The Hellbound Heart is one of Clive Barker’s most well known tales and is generally considered a horror classic. The novella sparked the inspiration for the Hellraiser movie series, the first film of which was directed by Barker himself.
After growing bored with the simple pleasures mortal life has to offer him, hedonistic sensualist Frank Cotton decides to seek otherworldly extremes of carnal indulgence from the mysterious Lemarchand puzzle box. The trinket is rumoured to open a gateway to unimaginable and unbridled delights which surpass all human ecstasies. Once Frank discovers the secret to unlocking the puzzle box though, he is dragged into the realm of the vicious, sadomasochistic demon-like creatures called the Cenobites. Unfortunately the Cenobites’ idea of pleasure doesn’t correlate with Frank’s own, and instead of the scores of ethereally beautiful women Frank expects to be confronted with, he endures excruciating torture and is left horribly disfigured and trapped in the Cenobites’ world.
That is the premise, but the story really begins when Frank’s brother Rory and his wife Julia - who had an affair with Frank previously - move into the house in which Frank opened the box. A few drops of blood from a DIY accident on the floor of the room in which Frank disappeared summons him before Julia, flayed and disfigured, and she decides to help him to regain his full form and escape the Cenobites’ world. To do this, all she needs is to simply spill more blood...
This novella was very unusual. It was pushing very close to my limit for weirdness in stories - had it been any stranger I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it very much. I did enjoy it though, a lot; the pace is kept throughout, and I wanted to know how it would turn out - there were many questions flying around in my brain as I was reading: would Frank manage to escape the Cenobites? How far would Julia go to help him? Would Rory and Kirsty - the couples’ neighbour who becomes entangled in the situation - discover what was going on, and would they live through it? Overall it was an exciting, fast paced, gory little read and I would recommend this as key reading to any horror fan.
The characters are fine but are not very fleshed out, however this is to be expected with a novella of only 164 pages. Frank and Julia are truly vile, and I came to despise them, and Rory comes across as a bit stupid. The Cenobites were creepy and completely repulsive - I felt a little queasy reading about them; there’s just something about in depth descriptions of maimed and disfigured bodies that really grosses me out - I suppose I should commend Barker for making me feel this way, as it’s rare that I feel much distress or abhorrence when reading books or watching films; I even read American Psycho and lived to tell the tale! So if you’re squeamish I would probably steer clear of this, but here’s a taste of the gruesome descriptions in the book to test your nerve:
“Frank had difficulty guessing the speaker’s gender with any certainty. Its clothes, some of which were sewn both to and through its skin, hid its private parts, and there was nothing in the dregs of its voice, or in its wilfully disfigured features, that offered the least clue. When it spoke the hooks that transfixed the flaps on its eyes, and were wed, by an intricate system of chains passed through flesh and bone alike, to similar hooks through the lower lips, were teased by the motion, exposing the glistening meat beneath.”
And just for fun, here is the only brief appearance of the infamous Pinhead:
“Its voice, unlike that of its companion, was light and breathy - the voice of an excited girl. Every inch of its head had been tattooed with an intricate grid, and at every intersection of horizontal and vertical axes a jewelled pin driven through to the bone. Its tongue was similarly decorated.”
Although he certainly didn’t have a breathy, girlish voice in Hellraiser!
The gruesome descriptions of the Cenobites are not the worst of it though. There is plenty of gore and mutilation to feed the hungry horror fan, particularly towards the end, and it was all brilliantly executed and didn’t feel gratuitous as it fit with the events that unfolded.
All horror fans should definitely read this, but be warned that it is very strange and pretty gross to read, so those with weak stomachs should probably stay away. I can’t believe how long I put off reading this, but I’m very glad that I finally did. The Hellbound Heart was my first Clive Barker, but I will definitely read more of him now. It’s well written, interesting, exciting, gory and original, moreover it’s so short that you don’t really have anything to lose from giving this a try!