a stand-alone title in 1988 by HarperCollins, after the success of the ‘Hellraiser’ movie (which shares much in common with the novella), along with an audio book featuring Barker’s voice published by Simon & Schuster Audioworks.
The novella retains the visceral gory style Clive introduced in his excellent ‘Books of Blood’ collections.
Synopsis (contains spoilers)
We are quickly introduced to Frank Cotton who is a hedonist, having spent most of his adult life in a relentless, highly selfish, pursuit of sexual gratification and sensual overload. Frank has covered the globe in his quest and has taken part in all manner of crimes and sexual experiences; all of which have left him with severe nihilistic tendencies. Frank is looking for the most extreme experiences to push him to sensual overload, as his more normal encounters (mostly sexual) no longer give him sufficient pleasure. Frank hears rumours of a puzzle box called the ‘Lament’ or ‘Lemarchard Configuration’.. .. which, if solved, opens a schism to the regions of further experience under the disciplines of the ‘Order of the Gash’.. ..hierophants who will allow him to experience the ultimate in carnal pleasure.
Frank locates the current owner of the box, a somewhat mysterious character named Kircher, in Düsseldorf. He acquires the box by performing small favours for Kircher and subsequently returns to England with the box to his deceased Grandmother’s house.
Following Kircher’s instructions Frank constructs a small shrine to the theologians in a large upstairs room; consisting of placatory offerings including bonbons, severed Doves heads, needles and his own urine. Initially the puzzle box seems to defy logic with almost imperceptible facets. However, a chance juxtaposition of his digits allows him to start solving the puzzle box. As he proceeds the box plays a “sublime rondo” and he notes that the light bulb in the room dims and brightens in synchrony to the sound of a distant bell; there is also an accompanying smell of vanilla, as the walls of the room seem to deconstruct.
Eventually, Frank is left in a darkened room, lit only by the phosphorescence of four Cenobites, who have now come through the schism opened by his solving of the box.
To Franks utter dismay the Cenobites are not the ‘Venusian’ gods he imagined but terribly scarified beings; some of which appear utterly sexless. They acknowledge that they are not what Frank was expecting but still offer him the ultimate in sensual pleasure, warning him that if he accepts there is no going back. Frank accepts their offer and is overcome with the acute sensory perception they lay on him. But he also quickly realises that it is not sexual arousal on offer but extreme pain.. ..the Cenobites ‘spiritual’ devotion is to sadomasochism.. ..they no longer differentiate between pleasure or pain. After his sensual overload a fifth Cenobite, the ‘engineer’, duly ensnares him and takes his soul back to their realm to suffer for an eternity; his deteriorating physical presence being left trapped in the wall of the room.
At a later, initially undisclosed time, Frank’s brother Rory moves into their grandmothers house on 55 Lodovico St. with his wife Julia. Rory is unaware that Frank seduced Julia just before their wedding (revealed to be four years and five months earlier) and that she is besotted with Frank, obsessing and lusting over him since first they met. After Frank and Julia engaged in a violent illicit coupling, he quickly moves on to a place where he has not yet created havoc; Julia, mourning, then only marries Rory for financial support.
Whilst they are moving into the house Rory cut’s his hand and some of his blood spills on the upstairs room floor. This connection acts to re-establish the schism and Frank is able to gradually escape his tormentors.
Frank has been reduced to little more than a desiccated corpse by the Cenobites. But Julia finds him trapped in the damp upstairs room wall and after her initial shock and disbelief that it really is Frank, agrees to help him recover. In doing so she hopes that they can then rekindle their affair and she can finally be free of the loveless relationship she has with Rory.
Frank needs sustenance to reform his body so that he can be complete again.. ..blood will heal him and he needs it quickly before the Cenobites realise he has escaped them. As such, whilst Rory is at work, Julia heads out to bars and picks up men to take back for Frank to feed on. As the murders progress Frank’s own body slowly begins to regenerate.
However, Julia is not the only woman in Rory’s life.. ..he has a friend Kirsty who is secretly in love with him and knows that he is being used by Julia, who does not love him. Kirsty is deeply suspicious of Julia, particularly as Rory describes her recent changes in mood and attitude. As such, she suspects that Julia is having affairs and follows her.. ..to catch her ‘in the act’ and maybe win Rory for herself.
In doing so she unfortunately encounters a bandaged, but obviously skinless, Frank at the house, who attempts to kill her. In the maelstrom that follows she manages to steal the Lament Configuration and flees. She is later found collapsed from exhaustion and fright and subsequently taken to hospital.
Whilst convalescing she starts to play with the box out of sheer boredom, believing it to be an ordinary puzzle. As Frank did before her, she somehow manages to solve the box (utilising Frank’s dried blood to see the seams and facets) and inadvertently summons a theologian of the gash.
The Cenobite makes Kirsty fully aware of whats on offer, but Kirsty is afraid and certainly doesn’t want anything to do with it. She also realises that Frank has also opened the box, accounting for his current scarified appearance. She mentions this to the Cenobite and suggests that they could spare her if she takes them to Frank instead, as he has managed to escaped to their realm. The Cenobite agrees, but warns her that if she cheats it will “tear your [sic] soul apart“.
When she gets back to the house she initially mistakes Frank for Rory as Frank has murdered Rory and is now wearing his skin. It isn’t long before she realises her mistake and another fight ensues where Frank inadvertently kills Julia.
Now that the Cenobites know that Kirsty has correctly informed them about Frank they re-open the schism and ensnare him with hooks, dragging him back to their realm.
Upon leaving the house Kirsty comes across a dying Julia who pleads for help before also being taken into the theologians realm by the engineer. The engineer entrusts Kirsty with the box; she is to keep it until it is claimed by another degenerate. The novella ends with Kirsty looking at the highly lacquered faces of the box and seeing reflections of Frank and Julia, but not Rory.. ..she is left to wonder if there are other puzzle boxes which open the gates of paradise and hopes that Rory is in such a realm.
Update – the sequels
Since writing this review there have been two sequels written to ‘The Hellbound Heart‘, which in chronological story order are ‘Hellraiser: The Toll‘ (published in 2018) and ‘The Scarlet Gospels‘ (published in 2015). ‘The Scarlet Gospels‘ was mainly written by Clive Barker and has generally good reviews. ‘Hellraiser: The Toll‘ was penned by Mark Alan Miller received a more mixed response, seemingly relating more to the 1987 ‘Hellraiser‘ movie than ‘The Hellbound Heart‘ novella.
I don’t think you need me to tell you how much I like this novella.. ..Barker’s writing is eloquent, well paced and utterly descriptive.. ..in fact there is a distinct crispness to his writing. Stephen King once said “I have seen the future of horror, his name is Clive Barker”, coming from King this is a compliment that cannot be lightly ignored. ‘The Hellbound Heart’ was really something quite different when it came out, taking horror in a visceral new direction. If you like horror (which I take it you do.. ..you have read this far down the review), you need to read this book!
‘The Hellbound Heart’ © 1986 Clive Barker. Book cover images © Harper Collins & Dark Harvest, respectively. All Rights Reserved. Used under fair dealing and fair use for research and commentary purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. Please refer to the ‘Welcome to Retrollection‘ page for full terms and conditions.
Book identification: ISBN 978-0-913165-13-3.
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