One of my favourite genres of fiction is Gothic horror. In fact, it was Gothic horror that first got me into creative writing for the first time, through the discovery of Edgar Allan Poe, an author who I covered on the blog last time around. And my very first blog post on this website was another Gothic horror, when I discussed why ‘Frankenstein’ is my favourite book. Today though, I won’t be talking about another Gothic horror writer. At least, not one you are likely to associate with the label.
Instead, I’m going to talk about Clive Barker, and the first story by him I’ve read, ‘The Hellbound Heart.’
At first, this doesn’t seem like a Gothic horror novel. It’s occult in nature, with surrealist elements, and a recurring theme of sexuality and body horror.
So why do I consider it Gothic?
Well, there are a number of different elements that make a story a Gothic horror story and while ‘The Hellbound Heart’ does things very much in its own way, it does also fulfil many of those same elements. Albeit, through a modern lens.
Before we get into the more minor details, there are two major elements that make something a Gothic horror story, rather than one that is simply horror. These are romanticism, and grotesquery.
According to Tate, romanticism is a movement in art and literature that is interested in human psychology and expressions of personal feeling. In fact, the obvious parallel is the romance genre, a story that explores love, and the mystery and conflict surrounding it. This is something that appears in Gothic horror a lot, with Frankenstein’s monster feeling rejected and unloved, or with romantic interests being killed and turned into vampires – or turning out to have been vampires all along. Essentially, a Gothic horror is a romantic horror story – a story that explores feelings of both horror and romance. We’ll leave horror aside for a moment, and think about how ‘The Hellbound Heart’ utilises a romantic element.
This is in fact the greatest thematic core of the book. Every main character we receive a POV from in the book is in some way romantically interested in, and inevitably frustrated by, either one of the other characters, or one of the themes of the book. This is made specifically clear by our two main female protagonists, and their relationship with the tertiary character Rory. Kirsty, our eventual main character, is in love with Rory, and is frustrated at simply being a friend to him. The reason for this being the case is because Rory is married to our other main female protagonist, Julia. Julia, for her part, is frustrated by her relationship with Rory, and spends much of the early stages of the book thinking about her desire for Rory’s missing brother, Frank, who she once had an adulterous relationship with. In this way, not only are both of our primary protagonists intertwined with romantic conflict, but this focus also ties the two of them together through Rory. This also brings us to Frank, Rory’s brother, and one of the book’s main antagonists. Frank is actually the POV for the book’s opening chapter, which provides us with insight for his desires, primarily, the desire for a new and greater experience with pleasure.
It is this desire that inevitably promotes the greater, darker conflict of the story, as well as its horror element. In other words, the second main pillar of Gothic horror – grotesquery.
The grotesque is harder to define than romanticism, since its use is so varied, but essentially it refers to anything with a visual appearance that is strange or ugly, using weird shapes and distorted forms – masks and gargoyles are the most historically significant examples, both of which are prominent features of Gothic art, architecture and literature. In terms of Gothic horror fiction, the grotesque refers to character descriptions like those Mary Shelley gave to Frankenstein’s monster, or the way Bram Stoker described Count Dracula. And it’s easy to see how this might be applied to many works of horror, with how common monsters are to the genre. In my opinion though, it seems to me that the grotesque is only applicable when there is a human element to the monster, but with something off, or at least something conventionally strange about their appearance.
Obviously, this element of Gothic horror applies more to the antagonists than the protagonists, and this remains true in ‘The Hellbound Heart.’ The main antagonist of this book is the aforementioned Frank, a character who most embodies the grotesque when he is first discovered by Julia, since at this point, he is not fully formed. There’s an uncanny valley element to his appearance to begin with, as Julia remembers and recognises pieces of Frank’s face and body that she used to be attracted to, but these are contrasted with, or even replaced by, gory, visible tendons and bones. This is as much body horror as it is grotesque, but that’s one of the ways the book modernises Gothic horror – by involving more extreme horror. However, it uses the more classically grotesque as well, thanks to the other antagonists – the Cenobites. There’s still an element of body horror, thanks to their sadomasochistic adornments, for example one cenobite having hooks in their eyelids, however there’s more subtlety here than with Frank, with the cenobites appearing civilised with their leather uniforms, and their eloquent speech. In fact, these more civilised elements add to the grotesquery, since it further exaggerates the more horrific and unusual aspects of their appearance, and the threats that they make.
I’ve delved into this a little already, but it’s worth mentioning, now we’ve established ‘The Hellbound Heart’ using the two main Gothic horror elements, how exactly it modernises these elements. Barker modernises romanticism by involving not just romance, but a sexual element and a sexual and romantic frustration that would have been left to the subtext in much of classic Gothic horror, whereas here it is more explicit, as this is what modern readers expect.
Similarly, the grotesquery is modernised by involving more visceral, gory elements of the grotesque as opposed to mere difference and exaggeration, as contemporary horror readers have come to expect more shocking descriptions. Additionally, with regards to the cenobites, their occult nature, a staple of Gothic fiction, has been deepened with an almost science fiction, otherworldliness, as interdimensional invaders offered entry to our lives through the solving of a puzzle box. This provides them with a Lovecraftian element that is simultaneously classically Gothic, and modernised – perhaps this element acts as the bridge between the two sides of the story – its classic, Gothic side, and its modern, explicit side.
Romanticism has also been modernised by involving adultery as one of the core themes of the story. Not only in regards to Julia’s desire to be with Frank, and Kirsty’s desire to be with Rory, but also with the married men that Julia brings home, not to sleep with, but to murder and bleed in order to fulfil Frank’s ghoulish revitalisation.
In regards to the antagonists, it is also interesting how they have an antagonistic relationship to the romantic element of the story, with the cenobites having an aggressive, hostile, and pain-oriented sexuality, and Frank being depicted as an abuser on multiple levels. Julia’s part in the antagonists’ development is also an example of antagonistic romance. In this way, romanticism and grotesquery are not only modernised by the book, they’re intrinsically tied together throughout the book as well, with both feeding into the other via the depth and complexity of the characters.
In fact, at many different points in the story, whether something is romantic or grotesque is either unclear, or depends on the character’s individual perspective. This is most obvious with the cenobites, and their ambiguous perspective on pain and pleasure, but it’s evident in other characters too, with some scenes being either romantic and sexual, or horrifying and grotesque, based purely on whether you ask one character or the other. The book’s Gothic sensibilities run deeper than if they’d been merely transplanted into the story.
Of course, I mentioned earlier on that there are not just these two elements of Gothic horror. Rather than going into every tiny detail, what is it that ties these details together? Well, it’s the descriptive element. Though today, many modern readers don’t vibe with Gothic horror because of its flowery, descriptive nature, that’s one of the things I’ve always loved about the genre. Often it relates to the setting – old, haunted mansions and castles, or graveyards, or places of medicine and learning.
And this descriptive scene setting is also present in ‘The Hellbound Heart,’ modernised by involving not a mansion or castle, but a regular urban house that the protagonists move into – albeit one that maintains that element of the hostile setting, being damp, ruined, and cluttered, not to mention the prominent role the attic plays. And the other settings still feel Gothic as well, using a modern hospital rather than a sanitorium, and featuring both a bar and a house gathering, scenes that have featured in classic Gothic horror.
Another thing Gothic horror is often descriptive with is those personal feelings I mentioned earlier on. In this book, it is equally descriptive of personal feelings, going into great detail about the characters and their senses, and psychological experiences. Granted this usually ties back into the romantic element – but you’ll also get descriptions of pain and pleasure whenever the antagonists come into play once again, something that is especially notable right at the beginning, when Frank is forced into experiencing the cenobites’ version of pleasure in a scene with an overwhelming selection of sensations given masterful descriptive prose. But this of course is not abandoned after the first hurdle – it keeps creeping back in over the course of the book.
Of course, all of this really matters in a Gothic horror story because of the depth with which it is applied. With some prominent theme bleeding into the description each time, or some setting or element being subverted. I’d argue first of all that ‘The Hellbound Heart’ being more modern is a subversion, but that’s not the extent of its depth at all. It also subverts villains by using Frank as a sort of gory vampire, and by casting the cenobites in a simultaneously antagonistic and protagonistic role that means you never really know what their deal is, outside of self serving experience and sensation.
What’s also important to the Gothic style of horror fiction is the surprisingly small role its antagonists play. Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, and here with both Frank and the cenobites. The villain, the monster, is normally the fan-favourite element of these stories, yet it almost always plays a very small role, kept on the outside, used and shown only rarely. This adds to the mystery, it adds to the romanticism, it adds to the grotesquery, and frankly it makes the stories and those monsters better.
Of course, ‘The Hellbound Heart’ doesn’t use every element of Gothic horror – most notably, it doesn’t have an epistolary presentation style. But this is one of the ways it sets itself apart in the genre. That, and the way it modernises all of the most important elements, all the most interesting elements, of Gothic horror – and that’s what makes it so damn good.
So with all of that said, how exactly does ‘The Hellbound Heart’ act like a classic Gothic horror story? And how does it set itself apart? Well, there are three important elements.
The book features romanticism as one of its core pillars by putting its protagonists into conflicted relationships with each other. This is then modernised by exploring not just romance, but also frustration, and sexuality.
Grotesquery plays a major role in an original way thanks to the antagonists. Frank, who is like a body horror take on the vampire, and the cenobites, with their self-inflicted facial wounds and lack of distinction between pain and pleasure.
The book is descriptive, with rich detail applied to its setting, and especially to the characters’ personal feelings, their experiences and sensations. This element is then also used to form a bridge between the romantic and the grotesque, forming a strong circle of Gothic horror style and storytelling.
Gothic horror is not only one of my favourite genres of fiction, it’s also one of the most influential, not just on me, but on fiction generally. So it’s fantastic to see how it can find a place in today’s horror scene, and how creative and talented authors can resurrect the genre, and also find new and innovative ways of writing examples of the genre just as brilliant as its classical giants.
Romanticism and grotesquery will never die in horror fiction – they’re simply too valuable for us to lose, and provide the broadest, as well as the most compelling, pillars for any horror story, be it classic or contemporary.