“Damned If You Don’t”
Comma Press: 2007
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award 2008: Short Story
According to Christian tradition the only way to heaven is belief or faith in God. Now, different denominations will have somewhat different definitions as to exactly what that means, but that’s the tent pole here. True Belief = Heaven, Disbelief = Hell.
Martin, the narrator of “Damned If You Don’t” was a wishy-washy Christian. He went to church every Sunday and he did the “right” things, but he never really believed. So, following his death, he found himself in Hell. Apparently Hell is somewhat crowded so Martin has a roommate. A dog. Sadly, dogs, too, can go to hell. As the dog explains, this is usually for dogs who "weren't kind to their masters. They bit them. Or wouldn't come when they called...Dogs not doing what dogs are meant to do", but Woofie is different. He’s in Hell for another reason. Perhaps disclosing that reason would not be too much of a spoiler, but let’s hold the reason back this time. Discovering who’s dog Woofie was is an integral part of the story and Shearman really doesn’t do the obvious with it.
Of course, the reader may ask if the reasons Martin and Woofie gave for being in Hell are really the whole story.
“Damned If You Don’t” is ultimately a sad story. This isn’t fire and brimstone, nor is it at all a “Christian” story. By the end, Shearman has done quite a few things, touching on the nature of Hell, God, friendship, marriage, zombies, death, prejudice, and blame. “Damned If You Don’t” is a quiet story. It doesn’t do or say anything flashy. It is charming, in a darkly twisted sort of way.
One of the strongest aspects of “Damned If You Don’t” is the friendship (and loss) of Martin and Woofie. The characters, their discussion, their existence in Hell and conversations about life are what drives the story. While the entire situation of “Damned If You Don’t” is fairly abnormal, it is the base normality of the story which makes the entire thing relatable. Hopefully no reader will be going to Hell, and hopefully no dog is doomed for eternity, but the characters and the roommate situation is understandable. It’s a situation most readers will be familiar with and can conceptualize.
“Damned If You Don’t” is a delightful story of the friendship that can develop in Hell. It is well worth the attention the story will likely get from the World Fantasy Award nomination.