Ben Reviews: The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker

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It’s hard to talk about this novella without talking about Hellraiser, and that’s really its biggest weakness. Most people picking up this book will know that it is the story that the original Hellraiser film was based on. While the plot is very close to the plot of the movie, its also very obvious that Clive Barker put a lot of work into the mythos of the cenobites for the movie that is not there in the book.

The biggest change between the movie and the book is the character of Kirsty. In the book, she is a friend of Rory’s. In the movie, she is Rory’s daughter from a previous marriage. These diverging visions of the Kirsty character mark a shift in overall focus between the film and the book. The film focuses on the monsters, while the book is a pessimistic story about unrequited love.

In the book, Kirsty wants Rory who wants Julia who wants Frank who wants Kirsty (to the extent that Frank wants anyone). The “Heart” is “Hellbound” because all of the characters’ romantic interests are doomed. And yes, also Frank literally went to hell and now he’s having Julia seduce and murder innocent men to provide the raw material to rebuild his body, but that’s just macabre set decoration. It is there to illustrate the lengths to which Frank and Julia will go to sate their appetites. It is juxtaposed with the passivity employed by Rory and Kirsty which is preventing them from even finding a meaningful connection. The Hellbound Heart is illustrating the two extremes of sexual dissatisfaction. Frank and Julia have pushed kink and lust much too far, while Kirsty and Rory are so afraid to make a move that they wind up frustrated and alone.

In the movie, we still have the sado-masochistic passion of Frank and Julia, but Kirsty is molded into a generic final-girl and all the criticism of her “watch and wait” approach to romance is removed. By the time we get to Hellraiser, the cenobites are much more fleshed out (pun). They have more dialog. There’s more lore. They are obviously intended to be enticing. Which isn’t to say the cenobites are sexy, though the BDSM influence is not exactly subtle, but you want to know more about them. We get to see more of their intelligence and culture. Julia killing to fuel Frank’s resurrection is still the main focus, but every scene where the cenobites or their dimension is involved is much expanded.

This is all a bit backwards in terms of expectations. Usually, movies take lore-dense books and focus on the more-relatable-to-general-audiences human stories. In the case of Hellraiser, Clive Barker took the boogeymen from The Hellbound Heart, who hinted at something deeper, and puts them into a more lore-dense movie. Readers coming to the book looking to learn more about the “world” of Hellraiser will be very disappointed.

With all that said, I still think that The Hellbound Heart is a modern horror classic. It uses fantastical horror elements to tell a story about more mundane human insecurities, fears, and hang-ups. It doesn’t hurt that Clive Barker is a much wittier writer than he is often given credit for. Hellraiser is missing that sense of sarcasm and self-awareness. I definitely want to check out some of his other stuff.


Content and Ideas 3/5: There are certainly original ideas in the background of this novel, but I wish they’d been developed more. The plot is very simple and it doesn’t show off most of what makes this story unique.

Organization 3/5: This is a rare one where I will say there’s room to beef up the story. It reads like a demo reel for Hellraiser, which I understand that it may well have been.

Use of Language 4/5: Clive Barker can be a bit snarky and with a story as dark and violent as this, that’s a welcome relief from time to time. He infuses his characters with a lot of personality simply by how he writes them.

Personal Preference 4/5: It could have gone up to a 5/5 for me if it just had a little more about the cenobites and/or a little more about the love square.

Recommendation Strength 4/5: I think there is something here for both fans of the horror movie, and for anyone who is interested in horror provided that they are not bothered by the dark themes.


I co-host the Words About Books podcast with my writing partner Nate.

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