Religious institutions advertise themselves—and are seen by many—as providing protection from humankind’s greatest bogeymen: evil, mortality, suffering. But how often do they attract and even nurture the incarnations of those very bogeymen? Reading answers to that question can be as easy as picking up a true-crime casebook, or browsing today’s newsmedia. Fictional thrillers where this foundational plot is taken to extremes might seem to have started with “The Exorcist” in the early ‘70s, but such novels go back much further. Matthew Lewis’ “The Monk” is still considered a wild ride in plot, if not prose style—and that dates from 1796.
Louisville’s horror specialty bookstore has two significant guest appearances in August—and both have gripping novels religious institutions do not deliver anticipated rewards to the faithful.
Former Kentucky resident Todd Keisling is an artist as well as an author, so at Butcher Cabin Books he may offer wares for your wall as well as the bookcase. His recent novel “Devil’s Creek” made a splash (pun intended) when it first came out, but its publisher’s bankruptcy kept the book from getting full attention. Fortunately, a larger publishing house leapt at the opportunity to sign him up, so now he’s touring to tout the new edition, and to build up name-recognition for a much-anticipated short-story collection.
“Devil’s Creek” takes place in a fictional town, though its region (Cumberland Falls, Richmond) is very real and very well-drawn. The savage opening chapter pulls at universal themes (generational conflicts), recent societal history (‘80s hysteria over childcare), and modern stylistic choices that go full-bore on the gore.
The local church has become a cult, dominated by a pastor who demonstrates supernatural abilities. He has rejected his father/predecessor’s search for grace from the heavens—instead swaying his flock toward blood sacrifices for a demanding entity below ground. A night of mass suicide leaves a half-dozen children with cases of PTSD and a powerful will to forget—or so it seems until a fateful homecoming 30 years later.
Keisling maintains a continual fast pace, bringing readers into ever-greater threats to the now-grown survivors, those they love, the entire town…and perhaps more. From slurpy encounters with icky worms to the doom-signaling grasp of shadowy tentacles, and even some daring erotic undercurrents, this is stylistically freewheeling and confidently unrelenting.
Philip Fracassi pursues a path closer to mainstream storytelling with “Boys in the Valley.” Interesting commonalities between the two novels, though: both begin with an introductory chapter of harrowing slaughter. (Have today’s horror readers given up on slowburn atmosphere-setting?) Also, both Keisling and Fracassi make strong use of short chapters and point-of-view that skips around their large casts of characters.
The titular boys Fracassi introduces us reside in a Catholic orphanage. They’re bundling themselves up for yet another snowy Pennsylvania winter, many decades ago. The handful of priests overseeing their farmwork, education, and moral upbringing are a varied lot—but this is an isolated location and resources are meager. Lessons and punishments often involve withholding food or any other comfort that can be restricted.
The prose style here is disciplined and deliberate. It’s not long before the reader is invested in the lives of numerous boys who hope their hard-knock life will skew toward some carefree companionship and innocent competitions. Even the facility’s bully, a work-release convict, has convincing dimensions. But when a rebellious dreamer’s smile becomes too wide, and the sheriff makes a loud, late-night visit, there’s no telling when and how the horror will pay out. (Hint: maybe you won’t see it coming—but there’s plenty, once something demonic gets inside the doors.) As the tale takes off beyond its “Lord of the Flies”-style setup, this becomes a book you can’t put down. •