The Hellbound Heart
Oct 13, 2016
The Hellbound Heart
Author: Clive Barker
Summary: Barker’s best-known work, and the basis for the Hellraiser movies, is a morally complex tale of an alternate cosmology.
If you’re a casual horror fan, there are a few names which are part of the rogue’s gallery of great villains: Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, Leatherface, and Pinhead.
Except, no, not Pinhead, because if you’re a hardened fan of the genre you know that Pinhead isn’t a villain, but a priest in a religious order devoted to the experiences of the senses.
And if you’re an obsessive fan of Clive Barker, you know that Pinhead isn’t even a major character, or even named Pinhead. He’s mentioned once, in passing, in The Hellbound Heart, as a background player to the priestess who addresses Frank Cotton, the man who is the real monster of the story, because the story is about human morality and ethics, and the things we do in the name of love.
In the novella, Frank is a selfish hedonist in search of the ultimate sensory experience. He hears rumours of the Lemarchand Configuration, a puzzle box which opens the portal to a realm of carnal pleasure. Upon finding and opening the box, he meets the Cenobites – an extradimensional religious order who no longer differentiate between pleasure and pain. He willingly gives himself over to them before realizing that they’re going to torture him for eternity. Sorry, Frank, you will not experience carnal pleasure today.
Frank’s brother Rory is a good guy. He’s devoted to his wife, Julia, and a genuinely decent human being. Julia’s not – she had an affair with Frank and is totally obsessed with him. When they move in to the family home where Frank performed the ritual to summon the Cenobites, Rory cuts his hand accidentally. His blood gives Frank the chance to return to this dimension, but he needs more blood to have a physical form. Julia’s willing to help by seducing men while Rory’s at work, then killing them as a sacrifice to Frank. Rory’s coworker, Kristy – who is in love with Rory, and is at least a mostly decent person – suspects Julia of having an affair, and catches Julia murdering a random man, but is caught herself by skinless Frank. She escapes with the Lemarchand Configuration and solves it out of boredom when she awakes in the hospital after collapsing from exhaustion, thus summoning the Cenobites herself. They attempt to take her, as that’s the deal when you solve their puzzle, but she tells them Frank escaped.
They are not amused. Sorry, Frank, you will not escape their realm today.
The cosmology of Barker’s universe is one of moral ambiguity – the Cenobites do horrible things, but aren’t evil themselves, but morally neutral agents. Like in old fairy tales, their lesson is that one should be careful what they ask for. Frank is actually evil, and his condemnation to the Cenobites’ realm seems just. Julia, however, seems to be as much a victim as anyone else in Frank’s life, blinded with devotion by his cult-leader charisma – not that this excuses her actions, but it’s apparent she was a different person prior to her affair with Frank. Her condemnation alongside Frank is troubling; her punishment is for assisting in Frank’s escape, not for committing murder. Rory seems to be the opposite of Frank, a genuinely good person, who does not deserve the fate he meets at Frank’s hands.
Kristy’s character is the most complex in her moral state – she appears, on the surface, to be another generally good person. However, she’s in love with a married man and essentially stalking Julia to catch her in a compromising position so Rory will divorce her - without regard to how Rory might feel about this. She’s willing to bargain with the amoral Cenobites to punish both Frank and Julia. When, in the end, she’s entrusted as the caretaker for the Lemarchand Configuration, the question of why can be raised: Is it because she is good, and can judge who deserves the punishment contained within, or because she’s another morally neutral agent, and will pass the box to any earnest seeker while washing her hands of their fate? Additionally, she’s trapped within the larger mysteries of the puzzle, wondering if there are other boxes that open other gates, perhaps to the paradise where she dreams Rory now resides.
Barker has revisited the world of the Cenobites several times in his career, most recently in The Scarlet Gospels, which looks to be the conclusion of the story. The Hellbound Heart later became Hellraiser, which has spawned countless sequels of widely varying quality (somewhere, there’s a universe where the original script of Hellraiser 4 was produced, and movies are a better place for it). Most importantly, the moral ambiguity of the universe Barker creates stands out from the “good versus evil” ethics of many horror stories, avoiding predictable outcomes and fates for characters.