Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Scarlet Gospels by Clive Barker (Earthling Publications)

This is my first non-music related blog in a while, but in honor of Lemmy’s passing in December, and because Motörhead’s “Hellraiser” has been stuck in my head for the past few months, and because we all love that music video with Lemmy playing poker with Pinhead, here’s a blog about The Scarlet Gospels.

I received my copy in the mail a few days ago after having it shipped to Italy to be remarqued by Malleus (who provided the awesome cover art for this edition), and then to Britain to be remarqued by Les Edwards (who illustrated the text), and I must say, the book and the remarques are gorgeous.  I have provided photos below.  I only wish I could have Mr. Barker draw a sketch in it of his own!

Here's a sketch of the Malleus Rock Art Lab remarque: 

He was inspired by the scene where Lucifer pulls the nails out of Pinhead's skull. Lucifer can be seen playing with the remains of Pinhead's quilted scalp, spelling out "the end" (of poor pinhead).
Here is Malleus' actual remarque in the book.  I was thrilled when he decided to use colored ink on the black endpage for the drawing:   

And here is the remarque by Les Edwards (who also goes by Edward Miller), featuring a stunning illustration of Pinhead releasing the origami birds:

I will also say that Earthling Publications did a wonderful job with this edition.  I especially like the design of the limitation page, with the Lament Configuration dangling from the chain:

Now, about the book.

Publication details didn’t start to materialize for this book until the summer of 2013 as I remember, though Barker was writing it in 2005 and 2006, and maybe earlier.  Barker said in 2006 that he was trying to finish the “Scarlet Gospels journey” to free himself of it, because his heart really seemed to be in writing the next three Abarat books (the details of which have still yet to surface).  2013 was a happy year for me.  It was weak musically, but we finally learned that The Scarlet Gospels was officially on the way.  It took physical form last year, nearly thirty years after the The Hellbound Heart, and for the first time in that same amount of time, we have more stories about Pinhead!  And this time around he’s actually called Pinhead.

The narrative of this novel is a little more grandiose than that of The Hellbound Heart’s, as it really has three plot points, all of which are large in scope:

1) Clive Barker’s mythology of Hell
2) Pinhead’s scheme to conquer Hell
3) Harry D’Amour’s effort to thwart Pinhead’s conquering of Hell

A little different than The Hellbound Heart, which was a story carried by a few average individuals and some extra-dimensional beings, which took place almost entirely in an old house in a neighborhood somewhere.

So was The Scarlet Gospels worth the wait?  Yes and no.  I enjoyed it, for sure, but in all fairness it would have been really hard to make an unenjoyable book based on these characters, who are so damn interesting.  Pinhead might be the greatest character ever created in all of horror.  Harry D’Amour is Scott Bakula.  And Harry’s friends, Lana, Norma and Caz are even more interesting than Harry is.  So yes, I expected it to be good, and it is good, but it didn’t floor me like The Hellbound Heart did. 

The Hellbound Heart was to Hellraiser as The Scarlet Gospels is to Hellbound: Hellraiser II.  The reason The Hellbound Heart was such an unsettling, terrifying little novella is because it was so mysterious.  We didn’t know anything about the Cenobites.  They were alien, metaphysical beings, and because they were so unknown, and frankly, so difficult for us to wrap our heads around, they were terrifying.  As Pinhead famously responded when asked who he was: “An explorer... of the further regions of experience.  Angels to some, demons to others.”  And other than their physical descriptions, and the little bit about their desire to be appeased by their victims with jugs of urine, that’s about all the information we were given.   And we didn’t know anything about the Hell they came from except than it was a place where the unfortunate people who summoned these extradimensional beings were taken to suffer.  It was a small story with small scope, but the reader knew there was something fantastic going on behind the scenes that Barker intentionally kept from us.  He wanted our imaginations to do all the work.                  

In this book we have a literal translation of Hell, as Barker basically writes his mythology of it.  He lays it all out – its occupants, its landscape, Lucifer himself, Lucifer’s abode, Lucifer’s attempt to commit suicide, etc.  It’s very interesting because it expands the universe we knew nothing about, adding layers of depth to Pinhead’s life, but in doing so it sacrifices the element that made its predecessor scarier.  Hellbound: Hellraiser II essentially did the same thing.  We went from a house in a quiet neighborhood into Hell itself.  It’s for the same reason the second installment in the Hellraiser series was, though a horror movie I would still recommend to about anyone, inferior to the original.  

The mythology itself though, I must say, is very imaginative, believable (more so than most fantasy), captivating, and even consistent with some early church orthodoxy.  There’s a fabulous passage in the book where Lucifer, who is referred to throughout as “The Mourning Star,” expresses his anguish in the absence of his creator, and professes that this is why he's spent the last few thousand years trying to commit suicide.  Hell in Barker's mythology is a confined area that's completely absent the presence of God.  This adds a great layer of depth to Lucifer's character, that he regrets his ambition and is sentenced to spend eternity in misery for it. I actually found myself wishing he could make amends with God and leave Hell for Pinhead to rule, because Lucifer felt like he didn't belong there.

Another bit of genius on the part of Barker was to refer to the starring cast as 'the Harrowers', a name taken from the Harrowing of Christ, which was when Jesus descended into Hell after being crucified.  This is also early church orthodoxy.  The Harrowing was never once mentioned in the Bible I don't think, but is evidenced to be conviction in the early church by the language used in the Apostles' Creed: "[Jesus] descended into hell."  In 1 Peter 3:19, Peter references it though: “this Jesus, who by the same spirit by which he is raised from the dead goes and preaches to the lost spirits in prison.” That text has been used as the principal proof to say that Jesus, at some point after his death, generally believed to be between his death and his resurrection, descended into hell.  I was told by a Duke seminary school grad that it was believed that Jesus went into hell to experience the fullness of the magnitude of suffering - the full penalty for human sin - in order to be able to give complete atonement for sin through and following the resurrection.  Barker refers to Harry, Caz, Lana and Norma as 'the Harrowers' because they are the first since Jesus Christ to descend into Hell and then ascend.        

My greatest complaint about Barker’s mythology is the lack of cenobites other than Pinhead.  We aren’t introduced to a single cenobite.  I would have expected Pinhead to gather an army of cenobites in his quest to take over Hell, but we don’t even know if any cenobites other than Pinhead exist at this point.  He was always accompanied by his 'colleagues' when he appeared in The Hellbound Heart.  Instead we have other demons of lower orders, and Pinhead is sort of a god among lesser beings – the Hell Priest, Barker calls him – and it’s assumed he’s just under Lucifer on the pecking order.   

Anyway, it's a harrowing experience.  Recommended to anyone who wants another tale with a heavy dose of Pinhead.  The second and last.    

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Looking Back 10 Years: 2006

In 2006 I was too busy gorging myself on Iron Maiden and Metallica to appreciate the material coming out at present.  I was that kid acting like the disgruntled old man, saying shit like, “all the good shit came out twenty years ago.”  While there’s not a thing wrong with loving some Iron Maiden and Metallica, it’s a shame I didn’t realize at the time that 2006 was one of the best years for music ever, and now that the decade has passed and we’re halfway through the next, I can say with conviction it was the best year for music post-turn of the century. 
I got to thinking about this because Metal Injection posted a list of albums celebrating their 10 year anniversary in 2016, which can be seen here.

Needless to say, the author left out a lot of albums that should’ve been on there, including: 

Giant Squid’s Metridium Fields
Wolves in the Throne Room’s Diadem of 12 Stars
Ahab’s Call of the Wretched Sea
OM’s Conference of the Birds

…Just to name some of my favorites from that year.  But he did mention the best two of 2006: Agalloch’s Ashes Against the Grain and Celtic Frost’s Monotheist, not just the two best albums of that year but two of the best albums – metal or non-metal – of all time.


While Celtic Frost went out in dramatic fashion by throwing down the gauntlet on just about every other extreme metal album ever written (which I touched on in my last blog), Agalloch carried on and has since grown from a place of well-regarded semi-obscurity to become one of the most beloved and influential metal acts of the new millennium. And they themselves picked up some influences along the way (Godspeed You! Black Emperor on Marrow of the Spirit), and have done what any metal band needs to do to be great: they have evolved.

Agalloch's guitarist and pianist, Don Anderson, touched on some of Agalloch's influences when asked in an interview about Agalloch attempting to expose listeners to a variety of types of music: 

"We really do want to expose our fans to different kinds of music, because we ourselves are very eclectic listeners. We’ve always been eclectic with our listening. In fact, when we wrote The Mantle, we weren’t listening to metal at all. We were very disenchanted with it. At that time, it was a very difficult time for metal. The only metal record I remember John and I listening to was Bathory‘s Hammerheart — that was a big influence. Otherwise, we were getting into singer/songwriters like Nick Cave, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, and other things like that. Of course, then there’s the neofolk scene: Death in June, Current 93, Sol Invictus, etc. That’s when we really started trying to adapt neofolk into our music. One of the other weird records was by a band called Sand — a record called The Dynamic Curve. John was getting into a lot of electronica like Autechre, Aphex Twin, and Boards of Canada. We were trying to bring all of those different influences in, because we were trying to expose our fans to all of those sorts of different music. It’s rewarding, but of course, we like to provoke!"

- Don Anderson, PhD
Heathen Harvest interview, July 19, 2015

Yes, Anderson has PhD in English and teaches at the University of Washington. I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn he assists the typically credited lyricist, John Haughm, in the lyric writing process. The band's lyrics have always been very mystical and enchanting, often describing natural landscapes and old world emblems, without sacrificing devotion to even heavier subjects, like divinity.

I never heard any Autechre, Aphex Twin or Boards of Canada in Agalloch's music, but the folk influences are obviously there. The band used folk to establish its signature sound, and they did it right, in my opinion, without going completely over the top as some Finnish bands I'll refrain from naming have.  And we heard more Bathory influence later on, notably in Faustian Echoes, than perhaps anywhere else in Agalloch's catalog.    

Celtic Frost never wrote two albums that sounded the same, and neither has Agalloch.   But while Celtic Frost's change-ups tended to be more sporadic and unpredictable, Agalloch has taken a more linear evolution that feels more natural, kind of like Metallica did between Kill 'Em All and And Justice....  Each album is distinct in its sound but the artist is never in question.  And, importantly, (up to The Serpent & the Sphere) the evolution felt right

When Marrow of the Spirit came out in 2010 I felt a twinge of disappointment because it was so dramatically different than what's still Agalloch's best, Ashes Against the Grain, and this is even despite the fact that Marrow of the Spirit had the obvious influence of my favorite band throughout, especially on the album's standout track, "Black Lake Nidstång," and was thus stylistically at an advantage. But something about the heavy, polished emotion on Ashes Against the Grain, at a time when black metal and doom metal coincided less frequently, gives it standing above all Agalloch's other albums. I really think it might be the greatest metal album ever written. 
So what years were as good as 2006? It's a hard question. 

1970 - Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Deep Purple’s Deep Purple In Rock
1971 - Led Zeppelin’s IV, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality, Funkadelic's Maggot Brain, The Who's Who's Next
1973 - Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, King Crimson’s Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy
It goes without saying that Black Sabbath released one great album after another between 1970 and 1975. 

1975 - Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, Black Sabbath’s Sabotage, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run
Then there was 1986, which raked in a ton of classic albums.

1999 was a great year too, with Immortal's At The Heart of Winter, Sigur Rós' Ágætis byrjun, Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada, Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile, etc.   

But I don't know if any of those years were as strong as 2006 was.  

Okay... maybe 1973 and 1975 were.