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The Hellbound Heart 20th anniversary edition
Clive Barker
Earthling hardcover $30

review by Alasdair Stuart

The impact of this 20-year-old novella on modern horror can't be overstated. Clive Barker's story has given rise to a franchise of movies, countless riffs and nods to the characters and an approach to horror that's far more visceral and hands on than any that had gone before it. It's a surprise then to find that for all the revolutionary energy that this book has produced over the years, it's both a far more serious and in many ways, more old fashioned story than its antecedents.

Frank is a pleasure addict, a man for whom no depravity is too low, and no ecstasy too high. Until that is, he finds the LeMarchand box, opens it and to all intents and purposes, dies. His brother Rory, along with wife Julia, moves into the family home a year later and straight away, something odd happens. Julia is continually drawn to the front bedroom, senses something there and finally makes contact with Frank, or rather, what's left of him. An ex-lover of hers, Julia is desperate to save Frank and through him, to save herself from the loveless, empty marriage she has with Rory. As Julia, Rory and his friend Kirsty get drawn further and further into Frank's dreadful life, it soon becomes clear that none of them will be unchanged by the experience and only the very lucky will live to tell about it.

This is, despite the gore (of which there's plenty), and the iconic Cenobites (of which there's surprisingly few. They're mentioned in passing, Barker describing their hell as an eternity of endless flapping birds, ghostly forms glimpsed as they move through the shapes), a story about love. Frank and Julia, Rory and Julia, and Rory and Kirsty all orbit around one another with varying degrees of desperation and separation, the story driven by their need to be wanted or to be free, or both. They're resolutely normal, even mundane figures and the first half of the book could almost be a kitchen sink drama. However, Barker uses this to only emphasise the horror as the obscenity of Frank's decision and the horrifically alien world of the Cenobites invades their lives. This is a book about reality being curdled and what happens when it is and Barker never loses sight of that.

What will stick with you are the moments of sweetness in amongst the blood. The final half page is some of Barker's most poignant work, the likable and doomed Rory one of his most sympathetic characters whilst Frank, Kirsty and Julia are amongst his most iconic. This is quietly an epic, a story about the interaction between man and woman, brother and brother, Earth and Hell. It's no wonder it's had such an effect on modern horror.

This is a remarkably handsome book too, with Barker's Cenobite sketches, a reproduction of the original manuscript (complete with original notes) and two introductions, one from actress Ashley Laurence (Kirsty in Hellraiser), and one from Peter Atkins (one of the movie series' best scriptwriters) giving a remarkably complete view of this remarkable text. Iconic, horrifying and distinctly human, The Hellbound Heart truly can stand with Frankenstein, Dracula and the others as a classic of horror. If you've never read it, there's never been a better time.
Hellbound Heart

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