I make no apologies for considering myself a hardcore fan of, in my opinion, one of the greatest fantasy/horror writers that has ever been. I have collected Barker’s work since I was 13, I’ve spent 32 years reading anything of his I can get my hands on. I’m not suggesting I’m more qualified than anyone else to form an opinion on Barker and his work, it’s a simple fact to set the scene, to give you an idea of where I’m coming from. Barker’s writing captivates me like no other author. No one writes like Barker, eloquence personified, his writing poetic, at times hypnotising, beautiful world building and often taking readers from the very depths of despair to the ultimate euphoric high.
A giant, a legend and my literary idol.
I’ve had a lot of discussions with Barker fans about the Scarlet Gospels, the book that dared to kill off Pinhead. This was Clive’s 2015 novel that was nigh on 20 years in the making. The story of Scarlet Gospels has been covered many times before, and is something I think I may return to at some point in the future. What I do want to say about the book now, is that it did not read as if Clive Barker wrote it! Some of the imagery and set pieces felt very ‘Clive’ but the writing style was anything but. I don’t care if you are reading Imajica, Books of Blood or Abarat, you knew it was Clive Barker writing irrespective of who the target audience was.
Maybe I’d been looking forward to Scarlet Gospels too much, my expectations were too high, but I felt empty once I’d snapped the book shut. The book that killed off Pinhead, the High Priest, the Cold Man was a bit of a damp squib, it lacked Barker!
Since Barker’s illness, sadly his output has dropped to near zero. The odd reissue of a short story, several impressive comic/graphic novel series and some unreleased early material saw the light of day, but the biggest surprise of all was a new story from the Hellraiser canon. And this is where in a convoluted way I finally get to reviewing Hellraiser: The Toll.
This story originally started life as ‘Heaven’s Reply’ an unfinished short by Barker, which morphed into the script for the unmade Hellraiser movie reboot. Seraphim’s Mark Miller then took the work in progress and tried to tie it into The Scarlet Gospels. (The same Mark Miller that was involved in the editing process of The Scarlet Gospels.)
I don’t normally use spoilers, but in this case I apologise as I can’t really write this review without using them. So if you don’t want your enjoyment of Hellraiser: The Toll spoiled, please look away now
Yes, Hellraiser: The Toll is a sequel to The Hellbound Heart and The Scarlet Gospels prequel.
And this is where the problems begin…
The Toll is a mash-up of Hellraiser lore, it acknowledges both the original novella and the movie. In fact it references the movie more than The Hellbound Heart. So are we now expected to erase the facts a 32-year-old novella gave us? Barker obviously agreed to these changes for the movie, but the book should always be considered canon shouldn’t it?
The Toll features Kirsty, 30 years after the events of Hellbound Heart/Hellraiser, she lives her life switching identities and moving from safe house to safe house, country to country every few years for reasons that are not fully explained. Amusingly this story starts when Kirsty receives a letter at her current property which is bizarrely 2 miles away from 55 Ludovico Street. After reading this letter, from an unknown stranger, Kirsty visits her old home and realises that the world is full of illusions (yeah right), you need to look and in doing so the illusion shatters. Now she can ‘see’ Kirsty tracks down the unknown stranger, chats to him and decides to up sticks and go to Devil’s Island in French Guiana, where she knows The Cold Man (Pinhead) will be waiting.
Please excuse the somewhat blasé style in which I wrote those last few sentences, but that is pretty much how the reader’s treated in The Toll. Don’t even get me started on the crap Jackanory style recap of the events from Hellbound Heart that took up nearly half the bloody book. The Toll reads like it can’t decide if it’s for the loyal Barker/Hellraiser fan base or for someone who has no idea what a Cenobite is. Which is utterly infuriating as there are seeds of something quite excellent hidden among the banal text. We get to read a little on Philip Lemarchand and the puzzle box, this got my hopes up but sadly only covered a page or two, the Devil’s Island setting was intriguing but never developed. The book is sadly, a mess. There are horrific attempts at humour and a passage that references the infamous ‘Jesus Wept’ line from Hellraiser that made me roll my eyes so hard I nearly passed out. After all that Kirsty has been through with The Cold Man she refers to him merely as a ‘bully’, He summoned Kirsty to Devil’s Island to be the First Witness (which starts the tie-in/overlap with events in The Scarlet Gospels) but beyond that sod all happens bar a bit of wrestling after which they dust themselves down and both go their separate ways. As I’m typing this, I can feel myself getting too angry and annoyed again at this novella to continue…something I wish Mark Miller had done as well. Hellraiser: The Toll reads like fan fiction and it kills me that Clive Barker’s name is on the cover in an official capacity.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the great man himself, Clive Barker in 2009
“One of the reasons I wanted to take such time and care with The Scarlet Gospels is because I want to do right by it and by the mythology. I am killing off Pinhead in this book in such a way that it will be impossible for me – and I emphasise me – to ever resurrect him. What people do after I am gone is up to them. I don’t have the movie rights over the material so I have no control. That is what it is. I will just get on, write my novel, and I think people will find it to be a satisfactory farewell.”
Still Raising Hell
By Calum Waddell, Judge Dredd Megazine, No 286, 21 July 2009
Star Rating (out of 5): 1*
To paraphrase the mighty Pinhead ‘Don’t read this novella, it’s a waste of good suffering’