From my online course: In essence, Clive Barker’s Hellbound Heart is a revision of the Faustian bargain. However, where Marlowe or Goethe’s Faust summons a demon and trades his soul for power, Frank Cotton summons the Cenobites—the “theologians of the Order of the Gash”—for the express purpose of trading his soul for pleasure. Unfortunately for Frank, his idea of what constitutes bodily pleasure is not congruent with what the Cenobites offer; in fact, Frank’s imagined fantasy is rather pedestrian: “He had thought they would come with women, at least; oiled women, milked women; women shaved and muscled for the act of love: their lips perfumed, their thighs trembling to spread, their buttocks weighty, the way he liked them. He had expected sighs, and languid bodies spread on the floor underfoot like a living carpet; had expected virgin whores whose every crevice was his for the asking and whose skills would press him-upward, upward-to undreamed-of ecstasies. The world would be forgotten in their arms.” The pleasure Frank anticipates is a simple one: he expects an excess of sexual jouissance, which we might read as nothing more and nothing less than a wholesale failure of the imagination from a character who is supposedly debauched and decadent.
Of course, Frank discovers that the pleasure the Cenobites offer is quite different from his hopes and dreams. As he quickly realizes, “There was no pleasure in the air; or at least not as humankind understood it.” In place of base carnal pleasure, what the Cenobites grant him is a perverse amalgamation of sensuality and pain—or perhaps the perverse realization of sensuality in the experience of pain: “As it was, they had brought incalculable suffering. They had overdosed him on sensuality, until his mind teetered on madness, then they’d initiated him into experiences that his nerves still convulsed to recall. They had called it pleasure, and perhaps they’d meant it.” I’m reminded here of Kristva’s statement in her article about abjection—“One does not know it, one does not desire it, one joys in it. Violently and painfully”—because what Frank experiences is the uncanny blurring of the lines between pleasure and pain, suffering and jouissance. However, if the link between pleasure and pain is natural—as both Kristeva’s theory and the biochemical science of endorphins seem to support—why do we tend to regard that transgression of the boundary between the sensual and the masochistic as an uncanny divide?