BOOK REVIEW: “Damnificados” BY JJ Amaworo Wilson

Damnificados is loosely based on the real-life occupation of a half-completed skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, the Tower of David. In this fictional version, 600 “damnificados”—vagabonds and misfits—take over an abandoned urban tower and set up a community complete with schools, stores, beauty salons, bakeries, and a rag-tag defensive militia. Their always heroic (and often hilarious) struggle for survival and dignity pits them against corrupt police, the brutal military, and the tyrannical “owners.” Taking place in an unnamed country at an unspecified time, the novel has elements of magical realism: avenging wolves, biblical floods, massacres involving multilingual ghosts, arrow showers falling to the tune of Beethoven’s Ninth, and a trash truck acting as a Trojan horse.

Steering away from my normal track of horror and dark fantasy, I recently read Damnificados by JJ Amaworo Wilson. Published back in 2016, this heavily fictionalized story based on true events delves deep into magical realism. It’s a mix of humor, human drama, and fantastical events that is entertaining if not flawed.

cover art of book damnificadosDamnificados essentially tells its readers a legend. The legendary tale of Nacho Morales and his struggle to keep together a community of people after they successfully take over an abandoned tower in the center of a city. The story is told in present tense which lends an urgency to the writing. Wilson’s prose is excellent, especially his detailed descriptions of locations and events. I found myself laughing and re-reading certain sections simply for the pure enjoyment of the printed words.

On the flip side, the book’s pacing is tough. For a novel clocking in at under 300 pages, some portions drag heavily. New characters are constantly introduced and there are a few world-building subplots that were unnecessary, if not entertaining. The overall plot was straight forward and could probably have been told as a novella, were it not for the elaborate descriptions and prosaic experimentation (one chapter features a 4-page long sentence). As the saying goes “middles are hard”, but I’m glad I put up through the minor slog to reach what was a satisfying ending.

As someone who has written satire, I appreciated Wilson’s often tongue-in-cheek tone and the positive message he portrays even in light of the struggles the characters face in his book.

If you’re at all interested in political fiction, magical realism, or stories told as legends, you may want to grab Damnificados and give it a read. You can purchase a copy from Amazon using my affiliate link, provided below.

Damnificados: A Novel (Spectacular Fiction)

What I Liked:

  • Excellent prose and voice.
  • Wilson’s humor and effective political satire
  • Literary experimentation

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Middle section dragged
  • Plot/story was sacrificed in spots for purple prose
  • Some members of ensemble cast felt underdeveloped
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BOOK REVIEW: “The King In Yellow” By Robert W. Chambers

The King in Yellow is a book of short stories by American writer Robert W. Chambers, first published by F. Tennyson Neely in 1895. The book is named after a play with the same title which recurs as a motif through some of the stories. The first half of the book features highly esteemed weird stories, and the book has been described by critics such as E. F. Bleiler, S. T. Joshi and T. E. D. Klein as a classic in the field of the supernatural. There are ten stories, the first four of which (“The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, “In the Court of the Dragon”, and “The Yellow Sign”) mention The King in Yellow, a forbidden play which induces despair or madness in those who read it.

I recently borrowed an audio book of The King in Yellow (support your local library!) as part of my Halloween reading list. I’d heard so much about it, and how it inspired many other works of horror I enjoy. I felt like Halloween season was the right time to check it out.

Unfortunately, I have mixed feelings about it.

king_aceI’ve never read (or listened to) a book that I was so conflicted about. I’m a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft and early weird fiction from the turn of the 20th century. I also enjoy hoity-toity literature with complex prose, so The King in Yellow should be right up my alley.

Here’s the thing: I loved the first half of the book. It was great! The stories weave semi-related tales of dread and supernatural menace, interspersing lines from the frightening play that is the common thread between them.

The second half of the book is what lost me. Chambers totally changes gears and spins tales about bourgeoisie life in wartime France. This portion of the book supposedly “evokes thematic feelings of dread”, but if they are in there, I couldn’t find them. There are few if any references to the King, and a thematic shift from horror to romance and longing. I kept waiting for something to tie the second half back to the first, but it never happened (the ending arguably has a call back to the first story, but its weak). The prose and language remains excellent, but begins to ramble and turn purple, eschewing story-telling for overly dramatic description. I was disappointed since I enjoyed the first half so much.

Can I recommend this book? Sort of.

If you’re a fan of “cosmic horror” (H.P. Lovecraft, Weird Tales) or video games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls then the first half of The King in Yellow is in your wheelhouse. “The Repairer of Reputations” up through “The Yellow Sign” along with “The Prophet’s Paradise” are must reads. Everything else can be ignored, especially the final three installments that begin with “The Street of the First Shell”. Fortunately, the nature of the book (short stories) allows it to be consumed this way.

I can see how portions of Chambers’ work inspired so many future writers and artists. The King in Yellow was certainly a groundbreaking work for its time, and portions of it still hold up today. If you’d like to see what all the fuss is about, you can buy a copy off Amazon (or read it for free on Kindle) using the affiliate link below.

The King in Yellow

WHAT I LIKED:

  • Initial quartet of stories are excellent works of classic horror
  • Fanciful, engaging prose
  • Themes of madness and existential dread

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

  • Inconsistent themes in latter half of book
  • Latter stories are just American bohemians bemoaning their upper-middle class lifestyle while in Paris. Extremely boring.