Allegories about making deals with the devil have been around for so long that they’ve pretty much grown stale. There’s really only two ways the story could end, right? Either the bargainer regains their soul by outwitting the devil, or the devil collects the promised soul, usually by way of trickery. While these stories always retain some sort of fascination, over time they’ve lost their sense of horror. Thanks to various television shows or movies, Lucifer isn’t quite so scary anymore. Which is why J. Lincoln Fenn’s new novel is such a chilling breath of fresh air.
Her sophomore effort centers around Fiona Dunn, a successful marketing manager who finds herself inadvertently striking up a deal with old Scratch himself during a moment of absolute vulnerability. Drunk and disbelieving, she accepts his offer; he’ll grant her a wish in exchange for a favor to be determined at a later date. Fiona soon discovers that Scratch is very real, though, and his favors bring absolute terror. Fiona finds herself in a support group of other “dead souls,” while they wait to discover just what’s required of them when their time is up.
Fiona Dunn makes for one compelling lead. She’s a fighter who refuses to give up, even in the bleakest of circumstances. Nor is she innocent. Her rough upbringing is what’s instilled in her those survival instincts, but they’ve also set the precedence for darker traits as well, like paranoia and selfishness. She’s clever, yet prone to making continuous poor choices. It’s both the complexity of her character and her dual nature that keeps the narrative mysterious.
As are the continued twists that Fenn introduces to the story. Despite a well-trodden theme, Fenn never takes the story down the expected route. While the outcome of this type of story seems a forgone conclusion, Fenn brilliantly paces out the exposition to keep you guessing. For every dead end Fiona meets, a new, unexpected avenue opens up for her to explore. That she’s racing against the clock heightens the tension.
Most impressive, though, is Fenn’s rendering of Scratch and all of his horrific deeds. His presence looms large over the narrative despite his brief appearances. While seductive, Scratch is terrifying. Why? His favors are downright gruesome, each favor called in growing more repulsive and deadly than the one that preceded. The ending was so grim and morbid that I had to re-read just to wrap my brain around the imagery.
Through J. Lincoln Fenn’s elegant, razor sharp prose, Fiona’s story presents a thoughtful and thrilling examination on humanity. Even if a loophole in the contract with the devil can be discovered, is the moral tax to your soul worth the price? Perhaps its Fenn’s honest yet chilling take on humanity that proves to be the most terrifying aspect of the story.
An impressive sophomoric effort, J. Lincoln Fenn is a talented horror author on the rise. Dead Souls is an edgy, violent take on a typically tired tale. Complex characters, breakneck pacing, gruesome horror, and a shocking ending makes for one highly recommended tale of terror.
Dead Souls publication date is September 20th, 2016.
Dead Souls [Book Review]