Joy Silence (joysilence) wrote in darkling_tales,
Joy Silence
joysilence
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Hellbound Hearts

I've just finished reading Hellbound Hearts, an anthology of stories based on Clive Barker's 'Hellraiser mythos', edited by Paul Kane and Marie O'Regan. When I bought it I wasn't sure whether it would be a suitable book to discuss in darkling_tales, since one of the main aims of this community is to provide a haven for readers seeking an alternative to horror based on gore, gratuitous sex and violence, and the Hellraiser film franchise delivers buckets of all three! I also tend to dislike it when writers follow a 'mythos' too slavishly, especially when this involves recycling old characters. So I was taking a big risk with Hellbound Hearts! It could've been a truly awful collection, but in fact, it's a jolly good read. I've always thought that Clive Barker's original novella The Hellbound Heart was a fine piece of writing with a lot more to it than mating and dismemberment, and to my delight most of the authors here have homed in on the underlying themes that make the novella fascinating, instead of focussing solely on the surface tropes of S&M, gore and religious imagery.

Barker's use of puzzles intrigued me in the novella and subsequent films, so I was pleased to find that this seems to be the most commonly occurring preoccupation in the stories. We find mazes, sliding tablet puzzles, online puzzle competitions, word games, detective work and even a mysterious compass here, as well as the original Lament Configuration puzzle box that Frank used to summon the Cenobites in the novella. The best of these stories is Tim Lebbon's maze story 'Every Wrong Turn', with its sinister echoes of the M R James story 'Mr Humphreys' Inheritance'. The worst of these stories is hilarious: step forward repeat offender Neil Gaiman, here caught perpetrating a 'graphic story' about a man whose ability to solve the mediocre Daily Telegraph crossword is somehow enough to catapult him into a gore-splattered nightmare world. I do that crossword most days of the week. Should I be worried? As if the basic premise wasn't unbelievable enough, Gaiman further undermines himself by insisting on compiling original crossword clues for his hero to crack. This is a big mistake, if you know nothing at all about cryptic crosswords. On this showing, the wordsearches in 'The Puzzler' magazine are more Gaiman's level. The pikchurs are cliched rubbish as well. On the bright side, readers will be relieved to hear that this is the only story in the collection to feature the words 'wrecked anus'.

Puzzles aside, I think the main reason I keeping coming back to The Hellbound Heart is that it's such a wonderful, unflinching depiction of the sort of all-consuming boredom that drives people to do desperate things, simply in the name of entertainment. While fans and critics have always paid a lot of attention to the sexual element of the Cenobites' allure, Barker makes it quite clear in the novella that it is Frank's desire to find any kind of excitement that drives him to open the box and welcome Hell into his life, with sex being only one facet of the 'pleasure' he seeks. Luckily, most of the authors in Hellbound Hearts seem to have understood this, and the collection is full of characters in the throes of existential angst, ennui or simple despair. (In comparison, the Cenobites are largely inscrutable, with no-one making any tiresome attempts to imbue Pinhead and friends with a 'personality'.) There are some impressive character studies in Jeffrey J Mariotte's 'Santos del Infierno', featuring a father collapsing under grief after his family are killed in a car accident, and Mick Garris' 'Hellbound Hollywood', about a washed-up film director's attempt to stage a come-back, since fame and adoration is all that matters to him. But just as often it's the stories where the summoner's motive for calling the Cenobites is unclear, or even purely accidental (if indeed the box ever opens wholly accidentally...) that are the most affecting. I was surprised by the scarcity of domestic material though. In The Hellbound Heart, the character of Frank's lover Julia is driven to homicide after years of unhappy marriage to a dull man who only really loves her for her looks, and Julia's descent into evil is at least as compelling as Frank's own journey. But out of the 21 tales here, only Nancy Holder's enjoyable 'Orfeo the Damned' uses the theme of an unhappy marriage.

After the British Fantasy Society's recent spot of bother with sexism, I was pleased to see plenty of lady authors here, mainly because I've always found the the message of female emancipation contained in Julia's story to be quite unusual in horror fiction at the time. Admittedly, half of the female authors present hail from the 'paranormal romance' end of the horror writers' spectrum, which is already dominated by women, but there is also a good story by one of my favourite new writers, Sarah Pinborough ('The Confessor's Tale') which reads in parts like a particularly savage Russian fairytale of the kind I enjoyed as a child. I had hoped that the vampire-wranglers - Kelly Armstrong, Nancy Holden and Nany Kilpatrick - would embrace the bloody feminist potential of the mythos to good effect, but sadly Armstrong's story (about a woman taking part in a mysterious online puzzle competition) was dry and too reminiscent of Buffy to pack any punch. Kilpatrick's Goth reunion 'The Promise' is equally underwhelming (for some reason, horror stories about Goths never seem to work!)

In fact, the story that most fully embraces the mythos' potential for women is 'Sister Cilice', by Barbie Wilde, who has the distinction of playing a Cenobite in Hellraiser 2: Hellbound! Surprisingly, given the mythos' constant references to religion, it's the only tale in the book to feature monks and nuns, and it could have been awful. But the deceptive simplicity with which the Sister's crumbling mind and eventual psychic rebirth is described masks a mass of contradictions and neuroses that would've taken a lesser author ages to pick apart. Not bad for somebody who's only written one novel so far (having spent the 80s dancing around onstage behind Gary Numan, Ultravox and co.) Nicholas Vince, 'the Chatterer' in Hellraiser, also submits a fairly decent story, 'Demon's Design', which brings the mythos into the world of modern art, with the Tate gallery appearing in thin disguise! I had expected Vince and Wilde to be amateurish authors but they both hold their own among the professionals.

Even allowing for these reservations, Hellbound Hearts is a rewarding read. The sense of 'sameness' you can get in anthologies with a narrow theme has been mainly avoided here, which is impressive given that most of the stories are effectively about the same thing. This is helped by the profusion of different settings: Mexico, rainy Manchester, Byzantium, the Hungary of the boyars, modern-day L.A. and so on. There is a certain uniformity about the narrator's 'voice' in many of the stories, and few are written with a truly distinctive or innovative style, but that's perhaps the price you pay for consistency of quality and could in any case be the result of editing. Of course, some stories inevitably stand head and shoulders above the rest, and funnily enough, the ones I liked best were those which involved the sharpest departures from the basic Hellraiser plot. 'Mechanisms' by Christopher Golden and Mike Mignola is fantastic, and benefits from beautifully described settings (Oxford and Norwich) and involves an upper-class gentleman constructing a curious machine to contact the dead, but no actual Cenobites at all! But I'm almost tempted to say that the editors have saved the best for last. Don't let the fanciful title of Chaz Brenchley's ''Tis a Pity he's Ashore' put you off - this haunting tale, in which Brenchley manages the seemingly impossible task of crossing Hellraiser with a sailor's yarn, is brimming with lyrical beauty and is all the better for being wildly enigmatic. It's also the only story here tackling homosexuality, surprisingly enough!

Anyway, there is plenty of other good stuff in here, but if I listed all the tales I liked I'd be going on all night. As you may have gathered, Hellbound Hearts is a must-read for lovers of the mythos, but also a collection I would recommend without hesitation to any fan of old or new horror fiction. People online are lamenting the lack of a new story by Barker, but to be honest I didn't notice the absence (and he does at least provide a Foreword and lurid jacket art.) There are some frankly bizarre reviews of this book floating about the internet (including one from a website claiming to represent Women In Horror which dismisses the whole book as being aimed solely at survivors of child abuse. Well they ain't representing me, I can tell you!) But I really wouldn't let that put you off ;)
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