Marty Strauss is serving time for robbery. Driven to desperation by his gambling debts, he has been whiling away his time in prison, awaiting his chance to join the free world. This chance comes to Marty sooner than he expects when one of the world's richest men, Joseph Whitehead, offers him the opportunity to become a free man, providing he becomes his personal bodyguard. Deciding that whatever is in the outside world can't be as bad as prison, he accepts the job and finds himself in Whitehead's secluded estate; surrounded by fencing and brimming with guard dogs. It soon feels like he's swapped one prison for another. So, unable to leave the estate, he fills his days by running the course of the estate. This soon leads to him discovering Whitehead's reclusive daughter, Carys, who seems intrigued by her father's new employee.
However, what starts as a mundane, job quickly takes a turn for the bizarre. Whitehead is living in deadly fear of someone; his name is 'Mamoulian', a man who claims to be the last original European, who has terrifying powers; he is able to raise the dead from their graves to carry out his will. Mamoulian is coming to collect a debt from Whitehead, one he will not let him forget...
Personally, I found the basic premise of 'The Damnation Game' to be an intriguing one and having read many of Barker's other works, I found myself eager to read this, his first novel.
It is, at it's core, a Faustian tale, with comments on the decadence of the rich and the avarice of man. It talks often about luck and what creates it, chance is a recurring theme throughout.
The characters are, for the most part, very well rounded, Marty is a bit of a 'screw-up' but you can't help liking him all the same, and Carys, Whitehead's drug-addicted daughter, should be someone you dislike given her apathy towards others, but somehow, Barker makes you care for her and want her to survive the impending ordeal. The lead villain, Mamoulian, and his associate, Breer, are suitably disgusting and repellent individuals who you certainly wish a tragic end upon. And you even find yourself emotionally invested in the family of dogs that are kept to guard the estate and its grounds.
It does have some weak points to its structure, the pacing seems occasionally off and the first half of the novel seems somewhat protracted and yet the conclusion seeming unfairly short.
Yet, it also features Clive Barker's trademark strengths; incredibly vivid imagery, a great ability to evoke the macabre, natural dialogue and a wonderful capacity for painting metaphysical journeys in a rich and enticing language.
By all means, it's not a perfect work, but it is an admirable achievement for a first novel, and one I would recommend to any dedicated Barker fan.