Over the years, the Hellraiser mythology has become something of a hash, combining elements of Clive Barker’s original novella The Hellbound Heart with bits from the Hellraiser movies (mainly the first two in the franchise: Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II). Nowhere is this more evident than in The Scarlet Gospels. In Barker’s 2015 novel, the cenobite known as Pinhead (but not to his face; no, never to his face) was a sometimes confusing mix of the elegant sadist from Hellbound Heart and a bloodthirsty, Hollywood-style slasher.
Three years after Gospels comes Hellraiser: The Toll, a new novella written by frequent Barker collaborator Mark Alan Miller with a “Story By” credit to Barker. This story acts as a bridge between The Hellbound Heart and Gospels, one that could theoretically streamline the messy Hellraiser mythos. It also marks the return of a character near and dear to the hellbound hearts of Hellraiser fans: Kirsty Singer.
Kirsty has been on the run ever since the events of The Hellbound Heart, assuming an ever-shifting series of identities and residences to hide her presence from the one she calls The Cold Man, a/k/a Pinhead. When we meet her in The Toll (after a promisingly foreboding prologue that takes place on a French island prison), she’s testing the “hiding in plain sight” theory by living a few blocks from her former home. A letter from a theology professor who has somehow tracked her down leads her first to her old residence, and then out to—you guessed it—a remote island that was once home to a French prison, but that may now be the site of a portal to Hell.
There’s some good, creepy stuff happening in The Toll, and it leads to a confrontation that I’m sure many Hellraiser fans have been hoping to see between Kirsty and The Cold Man.
(WARNING: I don’t usually drop a lot of spoilers in my reviews, but this time it’s necessary to go into some detail in order to spell out how I feel about the book. Turn back now if you wish to read The Toll unspoiled.)
Unfortunately, that confrontation is a rather anticlimactic one. It’s a physical confrontation, brutal and entertaining in its own right, and both Kirsty and The Cold Man come away from it with a deeper understanding of each other. But overall it’s a stalemate, ending with nothing truly resolved. Kirsty returns to her life, such as it is, and The Cold Man/Pinhead moves forth with the plan that plays out in The Scarlet Gospels.
In addition to the lack of advancement in the Kirsty/Cold Man relationship, little is done to bring Pinhead back to his roots. He’s still less “Lord of Darkness” and more well-spoken slasher; a more refined and erudite Freddy Krueger, if you will. Overall, the weakening of Pinhead as a character has been the biggest disappointment of all the continuations of The Hellbound Heart, and The Toll does little in the way of course correction where this is concerned.
The Hellbound Heart is one of my favorite novellas, and I regard the first Hellraiser as a classic horror film. Both of these are the work of a Clive Barker at the height of his creative and visionary powers. Circumstances beyond his and our control may prevent us from getting the full measure of Barker’s creativity ever again, but we can always be thankful for the gifts he’s already given us. Mark Alan Miller is a good writer, a student of Barker’s work and as conscientious a steward of Barker’s properties as we could ask for. In Hellraiser: The Toll, he’s given us an entertaining piece of the Hellraiser puzzle. Unfortunately, there’s only one man who can truly finish the big picture started in that first novella all those years ago, and there’s no way to know if or when we’ll get to see that happen.