September 17, 2009

Clive Barker - The Damnation Game (1985)

Many years ago, Stephen King was so fascinated with one up-and-coming writer that he bestowed upon his shoulders the weight of being "the future of horror". In the 20+ years since, that young author has become a household name with each of his books and films now carrying big fat capital letters just so you know who you're dealing with: it's Mr. Clive Barker for you, Sir. The unexpected thing, however, is that Clive Barker proved to be not only a fine master of the genre but an exquisitely imaginative literary mind, too, often going way beyond what can be considered horror or modern literature, into the timeless realms of the Word itself. By comparison, Stephen King is merely a craftsman who was caught up in the zeitgeist.

This turn of events was hinted at already in Barker's earliest works, namely the Lovecraftian horror collections Books of Blood and his first novel, the insular Faustian epic, The Damnation Game, something that Mr. King clearly recognized. Sadly, while the Books of Blood have achieved cult status since their first run in the mid-1980s, Barker's large format debut is nowadays mostly forgotten in favor of his later more polished works such as The Hellbound Heart, Imajica, Coldheart Canyon etc.; books for which the Game is the most important foundation, and none of which replicate its sheer raw power.

The story of the novel goes something like this: "Marty Strauss, an 'inocent' gambling addict released on parole from prison is hired to be the personal bodyguard of Joseph Whitehead, one of the wealthiest men in the world. The job proves more complicated and dangerous than he thought, as Marty soon gets caught up in a series of supernatural events involving Whitehead, his heroin-addict daughter, and a mysterious centuires-old man named Mamoulian, to whom Whitehead essentially sold his soul during World War II..." In practice, this basic plot is much messier, dirtier and schizoid than it initially seems but Barker's deviant prose works almost all the way through, creating intriguing characters and locations, as well as often brilliant dialogues.

The centerpiece of the story is, of course, Mamoulian, an extra-powerful being that in many ways is predecessor to Pinhead only much more human and tied to a broader set of ideas. It is the mystery of who Mamoulian is and what he intends to do with Whitehead that really pushes the story forward even while other characters are stuck in a rut, trying to figure out how to get mentally from point A to point B. The aura of Mamoulian is so strong, in fact, that even the tedious resolution of his past doesn't dissipate the tension that he creates every single time he appears on the page.

Certainly, Mamoulian is not the only character worth reading the novel through: the top 4 characters are all fun in a disturbed way and the things they do to each other will certainly make you squirm on several occasions. In any case, don't take my word for it, and instead, download, borrow or buy the book and read it! Clive Barker may have gone a bit soft since the year it was published, but it still remains as a perfect monument to his skills as the master of the macabre.

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