TW/CW for the book and this review: body horror, bugs, vomit.
Camp Damascus is a full-length novel by Chuck Tingle. Chuck Tingle is famous for writing many, many erotic and humorous short stories and novellas, and he is beloved for including rather pointed social commentary in these stories and for a social media presence in which he celebrates all kinds of love. For an idea of his short work, check out my review of Oppressed in the Butt by my Inclusive Holiday Coffee Cups or listen to Sarah’s interview with him – and may I say I’ve never been so jealous – Proving Love: An Interview with Dr. Chuck Tingle.
Camp Damascus is very different. It has romance but no erotic content, is generally serious in tone, and is the author’s first full-length novel. It read to me like a first book – there are some pacing problems and the story just generally feels disjointed. Otherwise, it’s a pretty solid horror novel in which a gay conversion camp is shown to be literally diabolical.
Twenty-year old Rose lives in Neverton, Colorado, a town that is almost universally Christian. She belongs to an especially strict sect, the Kingdom of the Pine. She loves her family and her community and is proud (but not sinfully proud) of her faith and her role in the community. She describes herself as autistic, and her few conflicts with her parents involve her counting to relieve anxiety instead of praying, as well as her insatiable curiosity, which they see as incompatible with faith. Otherwise, she’s pretty content and happy – until she starts vomiting up flies and having terrifying visions of demons. Her quest for answers leads her to Camp Damascus, a gay conversion “therapy” camp just outside of town. But Rose has never been there – has she?
This horror novel is not for the faint of heart. There’s the flies, and an assortment of other bugs and worms of various horrifying sizes. There’s death, torture, visions of Hell, demons of various descriptions, and gore. The plot hinges upon the homophobia of the community as well as a ton of gaslighting, primarily from Rose’s parents and her therapist. While the book isn’t humorous in tone, there is some humor and some fun scenes. I’m especially fond of this passage – it’s a little spoilery:
“You really think we should be listening to loud songs while we’re trying to stay alert?” I question.
“What’s the point of busting into a conversion camp to slay demons with a flamethrower and smash up their possession machine if you’re not going to listen to black metal while you’re doing it?” he retorts.
This book is good at depicting how, for many people, coming out to unsupportive people doesn’t just mean losing their immediate family. It also means losing all their friends, their entire community, every piece of media they’ve ever consumed, everyone they knew at school and church and work and youth group. Rose really loves her parents and her church, and if we didn’t see these deep bonds in action, the plot would be much less impactful. I also appreciate the inclusion of a character who refuses to reject his faith, instead claiming a more inclusive version of it in which God is truly Love.
It’s also a very vivid book. It may lack cohesion (more on that later) but individual scenes practically fly off the page. The whole fly vomit thing is just nasty, and whether that’s a feature or a bug (harr harr) depends on what kind of horror you like. The fear followed by euphoria of participating in a cliff dive highlights both Rose’s anxiety and love of her faith in a great sequence of showing instead of telling. Rose’s visions of demons are suitably creepy, and if I were ever inclined to play Truth or Dare, I certainly am not inclined to do so now.
This book has a lot of ingredients that I like (socially-themed horror, positive LGBT representation, positive autism representation) but it never quite worked for me. Most of the characters never felt to me like real people – an understandable problem given that they are deceptive, but instead of seeming like deceptive people they just seemed cartoony. This is an especially big problem with the primary villain. We are supposed to think he might be a good guy for about a minute, but the second he swarms onto the page it’s all over. He’s such a transparent gaslighter from his very first words that he might as well be twirling a mustache and laughing an evil laugh.
Practical issues fall to the wayside, leaving me with itching questions about mundane details. What does Rose do for money? How does she get gas for the car? Is the Kingdom looking for her? Are the police? If so, did she ever switch cars, and if not, why hasn’t she been pulled over? These questions aren’t that important to the point of the book, but they pulled me out of the story. It’s easier for me to believe in fantastical elements when the mundane elements are fully grounded. Up to a point in this book they are, but then suddenly all mundane concerns disappear even though people surely still need to buy gasoline and food.
This goes along with some odd pacing. There’s a major time jump that omits all kinds of information and a sudden ending that doesn’t resolve anyone’s emotional state or explain what anyone might do next. Prior to that, a horrific event is glossed over as though it never happened. Even though that’s part of the gaslighting that the community practices, it’s hard for me to believe that more people aren’t freaking out…
over a sudden, gruesome, violent and public death.
Even though I didn’t enjoy this book completely, I think the author (who I admit to shamelessly adoring in general) has a lot of potential in terms of this kind of full-length work. It has a big heart and a lot of arresting scenes (I won’t forget that fly vomit any time soon). It will work best for horror fans who don’t mind body horror, flies, worms, and surrealism. I will be reading the next full-length Chuck Tingle book for sure.