Saturday, October 10, 2015

Book Review: The Hellbound Heart (1986)

I've recently become interested in the Hellraiser franchise after many years, writing a review of the first movie and how I would have done the movie. The first movie, for those not familiar with the franchise, was inspired by the novella The Hellbound Heart. Recently my friends James R. Tuck and Danielle Tuck started a new podcast and they gave a glowing review to The Hellbound Heart. Danielle strongly recommend I buy it, so here goes...


The Plot

A solid but boring man named Rory (Larry in the film) and his bored wife Julia move into a house previously owned by Rory's late grandmother and now jointly owned by Rory and his brother Frank. Frank, however, has been missing for some time. A selfish hedonist, Frank had grown bored with the usual debauchery and sought out a certain puzzle box rumored to contain wonders and pleasures beyond human comprehension. Unfortunately, he should have been careful what he wished for, because the demonic Cenobites' idea of pleasure and his don't really overlap.

Freed from Hell by an accident--albeit as a skeletal skinless monster--Frank manipulates Julia (with whom he had a brief affair before her wedding to Rory) into murdering people for him to feed on and regenerate his body. Unfortunately for him, Rory's friend Kirsty is onto them...

The Good

*Barker is very good at writing vivid, descriptive scenes. The story opens with Frank solving the mystical puzzle box has a lot of really good descriptive imagery, including a bare light-bulb pulsing with the mournful toll of the bell that heralds the Cenobites' arrival. Another scene from Frank's point of view in which he recounts his year of sensual torment at the Cenobites' hands is also well-done.

*The multiple scenes from Frank's point of view confirm my earlier observations from my film review. Frank is so totally depraved that even a year of torment in Hell by beings he summoned thinking they'd bring him new extremes of pleasure hasn't turned him from his course. Rather than being sobered by the experience and wanting to turn over a new leaf, Frank definitely intends to resume his immoral lifestyle once he's freed. And some of his thoughts toward Julia suggest that the whole "pleasure that becomes pain and pain that becomes pleasure" that this story's Hell is full of have given him some ideas about what to do with her.

I'm reminded of the distinction commentators on 2 Corinthians 7:10 make over "godly sorrow" vs. "worldly sorrow." Frank regrets his bad decisions that lead to him being kidnapped by a bunch of extra-dimensional leather freaks but has no sorrow for his bad behavior generally. This behavior, among other things, caused great grief to his parents, included him cuckolding the brother from whom he was once inseparable, apparently caused him to run up a lot of debt, and even involved smuggling heroin and doing "small favors" to get his hands on the puzzle box. These "small favors" are implied to be immoral or criminal in nature, but he doesn't regret those even though he clearly regrets getting involved with the Cenobites. He is clearly, totally 100% selfish.

*I saw many scenes, concepts, etc. that I recognized as the nuclei of scenes from the movie. Obviously they'd be there since the movie is an adaptation of the book, but Barker, who was in charge of the whole movie, was able to develop his imagery, story, ideas, etc. more fully.

*The book introduces the idea that the prisoners of the Cenobites are aware of and interact with each other. Frank apparently learned of the possibility of escape from "whispers" of other inmates. I don't remember this in the original film, although you see a bit of in Hellbound: Hellraiser II (the only sequel Barker was involved with).

*At 164 pages long, it's a pretty quick read.

The Bad

*Some of the scenes are far more bony and could easily be elaborated on. This is especially disappointing considering the vivid description he employs elsewhere in the story. Contrast the opening damnation of Frank Cotton with Kirsty's initial confrontation with the Cenobites in the hospital. The former scene is very vivid and well-described, but the latter is, well...

“You can’t do this,” she insisted. 

It moved toward her nevertheless. A row of tiny bells, depending from the scraggy flesh of its neck, tinkled as it approached. The stink it gave off made her want to heave. “Wait,” she said. 

“No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering.” 

“The box,” she said in desperation. “Don’t you want to know where I got the box?” 

“Not particularly.” 

“Frank Cotton,” she said. “Does the name mean anything to you? Frank Cotton.”

The Cenobite smiled. “Oh yes. We know Frank.” 

“He solved the box too, am I right?” 

“He wanted pleasure, until we gave it to him. Then he squirmed.” 

"If I took you to him . . .”

"He’s alive then?” 

“Very much alive.”

"And you’re proposing what? That I take him back instead of you?” 

“Yes. Yes. Why not? Yes.” 

The Cenobite moved away from her. The room sighed. “I’m tempted,” it said. Then: “But perhaps you’re cheating me. Perhaps this is a lie, to buy you time.”

“I know where he is, for God’s sake,” she said. “He did this to me!” She presented her slashed arms for its perusal. 

“If you’re lying”— it said—“ if you’re trying to squirm your way out of this—” 

“I’m not.” 

“Deliver him alive to us then . . .” 

She wanted to weep with relief. 

“. . . make him confess himself. And maybe we won’t tear your soul apart.”

Compare the above, in which I only got the vaguest notions Kirsty was frightened or the Cenobite was something terrifying, with the movie adaptation below. The Cenobites make their appearance at around five minutes in...



The movie scene displays Pinhead in his dark grandeur and shows Kirsty's visceral terror. The sequence in the books is so monotone, especially in comparison.

*It has some of the same flaws of the film, including a lack of on-screen confrontation between the undead Frank and his brother.

*The e-book is rather expensive for a novella, around $6 or so. I've gotten full-length novels like Marko Kloos' FRONTLINES novels Terms of Enlistment, Lines of Departure, and Angles of Attack for a fair bit less. Is Barker's talent worth the higher price? Not really. The Hellbound Heart isn't even a full novel.

*I liked the film's dynamic of Kirsty as Larry's daughter and Julia as her stepmother better than Kirsty as a platonic friend of Rory (who seems to have romantic feelings for him) who doesn't like Julia. Kirsty knowing Frank as her uncle is a lot less forced than Kirsty having met Frank during the preparations for Rory and Julia's wedding four years before. The familial dynamic also makes Frank even more revolting, as in the films he seems to have incestuous intentions toward his own niece.

The Verdict

Generally good and a worthy seed for which the very creepy tree known as the film Hellraiser grew. However, it's not as good as its reputation and the ebook version is overpriced. If you want to read it, find a collection that includes it and other stories (like the 1988 Night Visions collection in which it first appeared) at a cheaper price. Otherwise just see the movie, in which Barker develops his craft more fully and put together something delightfully creepy.

6.0 out of 10.

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