The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

Lord of Illusions

My unabashed crush on Clive Barker has run the gamut from fantasizing about wanting to talk dirty with him over tea to spawning his demon child. Yes, it goes that deep. How can I resist a handsome, Renaissance man who is an accomplished visual artist, a wordsmith extraordinaire, and a visionary film director who has a sexy English accent to boot!

Does he also play guitar? Sigh…

Yes, yes, I know he’s gay and whatever, but I can still dream. After all, the heart wants what it wants. And no artist understands the heart of darkness quite like Mr. Barker.

His breakthrough novella The Hellbound Heart, on which the Hellraiser film franchise is based, is an astounding piece of literature, and one I return to every few years for a fresh read, particularly during times of the full moon near All Hallows Eve. Written when he was only in his early thirties, the work is a tight piece of prose that shows a visionary in full control of his talent. He tends to go off the creative rails a bit in his later works—and I’ve certainly not read them all, but even at his most frustrating (I’m thinking of Mister B. Gone in particular) Barker always shows me a door to a fantastical and illusionary world. For imagination and writing style, Barker more than any other contemporary horror writer, has taken up the mantle of Poe, Baudelaire, and Lovecraft. His unique combination of the literary and the pulp forms the caldron of his genius–an alchemical concoction of classic literature, theatricality, magic, sadomasochism, pulp horror, gore, demonology, gay aesthetics, omnisexuality, and Hollywood film noir.

The book is chock-full of the following poetic turns of phrase that some may find stilted and overwrought, but which tickles the tender spots of my Gothic soul:

The hallway lights burned dazzlingly bright, and then-their filaments overloading-went out. There was a short period of total darkness, during which time she heard a whimpering that may or may not have come from her own lips. Then it was as if fireworks were spluttering into life in the walls and floor. The hallway danced. One moment an abattoir (the walls running scarlet); the next, a boudoir (powder blue, canary yellow); the moment following that, a ghost-train tunnel-all speed and sudden fire.

The opening of walls into phantasmagorical worlds is a theme Barker explores in other works, most memorably (for me anyway) in his novel Coldheart Canyon, a gritty Hollywood noir: Sunset Boulevard meets Dante’s Inferno. The shifting of realities into dark otherworlds that adhere to their own rules (or lack thereof) is where Barker’s imagination excels, like Hieronymus Bosch paintings depicting eternal mortification of the flesh and sensual chaos. There is a sense, always, that we may enter this world at any time, and that is what creates the horror. Whether we are as profligate as Frank or as love blind as Julia, none of us are immune to evil either as its perpetrators or victims. We only have to cross over.

We walk a narrow path between Heaven and Hell. (Lord of Illusions)


The Hellbound Heart covers a lot of ground in the imaginative realm for a story whose main setting consists of a few drab rooms. It begins with the puzzle box, the Lemarchand Configuration: a metaphor for the human heart, and its dark desires. If you can solve the puzzle, you can get inside, but are you sure you want to?

The way to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but also desire—especially of the sexual variety. Frank, a profligate and restless spirit, seeking greater depths of sexual depravity, sells his soul to the Cenobites, demons from the underworld. But Frank gets more than he bargains for; he expects women (greased women specifically) to appear at the ready to satisfy his lust, but he gets chains and hooks instead—a pleasure palace of pain. Not surprisingly, Frank grows a bit weary of having his skin flayed and wants a do-over. Luckily his brother Rory and femme fatale wife, Julia (Frank’s former lover), move into his creepy old house. When Rory cuts his finger and bleeds onto the same spot on the floorboards where Frank spilled his demon seed before descending into Hell, biology mixes with fantasy, and Frank–skinless pieces of him that is–form into a being desperate to return to the corporeal world.

Even skinless and with the personality of a real a-hole, Frank has a sexual hold over Julia. This speaks to the power (and blindness) of dark desires, the central theme of the story. Julia is that female archetype you read about sometimes in the tabloids, the kind who will do anything to please her lover’s sick desires. So without much persuasion from Frank, Julia becomes a serial seducer/killer of men, so that Frank may feed off them and mend his tattered flesh.

Barker doesn’t shy away from strong female characters. They are full human beings with strong emotions. Frank is much more profligate as his desires come from being sated and bored by earthly experiences, whereas Julia—her actions equally evil—spring from a desire to be loved, wanted, and (let’s face it) banged properly, a task her milquetoast hubby, Rory, is isn’t quite up to. She desires Frank’s darkness, but like many a decent woman before her, she becomes corrupted by her quest to tame the beast, to make him love her. In the end, not surprisingly, Frank cares little for her, and only uses her for his own dark aims.

Of course the most famous characters in the story are the Cenobites, extradimensional beings, who form a nebulous organization called The Order of the Gash (one can only imagine what the meetings are like). They were visually brought to life in the first Hellraiser film, most famously depicted by Pinhead (although he is never called that in the novel), who is right up there with Freddie and Jason in the pantheon of horror villains. In the novel though, Pinhead is just one of the gang. The Cenobites are a fascinating amalgamation of Biblical angel/demons and glamorous club kids of the kinkiest S&M variety. Remember, Barker thought up these creatures decades before piercing and tattoo shops were popular (my small town now boasts at least five). Their realm is a labyrinthine Hell that is explored more extensively, and ridiculously, throughout the rest of the Hellraiser franchise.

Clive Barker’s creative universe is vast, and I certainly haven’t explored all of it. It comprises an enormous production that includes graphic novels, video games, children’s literature, and toys. I suspect not all of it has Barker’s direct touch. For that reason, I prefer his early stories and films. I wish he had directed more of them. My sense is that producers meddled in what could have been, by now, a stunning filmography. Barker, now in his 60’s, eventually retreated to his Hollywood compound to make his paintings and write his books, but what I wouldn’t give to see Barker given free rein to create a film on the level of David Lynch’s Inland Empire. The man is a true artist, and he deserves equal respect.

In the court of trash horror literature, Clive Barker is the dark Lord of Illusions, mercurial and always somewhat in the shadows, but there isn’t a cooler (or sexier) popular writer alive today.

Horror will never quite shake its trashy reputation, but peel off the layers of camp in Barker’s oeuvre, and you’ll find a vital, if bloody, creative force that attempts to solve, or at least illuminate, the ultimate puzzle that is the human heart.

One thought on “The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

  1. An interesting and more extensive review. Thanks for sharing it freely.

    I still like the notion of ‘Illusionists get Las Vegas contracts – Magicians get burned!’. 😉

    The Hellbound Heart won’t be my kind of reading, still you informed me about that fact in an appreciated way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: