There’s an odd banality to most stories involving deals with the devil. For such a irreverent concept, it’s become rather ho-hum, probably since Dudley Moore met Peter Cook. So, it goes without saying I was skeptical of J. Lincoln Fenn’s Dead Souls. “Oh, look, another modern denizen deals with the devil. Oh boy,” I said, as I opened my review copy. But while Fenn’s concept — selling one’s soul to the devil for a gift/power — may be a well-trod path, her treatment and telling of the tale is anything but.
Dead Souls follows Fiona Dunn, a marketing director with trust issues born from a rough childhood. Convinced her boyfriend is cheating on her, Fiona finds herself drinking in a bar, with the literal devil at her shoulder, wheeling and dealing. Naturally, she assumes the man isn’t really the devil, and she wishes for the ability to turn invisible and switch between being corporeal and noncorporeal, at will. While she is able to exploit this power to her benefit in the pages that follow, she is cursed with the standard buyer’s remorse.
Her wish is not even the most frivolous or trite. Fiona soon encounters other “dead souls,” and learns that she was not the only skeptic to have struck a deal. Perhaps the most heart breaking is a lesbian who dares the devil to prove himself by making her straight. She is now damned to hell and cursed with a wish she never truly wanted. That’s powerful stuff.
The best part of Fiona is how natural and relatable she feels. Fenn’s characterization of her is delightfully muted and despite all that has happened and is happening in her life, she feels so normal. She’s downtrodden, but never given to self pity or moping. Just as she starts to totter too far into either, she reigns herself back in. She’s clever and smart, but in a recognizable way. Fenn doesn’t go out of her way to make her the smartest woman in the room; at the end of the day, she is agonizingly human.
Fenn’s devil appears in the form of a mod/hipster, with the unfortunate moniker of “Scratch” — unfortunate because I could only envision him as Mr. Scratch, which is an association I’m not sure if the author intended or not — and a taste for more refined things. Unlike many devils that have appeared in so many stories, Fenn’s is not so easily outsmarted. He’s exactly what you’d expect the devil to be: callous, cunning and undeniably cruel. He’s also savvy to modern times and modern pitfalls, making him every bit the adversary you would hope to find in the embodiment of pure evil and malice.
This is especially important as Fiona embarks upon ye standard attempt to “outsmart” the devil. Most soul-selling stories eventually teeter down one of two paths: an act of redemption that saves their soul, or the character well and truly outsmarts the devil. Ms. Fenn is blessedly above this, and her prose takes us down paths unexpected.
Most unexpected, though, is Fenn’s command over horrific descriptions. For nearly half the book, I was unsure the book deserved the “horror” category, but when the devil’s plans begin to unfurl, Fenn gleefully displays some of the most gruesome settings and acts I’ve read in awhile. Such is her talent, though, that it never ventures over into grossness for grossness sake. That is, she knows how much is necessary to convey the gravity of the situation, without diving down into the vomit bucket that so many horror authors rely on. In fact, she may have coined a new style which I’m going to call “tasteful macabre.”
Dead Souls is a rare gem which manages to take a well-established trope, the selling of one’s soul, and freshens it up with a modern, smart feel. Fiona’s story is, from start to finish, page-turning and heartbreaking. With this book, J. Lincoln Fenn has created in me a permanent fan, which is oddly ironic, given the subject matter.