Have you read this book?
Originally released in England under the more fitting title, “The Apprentice”, Gordon Houghton’s fine new novel appears to have fallen victim to the overzealous marketing strategies of us pesky Americans. The new title, “Damned if You Do” (which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the story), and cheeky cover (a cartoonish T-shirt donning skeleton), imply a happy-go-lucky romp through Hell . Although it’s true that dark humor (very dark, in fact!) plays a vital role in this book, The U.S. packaging is ultimately misleading — there’s a lot more to Houghton’s excellent novel than morbid cliches and bloody pratfalls.
Part mystery, part tragic love story and part comic corpse-coming-of-age story, “Damned if You Do” succeeds expertly in each area it attempts, managing to provoke tears, grins and more than a few episodes of heart sinking dread. The story line itself pretends to be simple but isn’t at all, in fact, many times the point that you think Houghton is trying to make isn’t what you wind up with at all . The funny bits aren’t always as funny as they pretend to be and insignificant details return to bite you on the behind time and again. In the end, nothing here is really insignificant.
The story essentially begins with a knock on a coffin lid. Our hero, whose name we never learn, is awoken from death by Death (with a capital D), who informs him that he has been selected, by lottery, for an apprenticeship with “The Agency” (The Agency being a surly group of Apocalyptic concepts walking around in human form). The new apprentice, who is also the tale’s narrator, expresses a demure annoyance at Death’s intrusion; “Abandoning the security of a coffin is never a simple decision for a corpse.”
The Agency’s principals include: the gangly but dignified Death; the emaciated wisp of a man, Famine; the enthusiastically blemished Pestilence; the loud and rowdy War; and War’s eager sidekick, Skirmish. This tight knit group do the bidding of the mysterious “Chief” with various degrees of enthusiasm from a humble, rundown London office building. The stated rules of Death’s apprenticeship are as follows: the apprentice will work at Death’s side for exactly seven days. Each day he will assist Death in the “termination” of a different “client” — and each termination will be of a different (and, as it turns out, particularly gruesome) method. On the seventh day, if the apprentice’s work is not up to snuff (pardon the pun), he is released from service but must choose – from among the seven styles of termination that he has witnessed that week – his preferred method of returning to the grave.
In the course of his apprenticeship, our hero begins a struggle to recall the events which led to his own demise. In order to do this, he must put together the puzzle pieces of his life — here is where the real story lies. And where a deeper darkness unfolds. Recollections of the social failures, the debilitating fears, the bouts with suicide, the run-ins with evil and the soaring highs that inevitably and consistently led to crash landings, all collide in our narrator’s feeble zombie brain. In order to fully grasp the meaning of his death, the apprentice must go so far as to ponder the meaning of his birth:
“And why was I born? The only answer that makes sense is because my parents wanted me. Without that desire, I would never have been ill, or inquisitive, or suicidal, or numb, or happy. I would not have been sliding down that wet rooftop in Oxford late one summer evening screaming in terror.
“The final logic is inescapable: I was destined to die only because my mother and father wanted me to live.
“Is that all that existence means?”
Heavy stuff for a happy-go-lucky morbid romp.
Along the way we are treated to some deliciously disturbing slapstick, a few horrific passages that would make Stephen King blush (the chapter centering on asphyxiation is especially harrowing) and some surprisingly insightful ruminations on the nature of love — and the absolute devastation inflicted on human hearts caught up in a love gone wrong. Houghton offers subtle warning in his almost childish but dead-on definition of the four lettered L word:
“And when I told her I loved her I meant it.
“I care if you live or die. I am interested in what you do. I trust you not to destroy me. I am attracted to you physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally. I am proud when you meet the people I love. I will comfort you and care for you if you are sick. I will argue with you because you matter. I will value you above objects, plants, animals and other human beings. I will make no demands of you and set no conditions (within reason). I will sacrifice myself for you, if necessary, and whether you like it or not.
“And I do not expect you to reciprocate my love.
Such fragile sentiments devolve logically to a decay of the heart – which most writers would define in sentimental terms. But Houghton’s voice is at once poetic, sensitive, hard and terrified by the implications of the death of true love:
“She was a lone candle in a dark room, she shone like starlight, she was a hurricane blowing, she was the sea and the shore, she was birdsong — and I was all of these things to her. And I am an extinguished candle, a black hole, a weakening breeze, a dried-up riverbed, and a long, loud wailing.
“And she is all of these things to me.”
Note the subtle and effective uses of past and present tense — “was” and “am”, bringing the reader gently in focus with narrator’s sense of impending doom; darkness easing into the here and now. The sentiment is wrapped up neatly (and repeatedly) in a simple, final exchange, in words that we have all heard or spoken at one time:
“‘I love you.’
“‘Don’t be ridiculous.'”
When these words are related by Houghton in terms of the precarious sate of mind possessed by our zombie narrator, the impact is more frightening than a previous scene in which a man is torn to bits by a carnival ride. Horrors of the heart and horrors of human carnage run equally deep here. For a short novel, “Damned if You Do” has many subplots and themes, one of the more rewarding is the way in which Death’s personality unfolds. Houghton’s vision of Death is that of a regular working stiff (my apologies again), a guy who’s been working the same job so long he’s beginning to wonder what the point is. What was exciting and fun for Death in earlier days has lost its novelty, and Death is not only getting sentimental in his old age, he’s starting to question whether his vocation has any dignity — or if it is even in good taste. A particularly humorous moment comes about as Death displays a new scythe to his comrades:
“‘Magnificent,’ Famine observed.
“‘Frightening,’ I added.
“‘Gratuitous’, Death sighed.”
Death’s steadily blossoming sense of humanity becomes one of the book’s most endearing traits.
Gordon Houghton has created a rare bird with “Damned if You Do”. Monty Python meets Clive Barker meets Oscar Wilde — an unlikely matching of literary bedfellows that compliment rather than compete. Wildly imaginative and deeply insightful, “Damned if You Do” is a true gem.