I’ve always thought that the best fiction asks all the important questions in life: How did we get here? What’s our purpose in life? Is it possible to be so terrible at woodworking, you could try building a table and accidentally summon a demon instead? Matthew Hughes’ 2011 novel The Damned Busters tackles each of these questions and more in a humorous, almost Douglas Adams-esque style that frequently channels the absurdity of golden age comic books.
The Damned Busters opens with the unfortunately named Chesney Anstruther, an awkward, shy, and virtually friendless actuary working for an insurance firm. While trying to assemble a five-sided poker table, he smashes his finger and let’s loose a string of unintelligible noises that just happens to be the spell for summoning demons. Due to Chesney’s strict religious upbringing and the accidental nature of the summoning, there is nothing the demon has to offer him that can convince Chesney to trade away his soul, or “insignificance” as the demons like to call it. After sending the demon back to hell empty handed, Chesney inadvertently causes the demons of Hell to go on strike, embarrassing and angering Satan. Chesney eventually enlists the help of a televangelist, who eventually brokers a deal between the demons, Satan, and Heaven. Because he set this chain of events in motion, Chesney is demanded to give his apology to Satan in front of the entire population of Hell. Chesney agrees to, but under the condition he gets his own demon sidekick who will assist Chesney in fighting crime for two hours each day. And this is where the story really begins.
There are many allusions and twists on the superhero genre in this book. Chesney’s intelligence and shy demeanor are reminiscent of Peter Parker, and the alliterative names of many minor characters, like Poppy Paxton and Melda McCann, would make Stan Lee proud. Of course, the most unique aspect of Chesney is his sidekick, a weasel-faced demon named Xaphan. It is implied that the last time Xaphan was on earth as part of a deal with a human, he was working for Al Capone, so his fashion style and speech patterns are still stuck in the 20′s. While Xaphan is bound to do whatever Chesney tells him to (as long as it relates to crimefighting), and is unable to lie, he can still withhold the entire truth or place Chesney into a dangerous situation. This frequently places Chesney in a “be careful what you wish for” as his sidekick seems eager to cause him harm whenever possible. This dynamic causes a lot of tension in the novel, and it is refreshing to see a superhero team that aren’t BFF’s.
But the superheroics aren’t the real draw to this book. I feel like the critiques on religion and the larger questions that are asked about the very nature of existence itself are what make this a novel actually worth reading. While negotiating with demons, angels, and Satan, the televangelist posits that all of of existence–humans, demons, earth, heaven, hell–is just a book that is still being written. He explains that many times while writing fiction, a writer will often find himself unable to decide what should happen next. This is when a writer should step back from a position of complete control and let the characters do, well, whatever the characters would do. The televangelist explains that this is what has happened with earth, but even worse, that this book is close to getting completely scrapped. He explains that many of the impossible books from the Bible were merely early drafts that just weren’t working out, and so they were deleted and existence was started over. Seeing as this is the first book in a proposed trilogy, where all of this is going has not yet been revealed, but I am intrigued to see how it will all play out.
Overall, I thought this book was very interesting and highly entertaining. It was written with a wit that kept me amused and addicted the entire time I was reading it. The 400 pages blew by fast, and when it was over, I immediately checked the Internet to see when the next book would be released. It’s gonna be a long time before April 2012. I highly recommend The Damned Busters.