Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A deal with the devil...with a twist

Dead Souls

By J. Lincoln Fenn

Publisher: Gallery Books 

Pub. date: September 20, 2016

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

When I was more into writing fiction in my 20s and 30s than the seriously more mundane non-fiction writing that would encompass my chosen career of Clinical Social Worker, I would peruse the writer's market books to see what type of stories were being sought. I mainly looked at the horror. science fiction and fantasy magazines. There was inevitably one sentence that was always added to their "want and don't want" lists. It was "No deals with the devil stories!". There was an unanimous agreement with these publishers that deals with the devil stories were done to exhaustion. When you look at them, one must tend to agree. There are really only two possible scenarios. Either there is the innocent soul who is tricked, attempts to outwit the devil and wins or there is the devious soul tries to outwit the devil and gets beat down. The variations within this theme tend to be limited.

That never stopped me from liking them. Now we have Dead Souls, J. Lincoln Fenn's take on that old war horse of a theme. I am happy to report she not only breathes some life into it but manages to take it into previously unexplored territories. Her first change is to make the protagonist, advertising executive Fiona Dunn, neither of the possibilities or, more precisely, both. Fiona is positive that her boyfriend is cheating on her and seems to find clear evidence he is. Retreating to a bar for liquid consolation, she meets a man named Scratch and she eventually agrees to a deal that seems ludicrously overbalanced on the surface and fueled by her temporary bitterness, not to mention she doesn't really believe it's real. But of course, the devil does not play fair. Fiona is both petty and innocent in the existential view of the world.. We cringe at her pettiness but empathize with her emotions.

And here is where the deal with the devil formula takes a twist. Part of the deal is that Scratch will in the future demand a favor. From names on the list of previous dead souls like Charles Mansion and Jim Jones, she know it is a favor of body and soul ripping proportions. She finds a group of "Dead Souls" like her; a Dead Soul Not-So-Anonymous, so to speak. Within this group, there is talk of a elusive "double deal" in which one can break a deal by offering something that may be even more devastating. Fiona is driven to find this double deal but so are the other dead souls.

There are many things that makes this novel so unique. We have the usual deal with the devil but no one in entirely innocent or evil. Fiona is intent on correcting her mistake and her reasons are not totally selfish. Yet the obsession is soon filled with all those emotions and motives that we define as selfish. The plot soon dispenses with the strict boundaries of good and evil, except for Scratch who is deliciously evil, but we see Fiona as being human and in the battle of finding and acknowledging both her altruistic (good?) and selfish (evil?) sides. It is a battle that most can relate to, if they are honest. Whether there is any hope of succeeding in the balance is the question the novel asked and perhap answers in the tense conclusion..

Then there is the group of dead souls. They represent different aspects of humanity. Some are just foolish. Some lean more toward selfish. And some are not what they appear to be. It is this battle of various natures and desires that gives the novel its unique tones. Perhaps their issue isn't really wit the Satanic One but a battle with all the aspects of desires and selfishness within the human condition.

Dead Souls is an exciting and thoughtful book. With all the twists and turns and a surprising ending, we never lose track of Fiona's dilemma and the often conflicting emotions and actions involved. This is one of the best deals with the devil novel I have written but its appeal is not simply with that group of readers. Anyone who enjoys good and complex storytelling should read it.

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