Absolute Horror Wiki
The Hellbound Heart.jpg

The Hellbound Heart is a horror novella by Clive Barker, first published in November 1986 by Dark Harvest in the third volume in its Night Visions anthology series. The story features a hedonist criminal acquiring a mystical puzzle box, the Lemarchand Configuration, which can be used to summon the Cenobites, demonic beings who do not distinguish between pain and pleasure. He escapes the Cenobites and, with help, resorts to murder to restore himself to full life. Later on, the puzzle box is found by another.

Along with introducing Barker's Cenobites, the story was the basis for the 1987 film Hellraiser (written and directed by Barker) and its franchise. One Cenobite in particular, nameless in the original novella but nicknamed "Pinhead" by the production crew and fans, became a popular villain among horror movie fans. This character appeared in later Barker prose with the official names "the Hell Priest" and "the Cold Man."

The original novella was re-released as a stand-alone title by HarperPaperbacks in 1991, after the success of the first movie, along with an audiobook recorded by Clive Barker and published by Simon & Schuster Audioworks in 1988. The story retains the gory, visceral style Barker introduced in his anthology series The Books of Blood.


Frank Cotton is a hedonist selfishly devoted to sensual experience even if it harms others. Believing he has indulged in every pleasure the world can offer, Frank pursues rumors of the Lemarchand Configuration, a puzzle box said to open a "schism" or portal to an extradimensional realm of unfathomable pleasure ruled by beings called the Cenobites. In Düsseldorf, Frank obtains the box and returns with it to his deceased grandmother's home in England. Solving the box, he is confused and horrified when the Cenobites arrive and are horribly scarified creatures whose bodies have been modified to the point that they appear sexless and in constant pain. The Cenobites warn he cannot renege on their agreement once it is made, but Frank still eagerly accepts the offer of experiences he has never known before. With Frank as their newest "experiment", the Cenobites subject him to total sensory overload and he realizes their devotion to sadomasochism is so extreme and their personalities so removed from humanity that they no longer differentiate between pain and pleasure and have no care to ever stop even if their subject no longer wishes the experience. Frank is taken to the Cenobite realm, a hellish dimension where he will be subjected to an eternity of torture.

Sometime later, Frank's brother, Rory, moves into the home in England with his wife Julia. Unknown to Rory, Julia had an affair with Frank a week before their wedding and has lusted after him since. While in the attic, Rory accidentally cuts his hand and bleeds on the spot where Frank was taken by the Cenobites. The blood, mixed with semen Frank had left on the floor before he was taken, opens a dimensional schism. Frank returns, his body now reduced to a desiccated corpse by the Cenobites' experiments. Julia later finds him and promises to restore his body so he can truly live and they can be together.

While Rory works, Julia seduces men at bars and brings them to the attic where she murders them. Frank feeds on their bodies, causing his own to slowly regenerate. Kirsty, a friend of Rory's who has romantic feelings for him, suspects Julia is having an affair. Attempting to catch Julia in the act, she encounters Frank, who attempts to kill her. Kirsty grabs the puzzle box, using it as a weapon before fleeing. She collapses on the street from exhaustion and wakes up in a hospital later. While waiting, she solves the box and inadvertently summons a Cenobite. The Cenobite explains the box is called the Lemarchand Configuration and realizes Kirsty summoned it by accident, but then remarks this does not matter. The Cenobite intends to take Kirsty now that it is here, but she then reveals Frank is alive on Earth again. Though skeptical that one of their experiments could have escaped, the Cenobite is intrigued. It agrees that if Kirsty leads them to Frank and he confirms his identity, they will take him back and perhaps leave her alone.

The Cenobite seems to vanish and Kirsty returns to the house. Rory and Julia claim they killed Frank but Kirsty realizes the man she is speaking to is Frank wearing Rory's skin. Another altercation ensues, during which Frank inadvertently kills Julia. Kirsty then baits Frank into admitting his true name out loud. The Cenobites appear, ensnare Frank and return him to their realm, telling Kirsty to leave. Downstairs, Kirsty sees Julia's disembodied head calling for help. The leader of the Cenobites, a being called the Engineer, then appears and seems to take away Julia as well before briefly bumping into Kirsty. After leaving the house, Kirsty realizes the Engineer gave her the puzzle box to watch over until another seeks it out.

Looking at the box's surface, Kirsty imagines she sees Julia and Frank's faces but not Rory's. She wonders if there are other puzzles that may unlock doors to a paradise where Rory resides, but laments that she may never find one and that broken hearts might be puzzles that cannot be solved.