BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness – The Damnation Game

“Hearts of Darkness” is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre: where does it come from, where is it going, and what is its dark hold on our collective imaginations? Starting in the 19th century and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, I finally find a book that was pretty much exactly what I was expecting…
First off, an apology – when I started out this year, I was planning on getting a review up on a fortnightly basis but this one is pretty late, and the next few are likely to be similar. I’ve just got behind as the books have got longer, and work, parenthood and assorted life stuff has got in the way. So, sorry.

But I finally found a book that was the sort of horror novel I expected to be reading all year. Clive Barker was recommended by a few people, with The Damnation Game being the popular choice. And in many ways, this is exactly the sort of novel I was expecting to read when I started out on the genre back in January – the gore, the sex, etc, and I’ve been constantly surprised to be reading books light on both.

The Damnation Game follows an ex-con hired as a bodyguard to a mysterious businessman apparently in fear of his life from nebulous forces that helped him to his success. Along the way we have a psychic daughter, the main villain (if that’s the right word), a zombie henchman, and assorted extras, but the big problem I had with the book was I didn’t actually care about any of them. And when some pretty damn nasty things happen, they’re not as effective if you’re not engaged in the fates of the characters that are being battled over.

The horror side of the book works fine, although the juxtaposition of sex and gore feels contrived, for all it is successful in making you feel a little queasy from the image-whiplash. Many of the ideas are pretty interesting – the nature of the villain is nicely small-scale, and for all I didn’t engage with the characters, they’re pretty well written and fleshed out – just unlikable. The problem for me was that without being drawn into the story, without actually caring, it never becomes properly chilling and unsettling in the way that say, The Shining or The Exorcist is.

In some ways, that distance has helped in the sense that I’ve watched the workings of the book with great interest, but at the same time it does make me wonder if it’s “me, not them” in terms of being drawn in. I definitely seem to be turning into more a fan of the ghost story than the more “horror-ey” horror, at least.

GS Rating: 3/5
GS Reviewer: Matt

Next time: Not a story that has been made into a movie, but a story about a movie; Ramsay Campbell’s Altered Images.

Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome either below or via twitter @thegrampus.

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