The setup for this ultimately gory horror story is a cult which preys on vulnerable damaged people and instills in them a culture of blind obedience and faith. It’s nicely done, with the cultish magical elements counterpointed against the everyday logistics of keeping a large community fed and working to order. The characters, including the secondary ones, are strong; I particularly liked the portrayal of the day to day enforcer – a tiny woman with a powerful personality, whose own vulnerabilities are not evident until the end of the book.
From the start we’re left in no doubt that the cult is demonic and throughout the book the author plays with the alternative interpretations of the reality of these demons – tools of mass manipulation, the product of individual mental disorder or actually real. Our vulnerable hero has sold himself body and soul (literally) to the cult, abandoning a relationship without even a goodbye.
His partner, unrelated to the cult, wants him back. She tracks him down and undertakes an “intervention” – capturing and imprisoning him in the belief that she can rescue and deprogram him. But she is herself also vulnerable, tortured by terrifying hallucinations which may or may not reflect actual demonic presence in her life. She is unsupported and has no evident social network of her own, apart from a half-hearted brother who doesn’t want to get involved. In the claustrophobic setting of an uninhabited house which she and our hero had once planned to make their home, her attempts to recover her lost partner become increasingly desperate and grim.
Thus far, the story has been rooted in a sociologically, psychologically, believable reality. From here on in, however, the novel gives itself over to escalating horror, with demonic components building up the psychological tension until the book finally erupts into a festival of gore.
I’m interested in cults – in my youth I lost a friend to the Moonies and another to the Family International, and I toyed, myself, with ideas of communalism and new utopias. Then I was knocked sideways by the terrible events of the Jamestown massacre/suicide in which almost a thousand half-starved, brainwashed, wretched cult members, including many children, living in an isolated community in Guyana, conceived at the start as a new socialist paradise, were forced by its dementing leader to drink cyanide or be shot by guards. Almost all of them took the poison. I have no doubt, therefore, about the reality of cults or their extraordinary power over human decision making. I’m also interested in mental illness, and in particular in the challenges faced by individuals, (such as Nina, the moral heart of this story), who are trying to lead decent lives in the face of mental disintegration. These components are interestingly set up in this novel and if he chose to write a different sort of book, the author could have done things with them which I would have valued.
I can’t pretend that the combined gore-fest and demonic eruption at the end of the novel either persuaded or interested me. If you like graphic, well, it’s graphic. Personally, (although I love to be frightened by a book), it is the suppressing of the thought of the thing unsaid, of the possibility too horrible to shape, of the thing that might have been glimpsed in the pitch darkness between sentences that hold on to their secrets, that holds the power to terrify. For me the only really haunting image in the book comes early on, a moment glimpsed through a curtain, a bandaging of things not seen. All the later gore is nasty, (and if you like “nasty”, you will find plenty to enjoy), but I found it curiously unmoving, like looking in a butcher’s window. It did not pull me in, and its camera – dwelling on the gore, focusing on the mechanics of it, looking at it full in the face – had a comic book feel which baffled rather than frightened me. Similarly the graphically demonic conclusion of the book – by that point I neither believed nor cared.
So in the end not a book for me, though it perfectly plausibly might be the book for you. By which I mean that it is technically very competent: the plot is carefully set up, the characters varied and compelling, the writing fluent and vivid and engaging. Of its kind it is no doubt “a good example”. I just wanted it to go somewhere else.
Aggregated Amazon Rating at time of this blog (6 ratings)