Monday, February 8, 2010

Book Review: The Damnation Game by Clive Barker

The Damnation Game By Clive Barker
433 pages, Berkley
There are several reasons I choose to re-read this novel. This debut novel by Clive Barker appeared on the horror scene after he established himself as the next “big thing” After Stephen King. Due in part to an introduction by Ramsey Campbell ,and more importantly the prediction by Stephen King that the future of horror itself was Clive Barker. What a burden this praise put on Barker who is less of a horror writer than an author of Dark Fantasy.

Funny, after that King never really had much nice to say about Barker. I think like many people King thought Barker was a great short story author but not as good at the novels. Lets get something clear I like Barker’s novels, (with a few exceptions like Gaillee which I find unreadable) I like almost everything I have read by the man. There was a time when he was my favorite author.

When Damnation game came out Barker had a mountain climb. The six volumes of the books of blood were ground breaking to say the least. He was already considered by many to be a young master of the macabre. How would this translate into his first full length novel.
When it was released I was already a horror and Barker reader. I was in 8th grade so Lets be clear I didn’t get a lot of the subtext. I read the Damnation Game and honestly I didn’t get it. Oh after begging to get the $20 hardcover for my birthday, I wasn’t about to quit. And yes I thought I liked it.

Recently I decided to re-read it. Not only as an adult who could grasp what happened in it, but as an author myself. Would I still see Barker as the genius I believed he was when I was young? Some have suggested that this is CB’s only novel length horror tale. I disagree as Coldheart Canyon and Sacrament are both prime examples of Barker style horror. They have a Tinge of fantasy but so did the books of blood. Sacrament to me is an underrated masterpiece and the best of Barker's later novels. Coldheart Canyon is Barker's most straight forward Horror tale, better than most give it credit for, but it is still 100 pages to long in this reader's opinion.

So Damnation Game, the structure of the novel holds up well. It has been often noted the opening is brilliant. A thief wondering in the ruins of world war II Poland seeks out a card game with a gambler that is legendary for never losing. Puzzles and games often are gateways to the fantastic in Barker’s universe and here the card game and the gamblers spirit lead on a path to darkness.
After winning the Card game the thief assumes the Card player's luck but even after sixty years the thief cannot escape the devil's due.

The novel has strong characters in Moumalion the last European, Breer the razor eater and of course the Hero ex-con Marty Strauss.
Not as excessively wordy as some of Barker’s novel, but it is a bit long, still I was in it the whole time. The story is dark and disturbing, the characters sympathetic when they should be and fascinating when they are evil.

Is it Barker’s best work? Not sure, it is my favorite. What makes Barker special as a story-teller is that no one else could create these novels. From the first to the last page Barker has a style and skill that cannot be imitated. Many have tried, Tone maybe but Barker's art and imaginary worlds are unique. Consider the art, films, plays and prose of this man. He is gifted with an intense imagination. This may not be his best novel but it’s his darkest and tightest novel. If you haven't read it you have missed a horror classic.

If you search for it I also did a long review of Barker's last book Mister B.Gone. Next review up is the Bleeding Edge Anthology edited by William F Nolan and Jason V. Brock.


Will Errickson said...

I too have been a Barker fan since back in the day, when he was first putting out Books of Blood. Recently I've been rereading them and they totally hold up! Haven't read Damnation Game in about 20 years, so I'd live to give that another try as well. And I agree about Sacrament! Great underrated novel. That was one book I could recommend to all different types of readers.

Unknown said...

let's not forget the great and secret show and everville. those were the first books I read of his and I was hooked from beginning to end.