Damned If You Do
Picador /Saint Martin's Press
US Trade Paperback First
304 Pages ; Price $13.00
Date Reviewed: 03-07-02
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel
One way or another, most books are about death. If characters aren't killed, then they're afraid that it will happen, or affected by the presence of death in the world around. Of course that's true in most of life as well. However, few books are really about Death -- that is the Grim Reaper, Death with a capital D. 'Damned if You Do' puts Death and his cohorts -- War, Famine and Pestilence -- in the spotlight. Hades is dead, and the Agency needs a replacement. Corpse number 72 18 9 11 12 13 49 is awakened from his slumber and offered a chance at the job. He has seven days of seven deaths to prove himself worthy. Houghton proves himself worthy in the process. 'Damned if You Do' is a peculiarly British fantasy. With all the British novels that don't get published in the US, it's hard to understand how this one was chosen, but one must be thankful for small favors. 'Damned if You Do' is an entertaining and unique novel that doesn't go where you expect it to go, one that literally rots your expectations.
As the novel begins, it has that deadly serious but absurd tone that you've seen in authors such as Neil Gaiman and Jonathan Carroll. 72 is an average corpse. Pulled from his slumber by Death, he explains the rules of being dead, of being a corpse. Before long, he's pulled into the petty rivalries of Death, War, Famine, Pestilence and Skirmish. Though they're slaughtering thousands daily, experimenting upon themselves and one another with horrific, flesh rotting diseases, they're all actually quite like chummy yet adversarial office mates. Houghton handles his satiric fantasy with a light touch and short, easy-to-read passages that make the novel run by rather fast. He puts more human characteristics to his demi-gods than one might expect. Then there is The Chief, unseen, perhaps non-existent. As 72 reads the Chief's papers the novel, which at first seems as if it might be merely a light satiric fantasy, starts to reveal itself as the mystery it really is. 72 understandably wants to find out what happened to his predecessor, Hades, but Death and his compatriots are oddly silent on the matter.
'Damned if You Do' benefits from a strict structure imposed by Houghton. It is divided into seven main sections, each corresponding to a day and a form of death -- Monday is Death By Falling From A Great Height, Tuesday is Death By Chocolate, and so on. Houghton lulls the readers into lowering their expectations. As long as they read about some amusing deaths, and enjoy the bickering of the ill-matched office mates, one does not even suspect that one will find out all the aspects of death, or even the earthly identity of 72. But as the deaths pile up, along with the laughs, 72 begins to have memories of his previous life. The memories are not funny. 72 begins to remember a tragic life story. As this story unfolds, and the mystery of Hades death takes center stage the tone of the novel shift from farce to tragedy.
'Damned if You Do' showcases Houghton's impressively mundane imagining of death and afterlife, as well as his rather serious insights into love and life. Some readers will find the pacing and the evolution of the story from farce to tragedy less than satisfactory. If you're looking for a non-stop, action-filled romp with Death and his comrades, this is not that book. But, if you'd like a well-thought out fantasy that manages to create some very human characters who have "lived" past death, then of course you'd be damned if you didn't pick up this book.