Review: “The Damnation Game” By Clive Barker (Novel)

Well, since I was still in the mood for horror fiction, I thought that I’d re-read a novel that I’ve been meaning to re-read for ages. I am, of course, talking about the old second-hand copy of Clive Barker’s 1985 novel “The Damnation Game” that I first read about twelve years ago.

After all, I couldn’t remember a huge amount about “The Damnation Game” other than it was a horror novel that I’d enjoyed at the time. So, I was curious to see what I’d make of it these days.

So, let’s take a look at “The Damnation Game”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1991 Sphere (UK) paperback edition of “The Damnation Game” that I read.

The novel begins in Warsaw, shortly after the end of WW2. The city is in ruins, filled with death, poverty and depravity. But, to a war profiteer known simply as “the thief”, it is a paradise. And, on one night in this scarred city, the thief ends up talking to a Russian soldier who has lost to a mysterious gambler who always wins. Even though the thief doesn’t believe the soldier, the story intrigues him. So, he decides to find this man and beat him at cards. When the soldier is later found murdered over his gambling debts, this just makes the thief even more curious. And, eventually, he finds the gambler.

Then we flash forwards to 1980s London. Marty Strauss is a prisoner in Wandsworth, six years into his sentence for an armed robbery gone wrong. Although the day starts out like any other, he is summoned to a parole hearing. A man called Mr.Toy is interviewing prisoners on behalf of a reclusive millionaire called Mr.Whitehead who, as a philanthropic gesture, wants to give a prisoner a honest job as his bodyguard. Although Marty thinks that he has failed the interview, he is paroled a few weeks later and ordered to report to Whitehead’s estate. However, he slowly realises that he has stepped out of the fire and into the frying pan…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, even though it is a bit more slow-paced than I remember, it is a brilliantly atmospheric and exquisitely creepy horror novel of the type that only Clive Barker can write. If you enjoyed Barker’s “Cabal“, “The Hellbound Heart” or his short story “Dread”, then you’ll be on familiar ground here 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements. Although the novel might seem a bit tame for a Clive Barker novel at first, stick with it. This is one of those horror novels that gradually builds in intensity as it progresses. Although it isn’t exactly frightening, it is unsettling and disturbing in a way that really creeps up on you. This is achieved through a well-crafted blend of psychological horror, suspenseful horror, claustrophobic horror, bleak horror, cruel horror, character-based horror, sexual horror, paranormal horror, death/decay-based horror, war horror, taboo-based horror and, of course, gory horror.

Interestingly, like with Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and “Deathday“, this novel also blends the vampire and zombie genres in an innovative way. But, whilst Hutson takes more of a “cool late-night zombie movie” approach to this, Barker’s novel reads more like a vampire novel with zombies in it. The undead in this novel are either sentient beings who are slowly decaying (without realising that they are zombies) or are cruel life-stealing immortals warped by centuries of undying loneliness. And, as you might imagine, this is about ten times creepier.

As you might expect from a Clive Barker novel, there’s a lot of thematic depth here. Not only is “The Damnation Game” a novel about how power corrupts, but it is also a story about chance, fate and free will too.

It’s a novel about the darker side of the human psyche – summed up brilliantly with the line: “Every man is his own Mephistophilis, don’t you think?” And, as the title suggests, it is a novel about damnation – not in the religious sense of the word, but in the feeling of impending doom that hangs over many of the story’s characters.

For all of this novel’s unsettling horrors, it also contains a surprising amount of humour too. In addition to some brilliantly bizarre moments of dark comedy (such as Marty talking to a fly he finds near a corpse), the novel also contains the kind of impishly subversive satire that you’d expect from a 1980s Clive Barker novel (eg: a convicted criminal being more moral than a respected aristocrat, two religious missionaries who gleefully commit acts of evil in the mistaken belief that they are doing “God’s work” etc…).

The novel’s writing is absolutely brilliant, but something of an acquired taste. As you might expect from a 1980s Clive Barker novel, this novel’s third-person narration is very much on the formal and “literary” side of things and can be quite slow-paced until you get used to it. But, this style really works here. Not only does it add a lot of atmosphere and personality to the story, but this “old school” formal writing style is also expertly contrasted with the events of the story for horrific and/or comedic effect on numerous occasions too.

Likewise, the characters are also really well-written too. All of the main characters have realistic motivations, desires, personalities, flaws etc… Not only does this novel have a certain gritty realism to it, but the novel’s characters are often a brilliant source of horror too. Whether it is an undead serial killer called Breer or his immortal master, Mamoulian, Clive Barker certainly knows how to write disturbing villains.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel works reasonably well. At 374 pages in the older edition I read (and probably more in modern reprints with larger type), it’s a little on the longer side of things. Likewise, the novel’s pacing is slow to medium throughout most of the novel. Yet, somehow, this really works. It allows the novel to gradually build atmosphere and suspense, not to mention that the slightly slower pacing also makes the novel’s more grotesque moments a bit more intense too. Plus, whilst this novel becomes a bit more understated after the spectacular opening chapter, it gradually becomes more and more compelling (and creepy) as it progresses.

In terms of how this thirty-five year old novel has aged, it has aged both brilliantly and terribly. On the one hand, the novel’s atmosphere, horror, humour, themes, locations, characters and story seem almost timeless and it is still a very effective horror novel when read these days. On the other hand, the novel’s formal writing style will seem noticeably old-fashioned and slow-paced if you’re used to more modern novels, not to mention that this novel also includes a few descriptions or moments that would probably be considered dated or “politically incorrect” these days too.

All in all, this is a really creepy and atmospheric horror novel 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit more slow-paced than I remember and it can be a bit more understated and small-scale than something like Barker’s “Cabal” or “The Scarlet Gospels“, but if you stick with this novel, then you’ll find it to be classic Clive Barker 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.