The Damnation Game: Clive Barker
Reviewed By Phil Sloman
Last year, our host, Mr Gavin Kendall, offered up a Clive Barker advent asking writers to submit a review of their favourite story from the Books of Blood. (KR: You can read all the wonderful calendar contributions HERE)
I was too slow to raise my hand and all the slots were taken. Yet life has a funny way of offering other pleasures. Gavin asked if I would review another of Clive Barker’s books. “Of course,” I said, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, which gave me the perfect excuse to revisit The Damnation Game.
Now, like many people who were reading horror in the 80s and 90s, I was blown away by the writing of Clive Barker. An impressionable teenager starting my journey into horror, Clive’s concepts and innate ability with language and storytelling simply blew me away. But would I find the same now as a man somewhere in the latter half of his forties and a little bit more world-weary?
The short answer is yes. The Damnation Game is a masterpiece of storytelling, and we can get into the details as we go. However, there is an interesting thing in revisiting a book nearly 30 years on in that I am more sensitive to some of the horrors on display. I’ll explain later.
Let’s get down to the premise.
Marty Strauss is a gambler and convict offered a chance to leave prison to go work as a bodyguard for one Joseph Whitehead, one of the richest men in Europe. Except Joseph dragged himself up from the embers of war many years before with the aid of the mysterious Mamoulian who now wants to claim payment. Whitehead’s chief of staff, Bill Toy, takes Marty under his wing and shows him the workings of the house.
Whitehead’s daughter, 18-year-old Carys, lives within the house, spending most of her time in a drug-addled state, high on gear supplied to her by Toy and paid for with her father’s money. She watches Marty from a distance as he runs within the grounds, curious about this new angel in her home. Curiosity eventually leads to much more.
Eventually Mamoulian comes calling that long overdue payment accompanied by Anthony Breer, the last of the Razor-Eaters. Breer, a man, if he can be called that any longer, provides the grotesque to proceedings.
Battles are fought in different ways. Some physical. Some within more of a supernatural, psychic realm; Carys and Mamoulian both revealing powers the rest of us can only dream of.
So, who triumphs? Whitehead, Marty, Mamoulian, or Carys? Many of you reading this will know full well and whether triumph is really the right word. Especially with so many innocents, or bystanders, becoming collateral in a game they didn’t realise they were playing. For those who haven’t read the book, I envy you your first time.
At over 500 pages, The Damnation Game still manages to be very much a page turner, the writing flows freely and carries you along with it. At its heart, The Damnation Game is about power and ego and breaking the taboo. There’s the overarching pissing contest between Whitehead and Mamoulian. Then we have Whitehead’s puppetry of Marty, and Mamoulian’s over Breer, both pulling strings in very different subtle and not so subtle ways. A last supper played out in Whitehead’s house where rich associates use Marty as their plaything certain they can buy his sexual willingness as part of their own games of perversion is a full-on example of this.
Earlier I mentioned a greater sensitivity to the horrors on display. Barker pulls no punches. A full array of perversion and revulsions are to be found within these pages. However, there were two things which struck me much harder than they did 25+ years ago. The first was the dogs and what happens to them. But it’s what rests in the basement in Caliban Street which truly made me feel uncomfortable in a way I don’t recall from my youth. Perhaps it’s being more aware of the world, perhaps it’s being a parent, perhaps it’s simply a greater age gap between myself and the victim now. Whatever the reason, I wonder if something so graphic would make its way into mainstream publishing nowadays.
The Damnation Game stands the test of time and then some. I will repeat what I said earlier, a masterpiece. Pick it up, turn to the first page and set off into a dark, twisted game. Make sure you understand the rules though and be ready to pay a price you might not have realised you had bargained for.
The Damnation Game
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…
THE DAMNATION GAME
Phil Sloman is a writer of dark psychological fiction. His first story was published in 2014 and he has been writing ever since. In 2017 Phil was shortlisted for British Fantasy Award Best Newcomer for his novella Becoming David, and was part of Imposter Syndrome from Dark Minds Press shortlisted for British Fantasy Award Best Anthology in 2018, and edited the 2020 British Fantasy Award shortlisted anthology The Woods. Phil regularly appears on several reviewers’ Best of Year lists.
Author website: www.philsloman.com
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