Review: The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

The Hellbound Heart
The Hellbound Heart

The Hellbound Heart
Clive Barker
Penguin, 2007

While for a student of history or religion the term cenobite might have one meaning, but for those who have devoured a steady stream of horror films it has a whole different meaning. When I hear the term cenobite I do not immediately think of a member of a religious order but instead flashed to the mutilated forms foisted upon my psyche (likely at far too young an age) by the film Hellraiser. Those cenobites, members of the Order of Gash summoned by the Lament Configuration, that iconic puzzle box designed Phillip Lemarchand (or rather Simon Sayce in the world outside the fiction), are truly horrific sights twisted by their exploration of the outer and distant extremes of pleasure and pain. It apparently escaped my notice that their original incarnation was in text rather than film. Their appearance, and that of the puzzle box, so linked to the medium of film that I never really thought to ferret out if there was some sort of source material.

So when I stumbled across a copy of the 2007 reprint of The Hellbound Heart not too long ago I was surprised and excited (which probably says something about myself I’d rather not linger on) to get home and get reading. Much to my surprise Clive Barker’s novella was rather faithfully adapted in the film Hellraiser, which makes sense given that it was both written and directed by its author. And I also found that the source material doesn’t work quite as well as the film. It is difficult to say how I would fell if I had read the novella before the seeing the film. What I read on the page is so directly linked to the images of cenobites seen over many films that separating those images from the text is near impossible.

For those that don’t know The Hellbound Heart opens with the twisted Frank having acquired the mysterious puzzle box which is rumored to be a gateway to realm on unimaginable pleasure. It isn’t long before Frank solves the box, unleashes the cenobites and is dragged into their dimension. When Frank’s brother Rory and his wife Julia move into the same house a chance drop of blood begins the process of freeing Frank from his imprisonment. Julia, who had an affair with Frank before marrying Rory, hears Frank and decides to continue the process. Things escalate from there and eventually Rory’s friend Kristy, thinking Julia is having an affair, gets involved. I’ll leave it at that but the important thing, or perhaps the interesting things, are the subtle changes that Barker made to the relationships of his characters for the film version. Particularly the change in Kristy from friend in the novella, to Rory’s (or Larry in the film) teenage daughter. The novella did not allow for too much exploration of Kristy’s character and thus her devotion to Rory is a bit inexplicable so the shift from friend to daughter makes for more compact storytelling.

As a fan of world-building I was pleased to see that there was some greater attention given to developing the story of Lemarchand’s Box. Again though, like the cenobites, Sayce’s design for the film is so deeply ingrained on my psyche that I have no idea what a fresh reader might see when they first read about the puzzle box. I’m always a sucker for the construction fake historical objects within fiction, objects like Lemarchand’s Box or the Necronomicon, and I would love to have seen the genesis of the puzzle box explored more. Regardless, the puzzle box isn’t so much the focus of the story its purpose as a literal gateway reflects its role in the narrative as a bridge between the horrors capable of the human heart and the unknowable terror that lays beyond the boundaries of the universe.

Anyone at all remotely interested in horror should definitely checkout The Hellbound Heart. While the Hellraiser franchise has spawned nine films The Hellbound Heart (and of course the first film) remain the only elements of this universe in which Barker had a hand. In truth I would have loved to have seen Barker himself tackle the world of the Cenobites and Lemarchand’s Box in greater detail. There is a lot potential material here that has been woefully overlooked. Regardless Barker’s contribution to the horror genre, and pop culture at large, are worthy of attention even now (perhaps more so since films like Saw and Hostel seem to cater to the proclivities espoused by the Cenobites) and interested and iron-stomached readers should definitely try The Hellbound Heart.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

  1. Pingback: Aug/Sep 2011 Summary « King of the Nerds!!!

  2. Simon Sayce

    Hi there. Nice write-up and thanks for taking the time to give me a mention. Always good for the fragile ego.
    Regards, Simon

  3. Pingback: Reviewing Hell: The Hellbound Heart (1986) by Clive Barker – The Hell Mythos

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