A 1999 novel by James Herbert. Alone in a murky, otherworldly cell, a deceased, unnamed man contemplates the depraved past life for which this "existence without hope" is his punishment. Two celestial visitors, dubbed Angel 1 and Angel 2, suddenly arrive with a proposition. He, and "one or two others" have qualified for a second chance at earthly life. Overcome, he tearfully accepts...
Thirty-two year-old Brighton-based private investigator Nick Dismas, "Dis" to his friends, is offered a case concerning a missing person; a baby who eighteen years ago apparently died, but whose mother, Shelly Ripstone, now intuitively believes him to be alive, a suspicion endorsed by local clairvoyant Louise Broomfield. Dis, deformed from birth with spinal curvature, an overlapping brow and a withered leg, as well as a missing eye lost in a childhood incident, goes about sundry duties with unflinching reflection on his lifelong rejection and humiliation. Viciously mugged on the way home, a thoroughly desolate Dis later sees in his mirror the reflection of a long-dead movie star whose name he can't quite place. A sudden visit from Louise Broomfield, who briefly takes away the pain of his mugging-induced headache, persuades him to consider the Ripstone case. The name of the missing boy's midwife, Hildegarde Vogel, leads Dis to Perfect Rest, a residential care home, one of whose carers, delicate-featured yet similarly deformed Constance Bell, seems strangely intimidated by the home's director, the coolly condescending Dr Leonard K Wisbeech. A nightly visit from numerous severely deformed apparitions heralds a shocking turning point in the troubled life of Nick Dismas
The book closes with a note from the author of its inspiration by a true story, concerning a London childrens hospital.
"Well, who the f**k needs the tropes!":
- Ambiguously Gay: Henry Solomon, bookkeeper for Dismas Investigations, and Ida Lambton, debt collector.
- An Aesop: "Learn to see through generous eyes."
- Angelic Beauty: The two angels who briefly visit the deceased actor in Hell have movingly "serene" and "pure" countenances.
- An Astral Projection, Not a Ghost: The deformed apparitions who visit Dis are mental projections of living people, sent by a psychic amongst them.
- The Apprentice: Nineteen-year-old Philo Churchill, Dis's newest recruit.
- The Atoner: Dis comes to realise his impediments, and implicitly, Constances, to be a redemptive test, as part of a mission to atone for the iniquities of a past life.
- Aroused by Their Voice: On first hearing it over the phone, Dis is entranced by Constance's voice.
- Big Fun: Theresa, a jolly nurse.
- Bruiser With A Soft Centre: Ida, whose formidable bulk once aided an outnumbered and very grateful Dis.
- The Brute: Perfect Rest orderly Bruce, as well as a ferociously powerful, insanely vicious deformed man, known only as "the beast."
- The Chick: Solicitor Etta Kaesbach, a consistent supplier of work to Dis's agency.
- Council of Angels: "The Uppermost Level" apparently hosts discussion, with "The Final Arbiter" having made the decision to give several damned souls a second chance.
- The Dragon: Brusquely supercilious Nurse Rachel Fletcher, whose loyalty to Wisbeech extends to complicity in funding his inhumane researches by allowing snuff films to be made of his test subjects.
- Drowning My Sorrows: Dis does so keenly.
- Deadpan Snarker: Dis's first person narration is replete with witheringly grim witticisms.
- Eye Scream: Quite a bit of this. Aged eleven, Dis accidentally stabbed himself in the eye in self-defence against an attempted molestation, Henry's strangled corpse is found with the eyes gouged out, mercifully after strangulation, and the culprit, Dr Wisbeech's "beast," gets a bit of this from Dis.
- Friend to All Children: Deformed babies secretly brought to Perfect Rest were devotedly cared for by midwife Hildegarde Vogel. Constance later took up the position.
- The Grotesque: The severely deformed apparitions initially terrify Dis until they're revealed to be psychically projected images of harmless people who desperately need his help.
- Handicapped Badass: Despite appearances, Dis can handle himself, as Bruce learns the hard way.
- Healing Hands: As well as clairvoyant reception of distant thoughts, Louise Broomfield can psychically relieve pain.
- Hell: A murky, timeless realm of solitary remorse.
- Holy Halo: "Interesting how the ancient artists intuitively got it right when they depicted bright auras enveloping the holy spirits on their sojourns into the infectious world of mankind."
- I Hate Past Me: Dis, in a near-death vision, is appalled by the deeds of his previous incarnation, though recognises his occasional redeeming features.
- Jewish and Nerdy: Henry Solomon, bookkeeper for Dismas Investigations, is jealously proud of his authority on movie trivia.
- He Knows Too Much: Elderly midwife Hildegarde Vogel, as well as Dis, although in his absence, Wisbeechs beast brutally murders Henry instead.
- Mama Bear: Despite a fire raging through Perfect Rest, Constance is utterly determined to save a deformed patient in her care; Dis just as much so.
- Meaningful Name: Nick Dismas was named after the caretaker who found him as a baby on the steps of a convent, and after Saint Dismas, the crucified thief who repented to Christ.
- Nice Character, Mean Actor: Dis's previous incarnation, to tragic extremes.
- Politically Incorrect Hero: Henry is known for petty, institutionalised but ultimately harmless bigotries.
- Psychic Powers: Clairvoyant faith healer Louise Broomfield, as well as Michael, the deformed lost son of Shelly Ripstone, whose mental projections reach Louise and Dis.
- Rape as Drama: When Dis was eleven, a "pervert, who wanted sex with a freak" tried to molest him.
- Snuff Film: Secretly filmed footage of copulation between severely deformed patients is used to fund Dr Wisbeechs studies in deformity. He plans to branch out into snuff.
- Teens Are Monsters: The girl gang who rain physical and verbal abuse on Dis.
- Together in Death: Having completed his life's mission of atonement, Dis, on discovery of a brain tumour, is overjoyed soon to be reunited with the recently deceased Constance.
- True Companions: Dis and friends, particularly Henry, who lends a sober ear to Dis's unique isolation.