Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Damnation Game by Clive Barker (1985): Gambling's for Fools

Another reread of a famous Eighties horror novel, in which I ask the time-honored question: does it hold up lo these many decades later?

If you've followed Too Much Horror Fiction at any time over the past 13 (!!!) years, you'll know Clive Barker is one of my lodestars of genre fiction, up there in my own personal pantheon with H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Harlan Ellison. It's not just Barker’s fictional writings that have influenced and inspired me, but also the many interviews and intros to other books he did in which he discusses his beliefs about what horror (and other speculative fictions) is about, can do, and what it reveals about our humanity, our culture, our desire for something more than our daily lives. Given that I started reading him as a high school student in 1987, Barker's world has had an untold impact on me, both within the genre and out.

Reading the 1988 Sphere UK paperback poolside

First published in hardcover in the UK in 1985 and then in 1987 in the US, The Damnation Game (Charter Books paperback, July 1988, Marshall Arisman cover art), was anticipated on both sides of the Atlantic as a major novel debut. Barker was the enfant terrible of then-contemporary horror fiction, after his 1984 collection of genre-expanding stories, Books of Blood, were propelled by that famous Stephen King quote. Barker was ready to take over the mainstream. Its impetus was maybe more commercial than artistic; short story collections have always been seen as "lesser" product by publishers. As the editor of Sphere Books told Barker after unexpected success with Books, "Now do something sensible and write a novel... something we can really sell!"

A somber, gloomy, somewhat subdued tale of men and their debts, desires, and debaucheries, The Damnation Game helped affirm Barker's place at the top of the Eighties horror pantheon. For many years this was Barker's sole "horror" novel, in that it had none of the unique fantastical world-building that he would become known for in such subsequent epics as Weaveworld (1987), The Great and Secret Show (1989), and Imajica (1991). After rereading Books for this blog, I then reread The Hellbound Heart and Cabal, so I figured I'd continue chronologically with this guy. I read Game several times over 30 years ago, recall liking that Barker had made the leap from short story to novel, that the detailed eye he had for transgressive terrors was not lost in this longer format.

Hell is reimagined by each generation. Its terrain is surveyed for absurdities and remade in a fresher mold; its terrors are scrutinized and, if necessary, reinvented to suit the current climate of atrocity; its architecture is redesigned to appall the eye of the modern damned.

Paperback promo from publisher

The opening chapter, set in bombed-out Warsaw, crackle with dread and enormity, yet with a strange sense of freedom to be gained from playing games, chancing fate, plying one's wits against a devilish opponent—ideas Barker returns to again and again. In his mind this faceless gambler began to take on something of the force of legend. Then the narrative shifts to the 1980s, where we meet protagonist Marty Strauss, a thirty-something prisoner doing time for a botched robbery, debts owed from gambling, life lost, security van empty. Offered parole if he accepts the could-be-more-dangerous-than-prison job of bodyguard for world famous industrialist Joseph Whitehead, Marty accepts, wary though he is. 

He doesn't know Whitehead is hiding out in his vast, well-secured London estate, with laconic bodyguard Mr. Toy and a menagerie of dogs, from the mysterious Mamoulian, aka The Last European—the fellow from the opening. What follows is Marty learning the truth of Whitehead's wealth, why his teen daughter Carys is a junky, and other unsavory facts about a world of woe just a whisper's breath away.

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, first UK hardcover 1985
Cover art by Geoff Shields

Whitehead's revelation to Marty about his and Mamoulian's history in those WWII ruins contain a mystery as something few Americans truly grasp. Various set pieces underscore Barker's notions of the existential dread of nothingness ("nothing is essential") so at odds with the more common horror dichotomy of good and evil, Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil. The two young American missionaries who appear at the end, empty-headed Chad and Thomas, offer a somewhat witty addition to the grim proceedings; they can only interpret what they're seeing through the inanities of Christianity, their Pastor Bliss, their hunger for the Deluge to wash all sinners away. In Chad's mind waters—red, raging waters—mounted into foam-crested waves and bore down on this pagan city.

Barker in 1985

Much, perhaps most, of Barker's appeal was and is his ability to pluck beauty from the monstrous; his prose style, sleek and polished, unhurried and measured, is informed by classic continental literature and film, with imagery inspired by cinematic masters such as Cocteau, Antonioni, Bunuel, Fellini, Kurosawa. There is a pathetic dinner sequence with Whitehead's aged cronies and available young women drinking copious amounts of wine in a brightly-lit room, decorated only by a grotesque painting of the Crucifixion, that seems right out of a socialist satire about the insipid appetites of the rich. The old man had wanted to see him naked and rutting.

The scenes with Breer the Razor-Eater, Mamoulian's dogsbody, and his unholy passions pedophilia, cannibalism, necrophilia, whose rotting body as a reanimated corpse parallels in physical form the moral corruption in the characters around him, are pure classic Clive:

...something in his chest seemed to fail, a piece of internal machinery slipping into a lake around his bowels. He coughed and exhaled a breath that made sewerage smell like primroses... He was moving into a purer world—one of symbols, of ritual—a world where Razor-Eaters truly belonged.

My signed hardcover. See the water damage at bottom?
I let my own mother take this to the beach to read
and she left it on her blanket and the tide came in.

All Barker's strengths are on display, scattered throughout the book. Irony, opposites, contrasts: delicate petals falling onto human wreckage, cities laid to waste beneath spring skies, "death at laughing play in a garden of bone and shrapnel." Barker has always delighted in such contradictions, believing they get at a truth unreachable by simple black-and-white binaries. This approach lends an air of maturity to the proceedings, a sophistication rarely seen in the horror offerings on the same shelf. I recall reading the US hardcover when it came out, and indeed that format made this gruesome tale somehow respectable.

The notion of "nothingness" as a final terror is one Barker would address in various works throughout his career. Here, we have the room in Mamoulian and Breer's hideout—who has kidnapped children in the cellar shiver—which Marty discovers.

This wasn't the adventure he'd thought it would be; it was nothing. Nothing is essential... all of it was like a fabrication. A dream of palpability, not a true place. There was no true place but here. All he'd lived and experienced, all he'd taken joy in, taken pain in, it was insubstantial. Passion was dust. Optimism, self-deception.... Color, form, pattern. All diversions—games the mind had invented to disguise this unbearable zero. And why not? Looking too long into the abyss would madden a man.

Sphere reprint, 1988, Steve Crisp art invoking
The Thing

yet also referencing a moment in the novel

As I said above, I don't think Americans have a concept like existential nothingness the way people who were close to the atrocities of WWII were. Maybe I'm generalizing, but that's my serious impression; not for nothing is Mamoulian nicknamed "the Last European." He remembers the horrors. As a young guy with some intellectual pretensions of his own beginning to sprout, Barker appealed to me precisely because he used horror as a way to get at deeper truths about human nature, and not simply as a vehicle for cheap thrills and messy bloodshed.

Oddly, unlike the Books of Blood excesses of surreality and guttural fears, Barker only refers to atrocities—he literally keeps using that word, "atrocities"—rather than regaling us with more poetic descriptors as only he can. Early on, some gruesome dog deaths play a large part in a scene of confrontation (and resurrections; the creatures would've looked spectacular in a practical-effects kind of way in a movie), particularly now knowing what a dog-lover he is—a cheap shot at unsettling readers? As I said: Damnation Game was his bid for success, and so perhaps he felt he had to tone down his tendency to terrorize readers with things never before imagined. 

Worms, fleas, maggots—a whole new entomology congregated at the place of execution. Except that these weren't insects, or the larvae of insects: Marty could see that plainly now. They were pieces of flesh. He was still alive. In pieces, in a thousand senseless pieces, but alive.

French translation, 1989—a depiction of one of the book's most potent scenes

On this reread I found the novel somewhat tame, believe it or not. In his bid for bestsellerdom, Barker eschews the epic flights of fancy and imagination that so marked his previous output for a more mainstream narrative, the Faustian deal gone bad (of course there are no Faustian deals that go well). Stretched out over 430 pages, the bizarre imagery he conjures up loses its impact and the story falters. Yes, there are very good set-pieces of perverse gore and grue, and the secret history of Whitehead and Mamoulian's long relationship is darkly fascinating, but pages of irrelevant detail, unfocused narrative, and a somber tone slow the proceedings into a dreary crawl. Rather than emboldening him to stretch out for the long haul, it seemed this novel format constrained Barker's visions. These are all first-novel problems, indeed.

Perhaps that was the problem: later, longer works show him in stronger form as he unlooses chains and breathes free. Damnation Game isn't a total loss, and I see from Goodreads reviews that many fans enjoyed it; esteemed horror critic S.T. Joshi called it "a sparklingly flawless weird novel." I wouldn't tell first-time Barker readers to start with this novel, however, not at all. His next book, Weaveworld, would begin his successful foray into the unique, epic dark fantasy that he'd mine again and again. While there were aspects of the book I found satisfyingly horrific, and he is still one of my top fave-raves of all time, I think The Damnation Game may be best read and enjoyed by Clive Barker completists.


Martin said...

Hey Will first time for me to comment on your site but I've been coming here for at least 10 of the 13 years you've been doing it! I reread The Damnation Game recently too. I somehow enjoyed it more the 2nd time than the first, I like that, yes, Barker's trademarks are already there, yet it feels different in some ways, maybe more mainstream in some parts, than his later work yet there's really a lot to like here, despite the obvious fisrt-novel problems. I wouldn't sing its praises as much as S.T. Joshi did, but I still think it's a great book.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks for taking the time to comment after all these years, Martin!

James Seger said...

I'm glad I wasn't the only one that felt disappointed by The Damnation Game. Especially after The Books of Blood. It was just too stretched out and slow.

For my money, Weaveworld and then The Great and Secret Show are probably Barker's best novels (though there are some I haven't yet read).

Joe Kenney said...

I read this as a college freshman in 1993, after reading the Books Of Blood, Cabal, and Weave World some years before. Literally the only thing I remember about Damnation Game was the main guy picking up a few porn videos after getting out of prison. Great review!

Mike said...

Here's a suggestion for your next review.

Everyone's heard of James Patterson by now, but did you know one of his first novels (if not his first) was a horror novel!

It was titled VIRGIN and was released in 1980. Then he re-released it twice, once in 2000 and again in 2015 (I think) as a novel in his new teens and young adults line named jimmy peterson (that's how it was written), both times titled CRADLE AND ALL. There was even a made-for-cable TV film version released in 1984 titled CHILD OF DARKNESS, CHILD OF LIGHT (Sela Ward starred in it).

One thing I remember most about from the original book version (which was, unfortunately, not repeated in the second and third versions) was a quote from another book titled THE SIGNS OF THE VIRGIN. It went like this:

"Do you believe in something?
Have you ever believed? Do you remember the feeling?
What is it that you really believe in now?
In God?
In the absence of God?
In evil?
In yourself?
In nothing at all?
What do you really believe in right at this very moment?

(The last sentence was italicized, so I hope it is here as well.)

i think that this is from an actual real-life book, but the author wasn't mentioned. Can anyone please help me find out if this book is or isn't real?

Anyway, I didn't know where else to put this post, so I thought I'd come here to the most recent one. I hope this can be done! Thanks!

J.D. said...

Man, I haven't thought about this book in years! I remember the heady days when Barker emerged on the scene and how exciting his BOOKS OF BLOOD were. I really need to revisit some of his earlier work such WEAVEWORLD, which I remember fondly.