Sherlock Holmes and the Servants of Hell by Paul Kane, Solaris July 2016
Reviewed by Adrian Middleton
Servants of Hell is a book of two parts, the first being the intrusion of the Hellraiser mythos into the Victorian world of Sherlock Holmes and the second bringing characters from that world into the dark and bloodlit corridors of that part of Hell that is the Kingdom of the Cenobites. But readers should not expect to meet Pinhead or the creatures of the films – being set 18 years before the Great War, those familiar faces are if a later generation, allowing Kane to establish a very different Order of the Gash.
The first part of the book draws us into the world after Holmes has returned from the dead to a less than certain relationship with Watson. The demons that haunt the Great Detective threaten to consume him. Paul Kane plays the Sherlockian game well here, shaping the post-Reichenbach world into one which spins so many of those shadowy elements of Sherlock Holmes continuity into a sturdy web that launches Doyle’s heroes into a series of connected cases where the impossible cannot be eliminated.
There is, however, little detective work on display. It simply isn’t that kind of story. The trail of clues is so easy to follow that Watson gets to take the lead for a change, but beyond this the novel instead dwells upon the characters – on how Holmes is consumed by his obsessions while Watson, plagued by bereavement and the return of his friend, cannot help but be foolishly heroic, even in the absence of a decent plan.
That is the book’s one failing for me. Not quite so much for Holmes, whose single-mindedness makes his path inevitable, but for Watson there is a little too much steamrollering for my liking – most of his actions are shaped by the actions of those around him, and I was left feeling that he had no volition of his own throughout the story. In the first part it was simply a character flaw, but being separated from Holmes and forced instead to follow the path chosen by his hellish guides felt a little too simplistic for my tastes. Perhaps this is a result of the author juxtaposing the tropes of horror – and of the Hellraiser mythos in particular – against the traditional format of the the Holmesian mystery. Something has to give, and with the defeat of Moriarty behind him Holmes is in desperate need of a new obsession…
For this reason, upon passing into the second part of the book, I felt myself wishing more and more that Servants of Hell were a graphic novel, with so many cameos and characters (some new, some drawn from the Holmes canon, and others drawn from The Hellbound Heart/Hellraiser and from the Hellbound Hearts anthology by Kane and his wife/co-editor, Marie O’Regan) coming and going that the pace quickened to that of a pulp novel, and the visceral images being described were screaming for a storyboard artist to convert them into visuals. It would also make one hell of a nineties horror movie.
As a story based in part upon the works of Clive Barker I was finding myself drawing more comparisons between Cenobite society and Barker’s other army of grotesques, the Midianites of Cabal/Nightbreed. For Barker fans there are Easter-eggs aplenty, mostly unobtrusive and woven well into the fabric of the story. I shan’t spoil them here because, unlike in Holmes fiction where subtle facts are added as part of the ongoing game, they add to the wider tapestry of Barker’s creations.
For Holmes fans the lack of mystery and the descent into the realms of the supernatural might be discomforting, but it is clear that great care was taken in placing the story so that its consequences reach both backward and forward across the canon, addressing many of those off-the-page mysteries beloved of the avid fan.
With the exception of a possible sequel, it certainly feels as if Servants of Hell is presented as Holmes’ one and only supernatural venture, which is as it should be. In fact, it is Holmes’ ability to accept what he sees as real that enables him to quickly come to terms with what he finds, and who he must overcome; and while Watson is no buffoon, I did find myself struggling to accept his character to quite the same degree.
I thoroughly enjoyed Servants of Hell – it was a fun, quick and unputdownable read, but I can’t help thinking that it draws much more from the cross-over comics phenomenon than from the literary or even cinematic. Epic comics did Pinhead vs. Marshal Law a few years ago, and I can’t help thinking that Servants of Hell should be adapted as the first of a new series of crossovers, with Alien, Batman, Conan, James Bond, Judge Dredd, Predator and a dozen other franchises queuing up to appear in the next volume.