Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Book Review: Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell (2016)

I first became interested in the Hellraiser horror franchise when I was in middle or high school, although I lost interest for a long time. Over the last few months my interest has been rekindled--I watched the original Hellraiser for the first time and read the novel that inspired it, The Hellbound Heart. At some point along the way I saw that Rebellion Publishing had a Hellraiser/Sherlock Holmes crossover entitled Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell coming out.

So how was it? Let's see...

The Plot

Sherlock Holmes, the world's greatest detective, and his physician partner John Watson are called into action when a libertine disappears from a locked room. Their investigation draws them deeper into London's underworld, where the powerful and influential cast aside their Victorian uprightness indulge in a plethora of perversions. They discover the machinations of the mysterious "Order of the Gash" and a mysterious puzzle box.

Soon Holmes and Watson find themselves faced with a foe not of this world that deals in fates worse than death...

The Good

*As I mentioned earlier I've been interested in the Hellraiser universe for a long time. Crossing it over with the realm of Sherlock Holmes is pretty creative. Someone who solves the box and is taken by the Cenobites sets up a classical "locked room mystery," especially since a philosophical materialist like Holmes is not likely to consider a supernatural cause like, well, a gang of extra-dimensional BDSM enthusiasts who drag people through portals opened by a supernatural Rubix cube.

(Wow, I just made the whole franchise seem really ridiculous, didn't I?)

*I was able to read the novel in a few hours on the elliptical and it made my exercise time go by pretty quickly. It's an absorbing read and a fairly quick one. Definitely very entertaining, which is why we all read books in the first place.

*Author Paul Kane has clearly done his research into the Hellraiser franchise. This is not really a surprise considering he'd written The Hellraiser films and Their Legacy and had the assistance of Barbie Wilde, who played the Female Cenobite in the first two films and wrote the introduction to the book. In particular he's clearly studied The Hellbound Heart, since he knows the smell of vanilla accompanies the Cenobites and those who seek their attentions sometimes offer their dove's heads and their own urine. A character is very strongly implied to be the ancestor of Clive Barker's occult detective Harry D'Amour, who appears in some of Barker's other works before facing off against the nefarious Pinhead in the recent Scarlet Gospels. The acknowledgements section at the end of the book reveals influences from anthologies of stories set in Barker's universe written by other authors as well. The climactic battle even draws on both Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 and Hellraiser 3: Hell on Earth.

*Per the above, Kane knows not to bring in Pinhead. Pinhead would have been "born" in the 20th Century and this far too early for him. However, Hell had servants well before Pinhead, so he's not really needed.

*Sherlock Holmes' deductive talents are on full display in this one. He deduces several interesting facts about one Laurence Cotton and his second wife Juliet (more on them later) upon meeting them and he's able to discern the presence of the Puzzle Guardian vagrant and just how those who've gone missing after the solving the box died. Kane has written in the Holmes universe as well, including stories in The Mammoth Book of Sherlock Holmes Abroad and Gaslight Arcanum: Uncanny Tales of Sherlock Holmes.

*I was initially displeased to see characters from earlier Holmes works popping up, but Kane makes the whole situation work out and paves the way for a very entertaining climax.

The Bad

*The author's knowledge of the Hellraiser universe proves to be a bit of a creative crutch when Holmes and Watson first begin investigating. The first missing person is a mischievous "Francis Cotton" and the people who seek out their help are his brother Laurence and his new wife Juliet, who live on Lodovico Street in London. Laurence has a daughter named Kirsten, with whom Juliet doesn't get along. Does this sound a bit familiar? It's the triangle of Larry, Frank, and Julia from the first Hellraiser, transplanted into the late 19th Century.

However, another missing person is one Lt. Howard Spencer and he has a son nicknamed Ellie, whom Watson thinks will go into the military for all the wrong reasons. The implication is that this is the young Elliott Spencer, who will someday solve the puzzle box in India and be transformed into Pinhead.

If the story had been a pure prequel to The Hellbound Heart, this would not have been a problem at all, and if Kane had just transplanted the tale of the Cotton family for a 19th Century reboot, I might not have liked it but I wouldn't have been that upset. However, the prequel and the reboot aspects sit uneasily side by side. And since Hellraiser is not public domain like Sherlock Holmes is, Barker and friends have to have approved this.

It would have been better if Holmes and Watson merely met the ancestors of the Cottons--perhaps they had a boarder in the upper room of their Lodovico Street house who disappeared? It might be a nice hat-tip to the mythology.

Per my point about the Cotton family reprise, some characters' fates in hell are more akin to the torments depicted in in Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 than The Hellbound Heart. For example, Barker's original novella implied those taken by the Cenobites experienced "pleasures" more physical than psychological that reduced Frank Cotton to a mutilated mess and bore at least a passing relationship to sex. The punishments of Francis Cotton, the elder Spencer, etc. are more psychological and spiritual in nature. Furthermore, they stem from the idea of the Cenobites dispensing justice upon the wicked, as opposed to Barker's original vision of them as a band of amoral experimenters in pleasure and pain. That's something that appears in the later Hellraiser films (especially the awful direct to video ones), but not in The Hellbound Heart or the original Hellraiser. The idea present in The Hellbound Heart that the damned, when not "enduring pleasure," are able to see into the worlds they've left behind is abandoned entirely.

So is this a prequel to The Hellbound Heart and some of Barker's other works, the Hellraiser film series, or both?

*Some of Watson's actions after the climax of the novel don't fit in with his character, don't fit in with the existing Hellraiser mythology and might not work with the Holmes canon overall. I'm not going to go into detail for reasons of spoilers.

The Verdict

An interesting book and a fast read besides. 8.5 out of 10.

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