The Damnation Game: Beats with an eloquently bloody heart

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Damnation Game by Clive Barker horror book reviewsThe Damnation Game by Clive Barker

Clive Barkers first full-length novel is magnificent. It’s dark, intense and mostly unrelenting in its steady construction of supernatural horror. While full of gut wrenching visuals – resulting in several nights of me restlessly attempting to fall asleep — under a skin of pure horror, this novel beats with an eloquently bloody heart.

Barker’s skills shone through early in his career as The Damnation Game was a Bram Stoker Award Nominee for Best First Novel (1987), World Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel (1986), and British Book Award Nominee (1988).

Hell is reimagined by each generation. Its terrain is surveyed for absurdities and remade and, if necessary, reinvented to suit the current climate of atrocity; its architecture is redesigned to appall the eye of the modern damned. In an earlier age Pandemonium — the first city of Hell — stood on a lava mountain while lighting tore the clouds above it and beacons burned on its walls to summon the fallen angels. Now, such spectacle belongs to Hollywood. Hell stands transposed. No lightning, no pits of fire. 

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMarty Strauss has overcome a gambling addiction and is hired straight out of prison to serve as personal bodyguard to the fabulously wealthy Joseph Whitehead. Whitehead’s youthful dealing in the Faustian ‘arts’ is slowly teased out and Strauss realizes his job entails protecting Whitehead from more than that of this natural world. Whitehead’s heroin-addicted daughter, Carys, gives Strauss an ally and The Damnation Game a romantic plot element. There’s some zombie action, and one hell of an antagonist in the proto-Pinhead, Mamoulian.

Barker builds his story and characters layer by layer. Some readers might feel the early going is a bit slow but I would argue that the greatest of meals are those that take the longest to make.

It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve discovered how pervasive H.P. Lovecraft’s influence is on modern horror. I’m not sure how this stayed off my radar for so long, but let’s just be glad that I finally figured it out. The Damnation Game is imbued with the spirit of Lovecraft. Just take a glimpse at a couple of passages from Barker and his Lovecraftian storytelling of an otherworldly evil that lives just beyond site of the visible world and balancing on the edge of the great Void.

It was, for a moment, not her who started out between the bars. It was something dredged up from the bottom of the sea. Black eyes swiveling in a gray head. Some primeval genus that viewed him — he knew this to his marrow — with hatred in its bowels.

He became aware (was it just his dream life, denied its span in sleepless nights, spreading into wakefulness?) of another world, hovering beyond or behind the facade of reality.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIf there’s anything to downgrade my rating, it’s Barker’s awkwardly rapid transition of the budding affair of our two protagonists from tentative emotional exploration to full-on I-can’t-live-without-you intensity. I either missed a paragraph or two, or Marty and Carys fell hard and fast after the first time they ‘hooked up.’ It’s a relatively small complaint, however.

The story is terrific, the plot is solid, and the finish is satisfying (a rarity in genre horror). Barker writes fluidly, with emotion and language that elevates The Damnation Game beyond mere horror, though it is certainly that, too.

The Damnation Game — (1985) Publisher: There are things worse than death. There are games so seductively evil, so wondrously vile, no gambler can resist. Amid the shadow-scarred rubble of World War II, Joseph Whitehead dared to challenge the dark champion of life’s ultimate game. Now a millionaire, locked in a terror-shrouded fortress of his own design, Joseph Whitehead has hell to pay. And no soul is safe from this ravaging fear, the resurrected fury, the unspeakable desire of…

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JASON GOLOMB, who joined us in September 2015, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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2 comments

  1. sandy ferber /

    And who could ever forget the character Anthony Breer…the razor-blade eater?!?! (That’s what I said…the razor-blade eater!) I haven’t, even though it’s been around 25 years since I read this book….

  2. He’s always impressed me with his prose and his visuals — and he’s always creeped me out.

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