Alain Robbe-Grillet: Early fiction (part 1)

If the nouveau roman (New Novel) had a driving force, it was Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008). The nouveau roman was an influential – if rarely best-selling – literary movement in post-war France. A number of writers, generally but not exclusively connected to the publishers Editions de Minuit, sought appropriate ways to take fiction forward in a world where, after Hiroshima and the Holocaust, there were none of the certainties which mankind had – however mistakenly – previously taken for granted. For Robbe-Grillet, the New Novel was being written by “those writers who are trying to find new forms for the novel which are capable of expressing (or creating) new relations between man and the world”. The world had changed; literature, too, had to change.

False starts and digressions: A Regicide (1949/1978)

Robbe-Grillet was born in Brest and raised in both Brittany and the Jura. When France fell to the Nazis in 1940 he was transported to Germany to support the occupiers’ war effort by working in a factory. His parents were “extreme right-wing anarchists” who venerated Marshall Petain even after the war, but their son’s own collaboration was unwilling. After the war he trained as an agronomist, and it was on the back of work documents that he wrote his debut novel, Un Regicide (A Regicide).

A Regicide is a confident debut which interweaves the superficially distinct stories of factory worker Boris (who, in a state of ennui, decides to kill the King) and whose tale is told in the third person, with that of a first-person narrator who lives on a dreamlike island haunted by mermaids and mysterious weather patterns, like Kafka by way of the surrealists.

I used the word “interweave” advisedly. The two stories do not alternate between chapters as in a conventional novel which may tell multiple strands of a story. A Regicide switches between the two stories between paragraphs, or even in mid-sentence. This dislocates the reader who, seeking narrative continuity, will be forced to establish a hierarchy of narrative: is one person’s story told by the other, or is one a figment of the other’s imagination? And if so, which one? That the more oneiric tale is told in the first-person (a mode which, while unreliable, aspires to authority by virtue of the lack of distance between narrative voice and reader: it is more “informal”) throws the stability of the text into doubt. Additionally, the actual murder of the king by Boris takes place (in true Robbe-Grillet style) not once but many times, and yet seems never to have happened at all. Typically, events which take place solely in the mind of the protagonist are given as much “reality” as those which happen outside that mind.

A Regicide, therefore, contains many of the techniques and tropes that Robbe-Grillet will use in his fictions over the next decade (and, in the use of the name Boris, the rest of his career), and which his subsequent works will expand on and embody.

Even a stopped clock gives the right time twice a day: The Erasers (1953)

A Regicide was amicably rejected by publishers, and Robbe-Grillet set it aside, following minor revisions, until 1978 when it was finally published, allowing readers the chance to view his career refracted through it (no edition in English existed until 2015). Although A Regicide had been rejected, Jerome Lindon at Editions de Minuit encouraged him to try again. The result was the publication in 1953 of Les Gommes (The Erasers).

The Erasers is the first (but not the last) instance of Robbe-Grillet exploring and subverting the conventions of a genre; in this case, the detective novel. A man – Daniel Dupont – appears to have been shot dead in his home at 7.30 one evening. A detective named Wallas is sent to investigate. What the reader knows, but Wallas doesn’t, is that the assassination attempt failed and Dupont is alive. However, returning to his home at 7.30 the following evening, Dupont is shot dead by Wallas, who is there expecting the arrival of the assassin. Thus the detective commits the crime he was sent to investigate. Adding to this the fact that Wallas’ watch stopped at the time of the “first” murder and only restarts upon the “second”, and that various characters are confused about which day it is, what we therefore have is a “hole”, a missing day of 24 hours. The concept of a hole in the text is one that Robbe-Grillet explores to its conclusion throughout his career, but here the “hole” (unlike the unseen murder in The Voyeur) forms the text of the novel, bookended – like a moebius-strip – by the same crime.

The Erasers contains Robbe-Grillet’s first reference to trompe-l’oeil: that is, a work of art designed to give an illusion of reality. The phrase recurs in each of his first four books, and first two films, as if he is winking at the reader/viewer to draw attention to the fact that fictional works may posit themselves as “real”, but are actually constructs. Tellingly, a view of the town in poor weather is described as if “the depth [loses] its natural look – and perhaps its reality”.

In the first labyrinth of Robbe-Grillet’s oeuvre, Wallas gets continually lost and finds himself in the same place by accident on several occasions, and indeed those occasions appear to be repeating. The idea of text as labyrinth is another that the writer expands on over the next few years, to the extent that (in The Voyeur but also, inevitably, in In The Labyrinth) it is the reader who is in a labyrinth finding, again and again, moments in time that are revisited, or narrative paths which are rejected and the pathways to them retraced.

In this first published fiction, as with A Regicide, the signs are there of the techniques and obsessions that Robbe-Grillet will use time and again in his work. But crucially, from now on he perfected a particular narrative technique in each book. Throughout his career, each of his novels was structurally different as he sought to expand what the nouveau roman was capable of. After all, if form and content are as indivisible as he claimed, it is impossible to write two different works with the same structure. His next novel, The Voyeur, was a huge step forward and is a more mature, cohesive and disturbing work.

Read Part 2


Robbe-Grillet, Alain: The Regicide (Alma Books, 2015)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: The Erasers (John Calder, 1987)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Towards a New Novel (John Calder, 1963)


After the Factory

(This post is an unpublished piece I wrote over a decade ago, about the village in Fife where I grew up. A few details have since been updated, but on re-reading I can’t believe I didn’t mention the huge hill figure of a bear above Parkhill which was carved – the lines set alight to better mark them out – around the same time as the factory burned down. You can just make it out in the photo above.)


Until the late 1980s, to anybody entering the town by road or river, Newburgh would have seemed a factory with village attached. From across the river Tay, on the low, berry-rich lands of the Carse of Gowrie, the view would have been striking. The factory was huge, a massive red-brick Victorian edifice dominating the shoreline.

On a clear evening in May 1980, my cousin mistook the thick black smoke sweeping low over our Gran’s rooftop for effluent from the recent eruption of Mount St. Helen’s. It was terrifying to think that this smoke had travelled across the Atlantic to wreak havoc on a small Fife town. But it wasn’t the volcano, it was the factory.

The factory. The former Tayside Flooring Company building had stood empty since the company stumbled into receivership in 1978, giving its workforce – several hundred strong – 15 minutes’ notice. It was founded in 1891 by one Thomas Greig who, in common with the public-spirited, or perhaps guilt-ridden, tycoons and philanthropists of the nineteenth century, gifted a tennis court, curling pond, bowling club and park to the town. The bowling green is still there, tucked into the southern corner of the park; the first thing you see as you enter the town from the west.

We watched the fire from the sloping lawns of the ex-council houses on the hillside street where my Uncle still lives. The town is spread along a hill that tumbles down to the Tay, and the factory was on the water’s edge. On the north side of the High Street, where we lived with my Gran, the long strips of orchard garden reach almost to the river. Her house was too close to the burning building to give a good view, and there were obvious safety concerns. Up the hill, the adults stayed indoors and gazed through windows; we went outside where – even at a distance – it felt more dangerous. The rumour spread fast, as rumours do among children: the fire had reached a storeroom containing petrol and gases, and explosions were imminent. Perhaps the adults safely indoors also framed guesses, more educated ones: half my family had worked there. The flames seemed mean and vicious against the proud orange brickwork and the thick column of smoke that rose high into the clear evening sky. The smoke would have been visible from both Dundee, 10 miles downstream, and Ben Vorlich, much further west. The explosions never came. The fire had, thankfully, taken no casualties.

The story, for such it was, appeared on TV the following night; Reporting Scotland or North Tonight. There was nobody on hand to capture live images, so viewers were shown half a dozen shots of the smouldering ruins and of a High Street deserted but for my other cousin and a friend dawdling home from school so slowly all the shops had shut. I still remember their wary backward glance towards the camera. It seemed the only evidence of life in a village suddenly paralysed.

I say ‘paralysed’: life goes on, of course. But small towns and villages take a longer and harder route to adapt to sudden change than cities do, especially when adapting to the loss of the largest single employer. The factory had been closed for two years, though I retain a memory of noises from inside that I couldn’t have formed at such an early age, so perhaps some further work was carried on in parts of the building. If ever there was the symbolic setting of a seal on a town’s past, then this was surely it. Like Banquo’s ghost1 pricking the conscience, the deserted shell was a reminder of what was gone, and that the future was suddenly an uncertain place. With hindsight, at this point in Scottish history – after the 1979 General Election – such desolation of heavy industry seems horribly prescient.

The factory was traditionally the heart of such towns. In the morning were pumped in workers from the town and surrounding villages; in the evening they were pumped out again, and this beating allowed a growth of contingent and ancillary industries to develop. Ships stopped at the quay to load and unload. After the fire, the other industries lingered on a while, expiring their final breaths slowly over a number of years. The quayside – once full of grey lorries with the sturdy red-and-yellow BELL’S logo of the local quarry company – fell into disuse and was demolished. A town in this position looks around for something to quickly fill the gap, but here, no substitute would be strong enough to prop up such a heavy body. The prevailing economic winds were blowing ill for British heavy industry. That said, there are no real parallels with the systematic destruction of the coalmining industry that hit south Fife so hard a few years later. Newburgh’s factory went into receivership, which is the result of bad management. Of course it is the workforce who suffer hardest, and their families, local businesses and the social life of the community. It is, however, the common outcome that Newburgh shares with Lochgelly, Cardenden, Polmaise, Thornton.

Private enterprise was one of the dogmas of the Thatcher government. Some locals started up small businesses alongside (and sometimes in the empty shells of) the established family-run shops, but few survived the repeated recessions. Now, despite the gloss of the fresh road signs and the speed reducing measures – a sure sign that your village is merely a nuisance to be passed through en route to somewhere else – it has become, inevitably, one of the surrounding villages of a larger town; a commuter base, even, for people who work in far-distant Edinburgh.


Until the 1950s, children were educated to secondary level at the local school. The bus that has since taken pupils to the local secondary (Bell Baxter, in Cupar) has always been infamous as the roughest and rowdiest. This has always been an independent town; it has always stood apart, distant from neighbouring villages and with no obvious kinship to any of them. It’s location in Fife sunders it from communities in Perth & Kinross by virtue of being in a different administrative district. But to Fifers, it’s hidden away, right on the border, practically abroad.

Cupar draws its school catchment from the villages of the agricultural Howe of Fife, or those beyond the reach of Dundee and St. Andrews: Auchtermuchty (‘Muchty’, home to The Proclaimers and Jimmy Shand) and Strathmiglo, Ladybank (an important railway junction: Newburgh’s abandoned station exists in a slow state of collapse at the top of the High Street), and the Pitlessie-Kingskettle-Falkland-Freuchie polygon that encompasses the pine forests and mushroom fields that litter the flat, fertile Howe. Newburgh stands apart from all of these: the North Fife hills, an extension of the Ochils, separate it from the others. Its view is not to the central peaks of the Lomonds, but out towards Dundee, Perth, the Trossachs and beyond. It looked outward: pleasure boats visited until the 1960s. For their shopping, its citizens visit Perth rather than Kirkcaldy or Glenrothes. Different outlooks, different habits. And it had industry.

Once, it boasted cinemas and a swimming pool, but its decades since the town has merited either. The ice-cream from Annie Divito’s café at the top of the High Street (recently an antique dealers, now a café once again), was a snow-white milky pleasure that garnered national recognition. The recipe was a jealously-guarded secret she took to her grave. She closed the café area down at the end of the 70s and though the sweetshop and ice cream were still hugely popular, Newburgh was no longer a place people wanted to stop in and eat. Cafés have sporadically opened, prospered briefly, and closed again ever since. The story is familiar across the UK: small towns and villages lose their garages, their pubs, their chip-shops, one by one. Newburgh is no special case.

Also common to small towns everywhere is an instinctive wariness of strangers, or ‘incomers’ as they were, and are, with slightly more irony, still known. This doesn’t just apply to the family of travellers who arrived seasonally for many years (openly called ‘the Tinkies’), but to settlers from outside the village boundaries. Indeed those same borders are re-affirmed every seven years in a good-natured day-long procession known as ‘the Riding of the Marches’ over hills, through fields, and across burns. Some of the more successful businesses since the 1980s have been those started up by ‘incomers’, possibly because the owners are unknown quantities and its harder to measure what exactly ‘getting above themselves’, in proper Scots fashion, would constitute.

One such ‘incomer’ who has quite happily made Newburgh her home is the poet Kathleen Jamie2. Her garden is one of many that stretch up to the railway line that cuts across the town like a belt, and covers the ground that was once entirely orchards: plum and apple trees that my Gran could recall dotting the slopes in endless numbers.


The only contemporary guide3 to the town was written and published over thirty years ago by the parents of my friend Will, themselves English ‘incomers’ (Newburgh: A Historic Trail, Linda Pinfold, Michael Pinfold & Malcolm Robinson; Pinprint). Even today, whole chunks of this book, put together by hand in the short-lived studio they’d converted from a former sweetshop, can be found copied without acknowledgement on websites that feature Newburgh as a possible tourist stop. The book’s final chapter is on the linoleum factory, referring to its plunge into receivership but not it’s gutting by fire. Perhaps the event was too recent; unnecessary to recount. The factory at that time still stood, blackened, silent and shamed, visible down every road that hurtles to the river. It may or may not be significant that this attempt at gathering together the town’s many strands of history was not done by locals but by a couple only just settled in the area. It is indicative, though, that for a long time only this, an ‘Old Newburgh’ photo book, and the cardboard-and-glue history projects of the local Primary School children appeared since the factory fire to portray an image of the town.

But print is not the only means of representation. The end of the 1970s saw the establishment of the Pageant, part of a week-long Newburgh Festival that ran in mid-August for a few years. The Festival featured daily (and nightly) events such as the pram race, in which grown men dressed as babies and pushed each other in prams the length of the High Street, and between each of the town’s (then) half-dozen pubs. The Pageant took the form of a play: there was a ‘Jungle Book’ in the superbly atmospheric setting of the ruined Lindores Abbey, and an ambitious ‘King Arthur’ in which the audience followed the action on foot throughout the village. The highlight was a real-life Lady of the Lake, whose arm rose from those silvery Tay waves, offering Excalibur to the King. Pageant and Festival dwindled, like so much else, as the 80s ran their course.


There is a working factory, still, in town. Construction began not long after the old one burned down, at the eastern end of the village. We watched from the school playground every lunchtime as it went up in sheets of grey metal. This was a new type of factory: light industry. Long and low and looking like it was built from plastic, it appeared to have been set down alone in a field next to the school car park. If people were pumped in and out we never saw them. Today this atrophied industrial estate is shared with a modern fire station. The car park has grown to meet them under the demands of the school run.

It took a decade for the old factory ruins to be pulled down. Another passed as the site became overgrown and filled with pools of stagnant water. Finally, a luxury development of riverside homes was built on the factory site, in response to the rising cost of houses across the UK. Handy commuter town and rural retreat. This bland new vision of Newburgh is that of developers and estate agents: their usual airbrushing of history.


Most of the factory’s old employees have by now retired, having long ago been forced into what other work they could find. Unemployment in the early 80s was higher than today, but you must travel further to find the work. It’s impossible to picture a factory there now, though the buildings fringing the site still seem to be on their guard against some threat from across the road. The landlord of a Dundee Bed & Breakfast, himself a retired carpet-fitter and once familiar with the town, upon hearing where I came from, reckoned ‘it hasn’t been the same since the factory; lots of unemployment’. He captured neatly the town’s standing in the local imagination: once a small town, now just a village whose day has passed, slumbering like so many others.



1 A mile outside the town, in a field next to the country road to ‘Muchty, stands the ancient carved stone rump of ‘Macduff’s Cross’. The head of the clan Macduff was historically Earl of Fife.


2 Kathleen is not Newburgh’s first poet. Up the hill, at the back of Mount Pleasant, where town meets whin-covered hillside, stands a small cottage built in the early nineteenth century by brothers Alexander and John Bethune. Weavers and poets, crippled by poverty and illness, neither of them reached 40. A single copy of Alexander’s edited collection of his brother’s poetry resides in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. They built – unaided – the cottage for their parents. It is shaken daily by blasts from the quarry which has, despite a spirited local campaign in recent years, spread its empire further and further west, coming gradually into view of the town, where the scars are less easily concealed.


3 The 50s and 60s saw versions of a Newburgh town guide, with map and illustrations, but for a deeper view of the history and customs, look to ‘A History of Lindores and its Burgh of Newburgh’. This 1876 tome reads like a parochial version of ‘The Golden Bough’ with its exploration of magic and myth. It boasts superb illustrations of local landmarks, notably Mugdrum Cross, an 11th century needle-like pillar of stone covered in what are believed to be Norse engravings, which stands hidden deep in the rhododendrons of Mugdrum estate, overlooking the Tay.

None the wiser: Claude Ollier’s “The Mise-en-Scene” (1958)

A confession: I’d never heard of Claude Ollier until a few weeks ago. Although I’ve read numerous mid-century French nouveau romanistes (Robbe-Grillet, Duras, Sarraute, Simon, Butor, Pinget) I had never come across any reference to Ollier, probably because his work had not been published by John Calder, and the few English translations of his work are not easy to find.

The Mise-en-Scene, translated by Dominic Di Bernardi, is published by the ever-reliable Dalkey Archive and is one of the most accessible nouveau romans I’ve read. The “story” tells of a surveyor, Lassalle, working on the plans for a new route through the mountains of French-held North Africa. Lassalle is following in the footsteps – literally – of a previous engineer, who seems to have been murdered. The novel is an account of his fortnight’s stay in the mountainous region, trying to plot a route for the new road. This being a nouveau roman, where the way the story is being told is as significant as the events within the narrative, the concept of “spoiler alert” is rendered meaningless. I could tell you what happens at the end because it doesn’t matter.

The Mise-en-Scene is a book about the impossibility of knowing anything, and the whole book is a sustained meditation on the futility of trying to attain definitive, objective knowledge.

Descriptions are highly detailed, and use of Arabic or local dialect words further dislocates the European reader, making it difficult to visualise the terrain being described. The amount of detail works against visualisation, in an ironic undermining of traditional realist attempts at verisimilitude.

When he first arrives in the largest local town, Assameur, Lassalle is puzzled at night by a picture seen on the wall of his room. He sees what he thinks is a map, but daylight reveals it to be an incongruous seaside print. This is the first example of things not only not being what they seem, but even when they are seen, offer no answers.

There has been a murder – a young girl has been stabbed – but there is confusion in Lassalle’s mind about the name of the victim, and though he has his suspicions, his local contact Ba Iken’s constantly shifting evasions get him no closer to an understanding of what has happened. No version of the events seems to properly fit, so at every step, ground which was by no means solid becomes even more unstable.

Additionally, without technological means of apprehending the world, he is at the mercy of his memory and his senses. An “imposing panorama would be worth photographing [i.e. recording objectively, but he]…is sorry for the first time that he forgot his camera.” Later, “only the binoculars could remove any doubt. But [they] are at the bottom of the clothing bags, in the minivan”. But even with assistance of civilisation’s tools, he is no better off: maps are “stingy with details” and are full of blank spaces. Notations become fewer in the mountainous areas, or are absent altogether.

Lassalle constantly tries to tie together names of people with their village, in an effort to impose order, and thus gain understanding: “Ichou…Ichou ben X…ben Schlomo, grandson of the maqadden of the Asguine”. On asking his young assistant Ichou’s age, in order to complete this mental picture, he is given an ambiguous reply.

He writes in his diary, purposely to avoid the unreliability of memory, but his daily entries – some of which, ironically, are written days afterwards anyway – are so brief and cursory as to be meaningless. This is especially notable given that Ollier’s book, as with those of Alain Robbe-Grillet, is written in the present tense. As Robbe-Grillet says in his autobiography Ghosts in the Mirror, the “past historic” tense imposes “definitive glaciation of the most incomplete gestures, the most ephemeral thoughts”. It would, therefore, be a self-defeating move to have written this work in the past tense: the whole point is that we do not know anything for certain; there is and can be no such “glaciation” or certainty. We are made constantly aware by use of the present tense of the passage of time, especially as marked out by the passage of shadows over the mountains and ravines, and in this regard Ollier’s work differs from that of Robbe-Grillet, whose books are full of moments of stasis.

The man Lassalle suspects – of everything and anything – is Idder, a belligerent local who appears each day holding a different implement, magnified in Lassalle’s mind into a weapon. On one of his forays into the mountain, Lassalle is shown rock paintings, and – disturbingly – they seem to portray a double murder by someone wielding a weapon. He attempts in vain to follow conversations in the local dialect in the hope of gaining some clue, especially as he becomes aware that Ba Iken is maybe not as truthful or reliable as he’d thought. But even if he can pick out proper names, his inability to ground them in the context of the conversation only creates ambiguity, and fosters more suspicion.

One scene in particular encapsulates the novel in miniature. As he begins his return, having successfully surveyed the region for a road whose future construction is by no means certain, he watches an army of ants devour a scorpion. “His curiosity came to the fore again…with the feeling that the action is going to lunge forward or that an event of capital importance is in progress. But everything that happens is only very normal and exasperatingly slow.” There are no epiphanies, and knowing any more about something reveals no “meaning”, but only more of the thing itself.

At the end, on his return to Assameur, his previous contact is on leave, and things have changed in his absence. Lassalle has fewer reference points than before. With no continuity, he is unable to talk over the details of either the girl’s murder or Lessing’s, with the man who he had previous been dealing with. He – and the reader – is denied any closure.

Ollier’s worldview is vertiginous. Like a fractal, looking closer only reveals more details – some of which may mirror those seen at a higher level (the drawings on the rock echo the murders in the region), and the same patterns recur. At the same time, there is no “big picture”: if you try to pull back to gain perspective, all that’s revealed are the gaps in your knowledge. It’s a dizzying perspective.

The Mise-en-Scene forms the first part of an eight-book series in French, and though I’ve now ordered one of his other works (Law and Order), I can only find evidence that two more of his novels have ever been translated into English. On the basis of this book, it would be great if Dalkey Archive (or Alma in the UK) were to commission translations of more of Ollier’s work.



Ollier, Claude: The Mise-en-Scene (Dalkey Archives, 2000)

Robbe-Grillet, Alain: Ghosts in the Mirror (John Calder, 1984)


photo: Jamie Gorman

Killing the parents: Clive Barker’s “Hellraiser”

“There are no new tales, only new ways to tell.” Clive Barker, in introducing Christopher Marlowe’s renaissance drama Doctor Faustus, acknowledges that the challenge for the modern writer lies in the “shaping of a fresh and original interpretation of a story cast and re-cast several hundred times.” The artist must drive “his imagination to new extremes…so that [the new work] can at least be called uniquely his.”

By 1987, following the success of his Books of Blood and The Damnation Game, Clive Barker was hot property. In a horror genre undergoing a real boom (heralded by the 1974 publication of both Stephen King’s Carrie and James Herbert’s The Rats) Barker was the new kid on the block, whose highly original work pushed the limits of the human body, and the accompanying levels of gore, further than before.

Poor adaptations had been made of two of the Books of Blood short stories so in 1986, determined to do better himself and to maintain artistic control, he began work on a film based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart. Although this would be his first full-length picture, the director’s chair was not new to him: he had for many years written and directed his own plays with the Dog Company, and had made short films in the 1970s.

Hellraiser, as the film would be called1, sees hedonist Frank Cotton (Sean Chapman) taken into the sadistic realm of the Cenobites when he solves the mystery of a puzzle box. Months later, his meek brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into the house where Frank had performed his lethal game, with his wife Julia (Clare Higgins) in an effort to save their floundering marriage. Larry cuts his hand on removal day, and the spilt blood resurrects Frank, with whom Julia had a passionate affair before her wedding. Julia, though initially horrified by Frank’s condition, agrees to bring more blood to restore him to life. This she does via a series of liaisons with unwitting single men, whom she lures home and murders (with increasing skill and enjoyment). Frank grows: he regains a sense of touch and taste and after he tells Julia of the Cenobites’ existence, the two plan to escape together.

Aware that all is not well in the marital abode, Larry persuades his grown-up daughter Kirsty (Ashley Laurence) to speak to Julia (the relationship between the two women is frosty). Kirsty, however, stumbles across Julia in the middle of one of her “liaisons” and is confronted by Frank. Finding the puzzle box, and realising its importance to Frank, she escapes with it, only to solve the riddle herself. After a close escape from a Hell which consists of endless dusty corridors2, she is found by the Mephistophelean Cenobites. Their visitation is one of the most iconic scenes in 1980s horror cinema. Terrified, she tries to do a deal: if she can lead them to Frank, they can take him back with them rather than her.

This she does, but not before Frank, realising time is against him, has found the finishing touch to his resurrection: a new skin, courtesy of brother Larry. Kirsty’s confrontation with Frank, Julia and the Cenobites forms the climax to the film. “There is a happy ending”, Barker said in an interview to promote the film, “but not for everyone”.

Although Barker’s vision, in whatever medium, is always uniquely and identifiably his own, Hellraiser’s parentage is not hard to find: Doctor Faustus (c1590) as mentioned above, and Georges Franju’s Les Yeux Sans Visage (Eyes Without a Face, 1960).

Hellraiser is not the first Barker fiction to feature a Faustian bargain: The Damnation Game and The Last Illusion are re-tellings of the myth. But whereas Faustus makes his deal, enjoys the spurious fruits of it for twenty four years, then is hauled off to Hell by the demons he had hitherto had at his beck & call, in Hellraiser Larry Cotton is ripped to pieces right at the start. The film is therefore “what happened to Faustus afterwards?”

Faustus contains, as Barker noted, two stories: that of “the ambitious man brought down through…extremes” (as Barker noted to interviewer Kim Newman, Hellraiser is about “the consequences of desire pressed…beyond the limits”), and also “intercourse with hellish divinities”.

All of Marlowe’s work – not just Faustus – is ambiguous, and that ambiguity is furthered by what little is known of Marlowe himself: a possible government spy, possibly an atheist, possibly gay and certainly murdered in suspicious circumstances aged just 29. Much of his work can be read either as, politically, not too distant from the Christian morality plays which his work did much to render obsolete, or else championing the new renaissance attitude of enquiry and boundary-pushing. Faustus, though, is unambiguously damned, and whether we cheer or weep for him depends on our own outlook on life.

But, crucially, he is damned: that is, cast out of God’s sight, and condemned to a very real, physical Hell3. Barker’s world view – though over the years the Christianity which underpins it has become more evident – is much more post-Enlightenment. There is no God, and no Devil, either. Rather, Hell is subjective and, in seeming to consist of endless horizontal corridors, is non-hierarchical and therefore contrary to the prevailing image of Hell as a vertical pit. Its agents are the Cenobites, whose role is equally ambiguous: “demons to some, angels to others”. This existentialist afterlife is a sliding scale of pain and pleasure intermingled, curated by these beings, and it proved too much even for Frank.

“With the gods in retreat”, wrote Barker, “and the idea of the purgatorial judgement less acceptable to the modern mind, [in] the new adventures after death as dust and spirit, all imaginative accounts…become essential reading.”

At the centre of Hellraiser is female agency. This, in an era (and a genre) in which the fate of most females was to be either screaming victim or sex object, makes Barker’s film hugely refreshing. Julia is the motor of the film (in the novella “she had made this man, or re-made him…the thrill she felt…was the thrill of ownership”), and her stepdaughter Kirsty’s struggle for independence (achieved in the most brutal terms at the end) is the yin to her yang.

Les Yeux Sans Visage pits the doctor’s assistant Louise in a similar role to Julia: she cruises Paris in search of girls with certain, specific attributes, abducts them, takes them back to her employer and he removes the skin of their faces in order to rebuild the shattered features of his daughter. Each experiment fails, and another victim is needed. But the stepmother figure of Louise does her job out of a sense of duty to her scientist boss (arrogant, successful, acclaimed). Both films are family affairs, but there is arguably more love in Hellraiser: Larry for Kirsty (and vice-versa), Larry for Julia, Julia for Frank. Dr Génessier in Les Yeux performs his operations from an obsession; evidently it is unconscionable that his daughter may be part of society with a scarred face: she must be either beautiful, or to all intents and purposes dead. He plays God, trying to fix his little world. But who is the monster? Who is really divorced from society? They live in a secluded mansion outside Paris, whereas the Cottons’ home is an average north London semi-detached. The Cottons could be you or me.

Julia, though a murderer, is Hellraiser’s tragic figure. Trapped in a passionless marriage, among friends (in the novella) whom she holds in contempt, she is an atypical “evil stepmother”, in that she seems wary of Kirsty rather than jealous: after all, she no longer cares for Larry and so isn’t in a battle for his affection. She is only truly alive when with Frank; at other times her speeches show only platitudes and deceit. But she is being used. Frank has had Julia (before his death and after) and seeing Kirsty, he now wants her. When he ultimately kills Julia it is accidental, but without remorse.

Kirsty’s character is the one major change between Barker’s original novella and the movie version. In The Hellbound Heart she is a simpering wallflower, awed by Larry (“Rory” in the book). But, though Ashley Laurence’s performance is occasionally over the top, as a daughter she gives the film a dynamic the novella – for all its strengths – lacks. As Barker said in the interview with Newman “I liked that…in the novella, the heroine was a loser, but you can’t live with someone like that for the length of a movie”.

Near the start of the film, after a phone call to her father introduces the character, we see Kirsty walk along the Thames through post-industrial ruins. Partly this short scene provides a directorial “beat”, a moment’s breathing space, but it also establishes Kirsty as a character working to attain a degree of independence (Larry wants her to stay in the family home; how would things have transpired if she had?).

She has a relationship with Steve (who the script makes abundantly clear is English, though the actor’s lines have been dubbed by an American, thus rendering some of the dialogue absurd), but his function is limited to offering support and he is probably the most superfluous figure in the film. Kirsty is essentially on her own when things go wrong. In going to visit Julia, she merely speeds things up and spells her father’s doom. Frank and Julia had no plan to kill him before, but now there is no time to find another victim. When Frank – in Larry’s skin4 – hunts her down among the upstairs rooms, a wooden statue of Jesus falls out of a cupboard onto her. But this is a world without God, and he can’t save her. She shoves it, useless, back into the cupboard.

In an echo of Les Yeux’s end, where the daughter, having stabbed Louise, then releases the dogs who tear her father apart, Kirsty betrays her uncle to the Cenobites, who do much the same thing to Frank. Playing by their own rules – this is their game, after all – the Cenobites then pursue Kirsty, who must re-solve the puzzle box in order to expel them. In the novella, the Cenobites dismiss her and are only interested in Frank. She escapes the house, which “had not capitulated to the forces unleashed within. It stood now as quiet as a grave. No; quieter.”

Unfortunately, such a downbeat ending is not appropriate for a horror film, and in Hellraiser the Cenobites are consigned back to where they came from: a more conservative and conventional ending, and at odds with Barker’s usual treatment of “the Other” in his work.

Hellraiser was a success, and for a brief period in the late 80s it seemed there was no artistic medium that Barker could not master, and that he would be *the* name in horror for the foreseeable future. However, the studio treatment of his second feature, Nightbreed, ensured that it was a commercial flop (if a belated cult favourite), and none of his subsequent films have had the same impact as his debut. In fiction, too, it’s arguable that (although he has written fine books since then), following the dazzling Weaveworld and Imajica, he peaked with 1996’s Sacrament. No longer the enfant terrible of the British fantastique, he now lacks the public profile of Stephen King, who famously prophesied Barker would be “the future of horror”. The 2015 sequel to The Hellbound HeartThe Scarlet Gospels – was maddeningly frustrating: brilliant in some places, awful in others.

As for Hellraiser, it has spawned about a million sequels. None of them is worth watching, with the possible exception of Hellbound: Hellraiser 2, and that only once. The “lead Cenobite” – Pinhead – is a cultural icon in his way, and a remake of the original is in the works, with Barker writing the screenplay. Perhaps CGI can improve on the dated effects of the original. Will it emerge from the shadow of its parent? And will it still “tear your soul apart”?


1 New World thought The Hellbound Heart sounded too much like a love story.

2 The idea is expanded to that of a labyrinth, a really interesting idea, in the otherwise unnecessary first sequel Hellbound.

3 Though, that said, his demonic familiar Mephistopheles does make one of the greatest speeches in English drama:

“Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.

Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God,

And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,

Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,

In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?”

4 At this point, Andrew Robinson turns the performance levels up to 11, with highly entertaining results.



Barker, Clive: The Hellbound Heart (Collins, 1991)

Jones, Stephen (ed.): Clive Barker: Shadows in Eden (Underwood Miller, 1991)

Marlowe, Christopher: Doctor Faustus: The A Text (ed. David Ormerod & Christopher Wortham) (University of Western Australia Press, 1985)

Hellraiser (Blu-Ray, Arrow Films, 2016)

Les Yeux Sans Visage (DVD, BFI, 2015)