BRIEF SYNOPSIS: In the city of Primordium, an assassin has himself transformed into a horrific killing machine, thus setting off a chain of events that transforms the city.
PROS: Wonderfully disturbing vision; a good story that has an almost fable-like feel to it.
CONS: Being a short novel, the mid-story recap of what came before was unnecessary.
BOTTOM LINE: An engrossing story that plays the right chords of revenge, comeuppance, and horror.
It’s been a while since I last read anything by Clive Barker, and having just read Tortured Souls, I wonder if it’s because he writes stories whose ghastly images disturbingly linger after the story is over.
At least, that’s what’s happening with Tortured Souls, a short novel that takes place in the supernatural city of Primordium. The city is ruled by a despotic emperor and haunted by the legend of a terrible being known as Agonistes, created by the hand of God himself. The sole purpose of Agonistes’ existence seems to be as an answer to the prayers of the truly desperate, whose hatred drives them to have Agonistes remake their flesh into monsters to exact revenge on the people who wronged them. The process, as you might imagine, is quite painful and Agonistes takes a perverse pleasure in it, treating it as art.
The services of Agonistes are requested by Zarles Krieger, an assassin who is hired by the evil emperor of Primordium to kill a Senator who spoke out against the emperor’s tyranny. Krieger is smitten with the Senator’s daughter, who convinces Krieger that the true evil is not the Senator, but the emperor himself, whose lust for money and power is what transformed Primordium from the Eden it once was to the kind of place where Krieger is forced to kill to survive.
From there, the story goes through several unexpected twists and turns, each one more bizarre than the previous one, but ultimately pushing the story forward at a brisk pace. For a short novel, it contains a fair amount of world building, story and characterizations…all deftly combined into a story that feels like a fable in many respects (although an unusually peculiar one) with strange alliances, changes in power, and weird biological experiments. The story is economically told, except for one part midway through the novella — a brief recap of everything that came before — that seemed entirely unnecessary given that Tortured Souls is a one-sitting read. Even so, it moves along at a very swift pace, wasting little time to turn some unexpected corner and introduce some new perverse monstrosity, all the while driving towards a conclusion that is both satisfying and alluring enough to want to see more stories set in this strange world. Just not right away.