Dead Souls by J. Lincoln Fenn
Gallery Books, 2016
Available: Pre-order, paperback and Kindle edition
Fiona Quinn is having a bad day. She’s soaking wet, freezing cold, barefoot, locked out of her apartment without her wallet, and she just saw her boyfriend, Justin, take off in a taxi with another woman. It’s hard to believe that anyone would give her a drink, but her background in marketing makes her very convincing, and she’s busy downing mojitos when a man walks up to her, offers to buy her a sandwich and a drink, and asks her what it would take to convince her to sell her soul. Being an atheist, she says she’d trade it for the power of invisibility… but apparently lack of belief doesn’t invalidate the deal, and suddenly she owes the Devil, now called Scratch, a favor of his choosing– one that’s likely to be horrifying, graphic, and newsworthy.
As a damned soul, Fiona can identify others, and she meets Alejandro, who traded his soul to become a famous photographer. He introduces her to a support group for those who have traded their souls and are now waiting for their favor to be called in, and lends her a book compiled over time by other damned souls seeking a way out. Having traded her soul for invisibility so she can spy on her boyfriend, she then learns that, rather than cheating, he actually was planning to propose before he developed pancreatic cancer, and is leaving his estate to her. Feeling guilty, and wanting to restore him to health, she tries to figure out a way to change her deal with the devil to save Justin. Alejandro warns her that the devil is always a few steps ahead of what any of his dead souls may be planning, but Fiona is sure she can successfully double deal with the devil, escape her fate, and change Justin’s.
Much like the devil, J. Lincoln Fenn managed to keep a few steps ahead of me all through the book, with a twisty plot that somehow managed to tie together the beginning of the story with the end in a manner that is both ironic and truly gruesome. The favors Scratch calls in are turned against Fiona and her fellow dead souls, as he forces them to use the gift they bargained for in warped, grotesque, and graphically portrayed ways, both against humanity in general and each other. Social media, photography, and marketing strategies all take prominent roles in the way the story plays out: Alejandro uses his images to capture souls, and Fiona uses her marketing talents to manipulate others, using her marketing trinity of novelty, misery, and desire.
Fenn’s writing is a trap: it starts out slowly, and the first quarter of the book creates unease, but there is no indication of the stomach-churning events to come. While I don’t think Fenn is aiming to be extreme, this is not a book for the squeamish. Some of the favors called in create images and visceral reactions that I won’t be able to let go of easily. Dead Souls is a well-crafted tale that, in addition to provoking unforgettable reactions in the reader, also provides food for thought, and it will disturb your thoughts next time you turn on the news. I won’t be surprised if it makes the shortlist for the Stoker this year. Highly recommended for public library collections. Reader’s advisory note: try recommending Dead Souls to readers who enjoyed Fenn’s debut novel, Poe, or Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters.
Contains: Graphic violence and gore, suicide, implied cannibalism, suicide, torture, mutilation, and descriptions and imagery depicting mass killings.