When it comes to artistic works that have dared to chart the landscape of Hell, there a few contemporary works that are more iconic than Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. Although the original film might seem a little dated when revisited, and the seemingly endless stream of less than stellar sequels—including one in space and another involving an evil website—might have diluted the mythos somewhat, the overall aesthetic still remains as powerful and scary as it ever was.
Barbed chains emerging from darkness, the iconography of puzzles and mazes manifested in the ever-present Lament Configuration, the language of desire and flesh, and of course Barker’s most inspired and terrifying creations, the Cenobites, all work together to construct a horrifying and vivid portrayal of an eternal damnation that would make even Dante tip his hat.
Despite the film franchise’s loss some steam, the Hellraiser mythology has found an ideal home in comicbooks over the past decades. Creators such Neil Gaiman, Alex Ross, and Mike Mignola to name but a few, have all added their own creative touches to the world that fans were first introduced to in the short story, The Hellbound Heart. Barker, with the help of writer Christopher Monfette and artist Leonardo Manco, has returned to his infernal creation with a new miniseries, Hellraiser: Pursuit of the Flesh, published by BOOM! Studios.
The story begins with a rather angst-ridden Pinhead, leader of the cenobites and a demon of high rank in Hell’s hierarchy, questioning his mantle as guardian of the puzzle box and arbiter of the sins of the flesh. Tired of the repetitive nature of his task and the lack of underlying meaning to all the death and violence he is party to, his is an existential crisis that despite its extreme circumstances, is actually fairly relatable. He, like so many others, has mythologized his role in the world and suddenly finds himself seeking an escape from the station that no longer holds the importance it once did. His goal, to become human and hopefully win salvation as his prize.
The demon yearning for heaven has been a recurring trope in fiction for a long time. Whether it is an actual fallen angel seeking a return to paradise, such as Wayne Barlow’s book, God’s Demon, or the always popular story of the criminal trying to escape a violent past, the concept of redemption for even the most irredeemable is a powerful cultural force in our society. Although Dante gave us our most visceral portrayal of damnation, and illustrated clearly with that there is no escape from God’s justice—“Abandon hope all ye who enter here”—the thought that there must be some way to avoid one’s fate remains an entrenched one.
Many of these stories end in failure, but their ubiquity is a testament to our culture’s belief that the attempt is at least worth making—perhaps speaking to a guilt-ridden collective unconscious that fears some forthcoming retribution. Either way, this plot archetype finds a perfect home in Barker’s vision of Hell—brought fully to life by Manco’s beautiful artwork.
Additionally, Hellraiser: Pursuit of the Flesh, is successful because it explores its story’s primary antagonist in explicit detail. Pinhead, like so many villains, is fundamentally more interesting than the heroes he fights. While the S&M vibe coupled with the obvious name, might make Pinhead seem like just another throwaway bad guy, his position in popular culture is a testament to his recurring appeal. Barker capitalizes on the fascination readers have with his creation by diving in full force, making the demon the story’s primary focus, and the humans the peripheral figures. While some creators fear overexposing their creations, this is a fear that the writer’s justifiably ignore in Hellraiser: Pursuit of the Flesh.
Two thoughts remain in my mind after reading the first issue of Barker’s new series: 1. I want more. Now. And 2. That Barker taps a central vein of human consciousness. After reading Hellraiser it feels like there could be a Hell. And I hope that it looks nothing like the world envisioned in this story. And if it does, I pray the closest I get to it is reading this book.
Go buy it now.
Get In From The Ground Floor: Hellraiser is a character with an amazingly rich history in popular culture. But all you need to know can be learned from this Prelude. Free to download and unavailable in print, this is the very beginning.