Dead Souls by J. Lincoln Fenn is an almost light-hearted look at a deadly serious subject: the existence or non-existence of the soul. Fiona is a non-believer in just about everything. That includes the idea that she has a soul. So if someone wants to buy it, why not? In exchange for the thing she wants most in the world she must pay with a FAVOR. The favor is unspecified. When she will have to perform the favor is unspecified. No matter what the favor is, she must fulfill the requirements and do what is asked. Only then will she be permitted to die. True, going to hell is a negative but in return, she will get exactly what she asked for, no more, no less.
Fiona met Scratch in a bar while trying to deal with her feelings about the discovery of her latest boyfriend’s infidelity. Of course Scratch was only a nickname, one she readily agreed to use after he told her his real name with an utterance that was linguistically impossible for a human to reproduce. At least it sounded impossible but that might have been due to the great amount of alcohol she had consumed prior to meeting Scratch. Post-Scratch alcohol consumption partially explained why she woke up the following morning in her own bed nude but alone. Alt least he had left a card with her abandoned clothes. Why were the card and clothes outside the apartment? Thank goodness for the kind and somewhat understanding neighbor who delivered them to her.
In her drunken stupor, Fiona made a deal with the devil. She was not the only one to have done so. She met others who had done the same; they all had a dark aura surrounding them. They were an association of dead souls. Each of them was waiting for the call to do the favor, after which they could die and comfortably retire to hell. They had led a life in which a substantial part of it had seen their fondest wish come true. Favors done in return were well publicized. They might be terrorist attacks, massacres such as school shootings, or grizzly crimes blamed on psychotics. Many in the world would comment that there was no reason for such acts of barbaric cruelty. Fenn’s novel offers us a reason even if it resides in the world of fiction.
In a novel that offers so many graphic descriptions of violent death, I expected there to be some offensive language related to sex and violence. There isn’t offensive language, the novel is almost asexual, but the depictions of some of the horrible death scenes can be unsettling.
For those who read a lot, expectations can set in after the first couple of chapters. Reading in a favorite genre too much can build a big rut where reading can be boring. A novel like this will jerk the reader out of a rut with a violence that will dislocate body parts. Perspectives are fresh, humor is very understated, and many readers may walk away feeling disturbed that they are considered a part of a great mass of people waiting (and wanting) to be manipulated.
Fiona, as well as all characters who intentionally or inadvertently made a deal with the Devil, eventually tire of the benefits of the deal. They would like to renegotiate, to make a “double deal” that will at least get them out of going to hell while preserving some of the benefits already received. The only way to do that appeared similar to a pyramid selling scheme. Fiona had to find a way to guarantee the Devil could get thousands or tens of thousands of souls in exchange for her own soul’s return. She didn’t see this as much of a problem. She was a marketing executive used to creating consumer desire for products of little value. If Fiona could sell her scheme to the Devil, she would once again be free. But there were other dead souls, especially the devious Alejandro, that also wanted to make a double deal. The one who could offer the greatest number of souls would win. And there is a finite number of souls on the planet.
Other than horror and humor, readers will like Fenn’s presentation on marketing strategy and consumer naivete. There is an interesting look at the “terms and conditions” or “terms of service” statements that almost no one reads before checking the box to get on with the purchase. After reading this novel, I want to go back and read all those statements I didn’t read. But I won’t. I will just trust that to date I haven’t made any devilish purchases.