Damnation Code is a 2015 supernatural thriller by screenwriter William Massa and produced by the intensely-successful small press publishing platform Critical Mass Publishing. It stars Mark Talon, a Delta Force Operator who has spent nearly a decade as a career soldier fighting America’s enemies abroad becoming entangled in the fight against a techno-savvy supernatural death cult after his reporter girlfriend is ritualistically murdered for getting too close to their operations. This book is the first in the Occult Assassin series, of which there are currently six titles (4 main entries and 2 side-books).
This novel is the perfect blend of genre and off-genre elements that proves Massa is a gifted, intelligent author. He knows exactly how to manipulate the reader — in a good way — using the tropes and recognizable storytelling elements of familiar genres. That’s what nobody ever tells young writers: tropes aren’t a bad thing. Tropes are just elements that recur over and over again in a particular type of literature. As humans we’re very good at noticing these patterns, and using them to predict what will happen next. A smart author — like Massa — will use these tropes to subconsciously set up expectations in the reader’s mind, only to subvert them at a critical moment. And without digging too deep into spoilers, that’s what happens here.
Part of what I think makes the independent market so great is that it much quicker adapting to — and subverting — the problems with genre. Because of turnaround time getting sales numbers back and quarterly market research, traditionally published books can take a long to pivot if the whims of readers change. They also tend to like things “in their box”: romance is romance, thrillers are thrillers, occult is occult, and never-shall-they-mix. Massa subverts all that in a way I often respect and have tried to emulate, taking a intensely supernatural story and first framing it in a natural, grounded world. And in doing so, he takes the groundedness of a contemporary war novel and mixes it with the thrills of a psychological and supernatural thriller, set in the three-act story structure of a classic superhero tale. It is these intricate, inter-woven mesh that makes Messa’s script unpredictable and exhilarating to read.
By ‘superhero’ I don’t mean capes and cowls either. I don’t mean the aesthetic, I mean the formulae. Formulae, like trope, isn’t a bad thing if used creatively, and Massa’s mastery of structure undoubtedly comes from his his history as a screenwriter. Throughout the novel the well-versed eye can see the elements of graphic-novel style at play: the prose starts methodical and aggressively normal in the first chapter, hammering in the “realness” of the world so the reader is unprepared for the insanity that follows. We’re then introduced to a far-too-storybook romance with a perfect female lead, Michelle. After she’s taken, Talon slowly — over the course of this first adventure –accumulates his supporting cast: there’s his billionaire benefactor Casa, his tech-expert / Microchip / Moneypenny Becky, and his link to the police force, Serrone. All these elements are great. they are worked in organically. You can recognize them for what they are only after they are in place, never before, giving the reader multiple “oh I figured it out” moments as they go through the prose.
In a lot of ways, Mark Talon owes a lot to The Punisher, and the mention of “Microchip” above was intentional in that regard. This book can be summed up — if need be — as “what if the Punisher’s family had been killed by Cultists, not by criminals?” The story they progresses from there as you would expect. In boiling it down to a simple analogy I feel as though I’m not giving Massa or Mark Talon their credit: this book is a thrilling read with an interesting — if not unfamiliar — premise. And let’s not forget, both Christopher Golden and Rick Remender have tried the ‘mystical Punisher’ trick before to lackluster results, so it’s to great credit that I say Massa has made this book one of my favorites I’ve read in 2016.
I love taking the Freudian method of dream analysis and applying it to literature. Quick/Dirty rundown: you take the part of the book that bothered you the most, then spin the analysis so that that is what the book is about. At least, what it’s about for you.
A few things early on competed — or at least, I thought they would compete — for the role of “what bothered me most” about Damnation Code, but what finally stood out is that one of the big action set-pieces of the novel took place in a heavily recognizable — and named — Apple Store.
Now it’s not that there was a real-world product prominently featured that bothered me: longtime readers will know I’m a huge fan of K-Mart Realism. The choice to use the real Apple Store — and to call it the Apple Store, is a decidedly bold one. Most authors would have gone for those annoying slight alterations, calling it The Pear Store or something like that. Although the brand-name-recognition, and its repetition, is what made it stand out for me, I think what bothered me is what it must represent: in the novel, The Apple Store was used as the meeting place for the new-age techno death-cultists and their leader, Zagan. In picking that place — such a prominent, real-world location — for the meeting of a group of fanatically-obsessed followers paints a picture of what this novel is about: not one man versus the occult, but the old guard versus new-generation hipsters.
There’s evidence to support this as well. On page 30, Talon experiences PTSD-like symptoms after the death of Michelle, while Zagan’s cultists are able to commit atrocious acts without such drawbacks: a metaphor for a more violently-jaded current generation, possibly. On page 68, Talon sees what he describes as his ‘worst fear’ come to bear: not that Michelle died, but that she died because of her job and he couldn’t protect her, pointing to a previous-generation family dynamic with the man as the protector, as well as hinting at a deep-seeded fear of women entering the workplace. And, perhaps most blatantly, on page 73 when Talon is told his coffee is $4.00 he thinks to himself: “What is happening to this country?”
Evidence for the opposition regarding Zagan’s cult exists in plenty as well. There is the aforementioned Apple Store connection, but also the presence of tech-savvy elements from social media, binary tattoos, and Matrix references. All this adds up to a book that is, for me, about a morally-upright ‘Greatest Generation’ coming to odds (and to terms) with the rise of a new generation whose differences unsettle and scare him. Will his ideals survive? Well, that would be telling.
Everyone needs to pick up Damnation Code. It is an amazingly well-written masterpiece of modern fiction, combining elements of everything that is hot in the market right now in a way that will make it still fresh and exciting twenty years from now. I’ll be picking up its sequel, Apocalypse Soldier, soon as well.
Occult Assassin 1: Damnation Code is available now in print and eBook formats.
‘Other Indie’ is a recurring series of articles on Engen Books in which authors highlight the best in independent publishing, in the hopes of helping readers break through the cluster of books they may not be sure about in an age when anyone can publish via digital formats. Engen Books is an independent small-press publishing company based in St. John’s Newfoundland and is proud to highlight the talent of independent authors not our own. Damnation Code is © 2015 William Massa. This review is © 2016 Matthew LeDrew. ‘Other Indie’ banner photo credit: Steve Lake.