THE DAMNATION GAME
Let’s set the scene. It’s the autumn of 1986. The day’s are getting shorter, colder and darker. I’ve been on the dole for several months, not really motivated to go out and find a job. The council are renovating all the houses in our street, installing previously unheard of luxuries like double-glazing and central heating, which means moving into the vacant house next door. Bare floorboards and as drafty as a tomb. I spend my days curled up in bed voraciously reading horror novels, working my way through the suggested titles at the back of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. I get through about one book every couple of days and have grown tired of the formulaic and decidedly un-horrific plots. I had discovered Clive Barker through his Books of Blood series of short stories, but cut off from the media hype, I was not aware of his growing reputation. Then, in a copy of Knave magazine, I see a review for The Damnation Game, which makes me sit up and pay attention. I can’t remember it word for word but one part still sticks to this day: “I don’t know what his nightmares are like, but I’m glad that he’s having them and not me.” Suitably intrigued, I make a mental note to watch out for this when it’s published in paperback. In the bleak tail-end of November, a period the Medieval Dutch called Slachten Maand – ‘slaughter month’ – I see amongst the new book titles in W.H. Smith’s a display with a startling cover:
Mission accomplished as far as that cover designer was concerned, because even though I was on only £18 a week dole I immediately coughed up and took it home. It remains to this day one of my favourite horror novels, and one that’s oddly overlooked by those considering Barker’s bibliography. I’ll be honest, I’ve never really liked anything he wrote after this, and feel that his darkly poetic vision reached its apotheosis in this story, which uses the classic Faustian pact as its foundation, but goes off into territory I’d never seen any other writer explore. The opening sequence in the ruins of Warsaw at the end of World War Two establishes an apocalyptic tone that is sustained throughout, even when the story shifts to 1980’s LunDun and environs. There is a palpable sense that something is coming, something far beyond wicked. This brings us to the story’s principle antagonist: Mamoulian, ‘The Last European’, a Luciferean analog whose powers and purpose go beyond mere “magic”. Barker does not explain much about how these powers are acquired or what their full potential may be, choosing instead to hint and let the reader do the rest. This passage is still remarkable to me,
Just as he thought he must scream or lose his mind, the European appeared out of the nothingness in front of him, and by the lightning flash of his eclipsed consciousness Breer saw the man transformed. Here was the source of all flies, all blistering summers and killing winters, all loss, all fear, floating before him more naked than any man had right to be, naked to the point of not-being. Now he spread his good hand towards Breer. In it were bone dice, carved with faces Breer almost recognised, and The Last European was crouching, and was tossing the dice, faces and all, into the void, while somewhere close by a thing with fire for a head wept and wept until it seemed they would all drown in tears.
After that you really can’t go back to James Herbert and, unfortunately, I pretty much gave up on the horor genre at that point. I invoke ‘The Fun House Principle’ here, in that once you’ve heard The Stooges’ Fun House album, anything else purporting to be “rock & roll” will sound feeble, and the same goes for this book. There’s an unrestrained ferocity to the horror scenes, and a genuine sense that Barker’s version of ‘the abyss’ is staring right back at you, and it should have caused other writers in that field to raise their game, but I’ve checked in down the subsequent decades and seen little evidence that any of them have. In all of the reprints of the novel, the covers have not even come close to Steve Crisp’s original painting for the 1985 hardback edition – curiously hidden behind the 1986 paperback design, though it’s still powerful – so I felt compelled to have my own stab at it. Using an old painting, I created the mock-up cover you see above, which would certainly compel me to pick it up if I saw it in a bookshop. There is a reason why the covers from the peak of horror fiction (the late 1960’s to the mid-1980’s) are so revered today, because they convey a sense of the grant guignol catharsis that those novels provided, and make the covers of today’s titles ghettoised in the furthest darkest corner of your local Waterstones look rather pale and bloodless by comparison.