You’re at a swimming pool. You kick off from the wall. You feel like a rocket riding its booster stages. You’re moving so fast that you think the momentum will carry you to the other side. But it’s not to be. The water is slowing you down…slowing you down…stopping you. Now you have to start swimming. Goodbye fun, hello breastroke.
…That’s what Clive Barker feels like. The Hellbound Heart has a fascinating beginning, but then the plot collapses like a souffle and you’re left with a very unremarkable horror novel, filled with slashings and stabbings, and you read on mostly because the story was very good before and hopefully will become very good again. The Hellbound Heart doesn’t overstay its welcome, but that’s because it’s short.
The opening chapter introduces us to a hedonist whose quest for pleasure has caused him to inadvertently pick the lock to hell itself. He meets Cenobites, paladins of pain, who spirit him away to a land of never-ending agony. But he leaves part of himself behind, and thus has a small chance of being able to escape hell.
End chapter one. Things never get this interesting again. The story rapidly loses voltage.
New characters arrive. The fantastically compelling plot gets yanked back down to earth as we’re immersed in unrequited love affairs and ennui and boredom and other things that aren’t very exciting to read about. Soon the story gets a bit cartoonish and ridiculous. All of Clive Barker’s usual shortcomings gatecrash the party. The characters are as unpleasant as the ones from his Books of Blood short stories, but now we have to tolerate them for novella length. Out of the four human characters, two are reprehensible, one is pathetic, and Kirsty is a milksop. This last one is a problem. I don’t care about her. A guy is trying to murder her, and I don’t give a shit. She’s a department store mannequin. Barker hasn’t done anything to make her interesting except for some generic female angst that was done ten times better in Stephen King’s first novel.
Clive Barker completely fails to exploit his strengths: world-building and epic metaphysical fantasy. A journey to another reality where pain is pleasure? That’s the kind of thing I want to read. An undead zombie running around with a knife? I get bored of that sort of thing very quickly. Sometimes I get bored of it before I even start reading it.
The Cenobites are amazing, though. Definitely one of Clive Barker’s best creations. Obviously they feature predominately in the opening chapter, although in the last few pages they return for the most half-assed comeback since the new Skid Row album.