First published back in August of 1985, ‘The Damnation Game’ was Clive Barker’s first full length novel to be written after finishing the all-in-one first three volumes of the highly successful ‘The Books Of Blood’ (1984). Widely anticipated by an eager audience of horror fans, the novel was to end the fear that the recently dubbed ‘Future of Horror’ by none other than Stephen King was only capable of sustaining a tale of terrifying horror for the length of a short story. With ‘The Damnation Game’ Barker well and truly dismissed these fears with a high impact story that challenges the reader with its terrible reflection of the moral corruption inherent in each and every one of us.
It’s 1940 and WWII is drawing to an end. Within the ruined city of Warsaw a gambler and thief named Joseph Whitehead makes his way through the rubble and countless remnants of the many atrocities suffered, to meet with a mysterious gambler. This man, Mamoulian The Card Player (later to be known as the Last European) has never lost a hand at cards. The stakes are high as Whitehead gambles his very soul with Mamoulian. Whitehead walks away victorious...
In London some forty years later, Joseph Whitehead is now a frail old reclusive billionaire as well as a world-renowned industrialist heading up the Whitehead Corporation. Having the money and power to get his way with most affairs, Whitehead cuts the convict Marty Strauss’ sentence in half to have the convicted thief (as well as a former boxer and expert gambler) paroled from the high security prison he had been held within, on the grounds that Strauss is employed at Whitehead’s large mansion where he will work as a private security guard. Duly released from his prison sentence early, Strauss arrives at Whitehead’s mansion where he meets Bill Toy (Whitehead’s bodyguard) and Carys Whitehead (Whitehead’s heroin-addicted daughter). However. Strauss soon learns that Carys is actually being supplied with her heroine by her father in order to keep her happy. Furthermore, and far more disturbingly, Carys claims that she is also involved in an incestuous relationship with the old man.
Having barely had chance to settle into his new job, Strauss is brought straight into action when an intruder breaks into the fortified grounds of Whitehead’s rural estate. Suddenly Whitehead’s fear of intruders seems like it may well be justified after all. Upon investigating the disturbance, Strauss is confronted by a mysteriously glowing individual who Whitehead’s vicious guard dogs are attacking. But the dogs don’t have much of a chance against this man.
It seems that Mamoulian is back and on a mission to confront Whitehead. He wants him to hold up his side of the bargain. A pact which they made all those years ago back in Warsaw. And now Mamoulin hs come to collect Whitehead so that he can join him as his companion in the afterlife.
Now hauled-up in London with Breer ‘The Razor-Eater’ who looks up to Mamoulin as his lord, Mamoulin formulates a plan to collect what is rightfully his from Whitehead. All of a sudden Strauss finds that he is being dragged into a conflict between two powerful forces that began decades ago…
From the very outset, ‘The Damnation Game’ is seething with a gloriously twisted nature that bleeds outwards throughout the entirety of the novel. Indeed, Barker attacks this Faustian tale with a completely no-holds-barred approach - particularly in relation to the chaotic depths of the imagination that Barker is willing to delve to formulate his wonderfully dark abyss of corruption and addictive despair. And in doing so, the novel unashamedly crosses countless boundaries to develop a storyline that breeds with its own horror within the fertile grounds of the delightfully taboo.
The central antagonist of the tale - Mamoulian the last European - is depicted with a wealth of lovingly assigned characteristics, bringing out a well-defined and vivid boldness to the character. Likewise, many of Barker’s other characters share similarly rich characteristics; all of which Barker is able to play around with, utilising many unique traits that subtly play off each other in a conflicting storm of nightmarish chaos.Almost screaming with an eerie atmosphere from the very moment Strauss sets foot within the billionaire tycoon’s fortified estate, the story maintains this constant feeling of suspenseful unease; building with a deep routed tension that escalates until Mamoulian’s plans are revealed to all. With a number of graphically vile and truly haunting scenes scattered throughout the novel (all of which are clearly designed to set the reader at unease), Barker maintains a monstrously-dark and twisted theme that successfully cuts through the reader’s nerves and forcibly impacts their senses time and again.
With a litany of different threads to the story all intrinsically woven together, the novel slowly comes together from a number of parallel-running subplots, eventually merging into one dominating plot. Indeed, this particular technique (one which is recurring throughout Barker’s work) keeps the reader constantly guessing how and when these many uniquely different storylines will eventually merge and how they will each ultimately have a bearing on the overall storyline.
In ‘The Damnation Game’ two powerful characters fight each other, ultimately destroying themselves as a result of their epic conflict. Like with many aspects of Barker’s work, this is a recurring theme which has reappeared in a number of his later offerings, such as ‘The Great And Secret Show’ (1989) and ‘Galilee’ (1998).
On a whole, the storyline steers itself along an unpredictably meandering route until it reaches the grand finale. Here Barker comes into his own, painting a vividly atmospheric backdrop to play out the breath-taking final sequences of this unique and terrifying story. And as the final sequences play out, the tale wraps itself up perfectly, with a purposefully suggestive outcome bringing questions to the reader’s mind, whilst forcing readjustments of any preconceptions they may have towards the characters. Once again, Barker dismisses the simplistic notion of ‘good vs evil’ (in a similar way to ‘The Hellbound Heart’ (1986)) and instead opts for a more complex revelation that delivers a particularly human response to the chaotic events. We are all in some way morally tainted - it’s a bitterly truthful reflection of our modern day lives, and one that ends the tale making it feel just that worryingly bit closer to reality than perhaps we would have liked.
The novel runs for a total of 532 pages and was first published through Weidenfeld and Nicholson in a hardback first edition of 3,000 copies and a further limited edition running at just 250 signed, numbered and boxed copies.
© DLS Reviews