As we close in on October 31, AiPT! will be reviewing and recommending various pieces of underappreciated scary media—books, comics, movies, and television—to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way to Halloween.
Truth be told, I wasn’t terribly excited about Dead Souls when it first came up on my Goodreads cue. Even with all the great reviews it had, stories about people making a deal with the devil have been done to death. Then I started reading…
Dead Souls (Gallery Books)
Despite her success in the advertising business, Fiona isn’t doing too well. She struggles daily with severe depression, anxiety, and the effects of a family history that sounds like the trailer park version of Requiem for a Dream. As if that weren’t hard enough, her assistant is trying to take her job and her live-in boyfriend is probably cheating on her.
So when the devil shows up and offers her a deal, you can probably guess what it would be, right? HA! I thought so, too. But when you’ve got an atheist with keen eye for human desire—and who doesn’t even believe the offer is legit—deals like this can end up going more than a little sideways.
Once Fiona realizes what she’s done, she immediately goes about trying to undo it, which leads her to meet others who have partaken in the darkest of all transactions. Together, they uncover a horrifying link between many of the devil’s other customers and the worst chapters of human history…and which will soon include all of them if they can’t find a way out of their contracts.
Fiona isn’t just some down on her luck schmuck making the typical ‘Make me rich in a way that will royally screw me over later in exchange for my soul’ story. Author J. Lincoln Fenn does a masterful job exploring both the many things a person might wish for in exchange for their soul and how the devil would use it against them. She also explores the mechanics and repercussions of such a deal in an infinitely smarter way than most stories like this ever attempt.
Speaking of the devil—or Scratch, as he’s called in here—Fenn writes one of the best fictional representations of him that I’ve ever read. He’s suave and manipulative, but not to the point of being a bad parody of James Bond with a tail and pitchfork. He’s also truly, truly bad. Not in some whimsical way that makes you like him (although you may a bit a first), but pure, horrifying, bone chilling evil. The ways that he turns his deals on their recipients are equal parts masterful and revolting. Fenn deftly mixes emotional and physical trauma to up the stakes, causing both Fiona and the reader to panic as the time for her debt to be paid ticks down.
But as cool as all that stuff is, it wouldn’t work without a good narrative, which Fenn also knocks out of the park. Fiona’s quest to get out of her contract vacillates back and forth from noble to selfish. We want to root for her, especially when we see what type of demented punishment the devil has in store, but we also hate her for what she’s done and still wants to do. Not since The Girl on the Train have I felt so conflicted about a protagonist.
And then there’s the ending. Hooboy. Fenn plants some seeds early, allowing you to forget about them in the midst of Fionna’s excellent internal dialogue, her gripping interactions with other fellow ‘dead souls,’ and some incredibly well written horror/action scenes. By the time you reach the last few chapters—and those narrative seeds have matured—Fenn smacks you in the face with their trunks, delivering a wallop of an ending (that I really wish I hadn’t read immediately after dinner).
What Doesn’t Work
As good as the ending is, there are a few plot threads that didn’t feel completely solid by the end. Also, despite Fenn’s excellent framework, Scratch’s big plan near the end of the book is still a bit of a stretch.
Is it Good?
I thought “Deal with the Devil” stories were played out, but J. Lincoln Fenn has (thankfully) proven me wrong. All the sub-genre needed was a fresh perspective, global scale stakes on an intensely personal level, and top-notch writing.
I was going to make some stupid “The devil is in the details” joke at this point, but my self-loathing can only sink so far. Just go pick up this book instead—and make sure you don’t eat anything at least three hours before our after the last few chapters.