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  • Rev Horror

The Hellbound Heart (Hellraiser Part 1.5)

Written by: Clive Barker (1986)

The novella that inspired the movie Hellraiser tells the tale of the Lemarchand Configuration and the Cenobites that it summons when solved.


I wasn't going to review the novella during this Hellraiser extravaganza, but since I'm trying to beef up the "books" section of the site and there's a direct parallel, I figured it was worth talking about. The Hellbound Heart is a novella written by the incomparable Clive Barker, his followup to his debut novel The Damnation Game. It tells the story of Frank, a man who pursues immoral pleasures to the ends of the Earth, finally finding exactly what he is looking for in the Lemarchand Configuration, a puzzle box that is supposed to deliver to its solver the greatest pleasures in all of the universe. Of course, you're aware of what it really contains: the Cenobites, priests of Hell who view pleasure through a quite different lens than Frank was expecting.

I won't break down the rest of the plot too much here, because most of it is mirrored directly in Hellraiser. The only major difference between the two is that Kirsty is no longer Rory's daughter and is instead a social acquaintance who is in love with him. Julia is no longer her stepmother but Rory's wife and her romantic rival. The rest of the story proceeds almost exactly as it does in the film, with very little difference. Barker, who is a master of the type of psychosexual horror presented in the novella (and therefore a perfect person to actually make the film version and stay true to the erotic horror in the story), pens a phenomenal story that feels like the progenitor of all splatterpunk horror literature that would come after it.

The story pulls no punches but never feels like it steps over the line. The idea that the universe is populated by other beings that aren't human, and that the concept of pleasure is not unique to the human species but may very well mean different things to others, is as much a representation of Barker himself as it is a great idea for a story. Barker, a gay man in a society that had not yet accepted people who didn't conform to the heterosexual norm, is the living picture of someone whose "idea of pleasure" differs from almost everyone else around him. In his life, he is the one whose sexuality is disturbing and "other." But Clive Barker is unique in that, by writing The Hellbound Heart, he is not hiding nor is he making any excuses for who he is as a person. Don't weep, he says. It's a waste of good suffering, and it won't make a difference as to how he lives his life regardless.

By contrasting homosexuality, S&M, and aberrant sexuality with the torture inflicted by Barker's Hell Priests, we get a great commentary on the difference between perception and reality. Frank does not view his torture at the hands of the Cenobites as pleasure, but they most certainly do. Are the Cenobites wrong? Is the human, "normal" perception the only one that is reality? Or is it possible that there is just a limit to what we are able to experience within the human mind? Our nerves only allow for so much stimulation, so what happens when we go beyond that? Pleasure becomes pain, but is that a bad thing?

It is difficult to view Barker's writings outside of his sexuality, or at least without considering his different perspective on eroticism and what actually is sexual. In 2023, it's easy to look back and view his perspectives as a product of a different time, a world in which the way he is was viewed as aberrant as the actions of the Hell Priests. While it would be easy to make the argument that the Cenobites are inherently evil, it is only really possible to do so through the perspective of the movies that would come afterwards. The Hellbound Heart's Cenobites are chaotic neutral, the keepers of pleasure beyond the realm of human understanding. They are not bad any more than a lion is bad for hunting a gazelle. They reason the same way that we do, but they are intrinsically fair.

One of the biggest differences between Hellraiser and The Hellbound Heart is not the difference in Kirsty's familial ties to the rest of the characters but rather the Cenobites' treatment of her. In the film, Kirsty follows through on her promise to lead them back to Frank, who had initially escaped their torment and was trying to rebuild his body in the corporeal world. Pinhead initially dismisses her, telling her that what they are about to do to Frank is not for her eyes. He does the same in the novella. However, in the film, once Kirsty tries to run, she is pursued by each of the Cenobites individually because they're not done with her, and they seem intent on reneging on their deal. This is not the case in the novella. Kirsty heads down the grand staircase and makes her way out of the house, where she bumps into The Engineer (who is only really teased in the film) and being made the keeper of the Lemarchand Configuration. It's easy to see why Barker made the decision to have Kirsty fight her way out of the house: it makes for good entertainment. But the novella's handling of the Cenobites, as utterly fair-minded and an effect rather than a cause, is brilliant. They are, after all, part of nature, as otherworldly as it may be, and are never to blame for the consequences of calling them into the Earthly realm any more than a bird is to blame for flying.

And that, ultimately, is the queer message behind The Hellbound Heart and Hellraiser as well: homosexuality is not an evil, it is an inherent piece of who Barker is. To blame him for it would be to blame nature for being nature. While there aren't a whole lot of differences between the novella and the film, and if you're not one who likes to read I suppose it would be just as easy to turn on the movie for a couple of hours, the true horror fan owes it to themselves to check out the written works of Mr. Barker as well. He is a brilliant storyteller, and he has become a legend within the horror community for good reason. While The Hellbound Heart is far from my favorite of his works (that honor would belong to his initial Books of Blood), it is a seminal piece of horror literature and is vitally important to every erotic horror that has been released since.

Who this book is for: Hellraiser fans, Horror literature buffs, People in need of a facelift

Bottom line: The Hellbound Heart is a seminal piece of literature and must be treated as such. It is utterly brilliant in every way, one of the most influential horror writings in the last fifty years at least. Clive Barker is a master of horror of the highest order, and it should come as no surprise that this smaller piece of literature has thus far inspired eleven films, several comic books, and countless other horror creators. If you can read, you owe it to yourself to read this.

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