Religious horror has always been a great source of terror, whether that’s the growing terror of The Exorcist, the demonic sickliness of Rosemary’s Baby, or any number of Stephen King’s oeuvre. Adding to this list and one of the last horror books of the summer comes Camp Damascus from none other than Titan Books and… Chuck Tingle?
Yes, gentle reader, this is the same Chuck Tingle, unknown author extraordinaire whose online visage (pink mask and sunglasses) acts as the avatar for the authorial force behind works such as Pounded in the Butt By My Own Butt, Trans Wizard Harriet Porber and the Bad Boy Parasaurolophus, and Turned Gay by the Existential Dread That I May Actually Be a Character in a Chuck Tingle Book. What larks!
What’s perhaps more incredible than those titles of Tingle’s previous work is that Camp Damascus is not only played incredibly straight (a very much intended joke given how celebratorily queer this work is), but it’s also tender and sincere in a way that will win over an entire legion of new fans who have, much like this reviewer, associated Tingle only with explicit parodies and absurdist romance.
The hook of Camp Damascus is immediately intriguing – Rose, a teenage girl on the cusp of graduating high school, has begun to experience intense visions of a gnarled demonic presence, all while coughing up flies, trying to remain pure and devout in her incredibly faith-driven community, and dealing with a lingering feeling that there’s chunks of time she can’t quite recall, tied to a gay conversion camp (a la 2022’s They/Them).
The book is a queer story through and through with the titular camp being the most ‘successful’ gay conversion camp in the country, with a 100% success rate, something queasily relatable to the real world, where faith is often conflated with religion to impose discrimination on queer people. Rose is our viewpoint into this world, an autistic girl who discovers the darkness and begins the long road to salvation of her own kind. This exploration of religion always makes for good scares in horror, and in Camp Damascus it also makes for good discussions about faith and sexuality.
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It isn’t without faults, however. Camp Damascus suffers from some mid-book slump and when the revelations do come there’s a sense of a wider world out there that’s tantalisingly left unexplored by the end of the story. Readers who are wanting full-on chills throughout may also be disappointed, as Tingle moves from creeping, insidious horror in the book’s first half into personal drama and a full-on action adventure in the final act. However, there are far more pros than cons to Tingle’s tale and the reader walks away feeling ultimately satisfied.
Hailing from Chuck Tingle, readers may have expected something with a satirical edge given the book’s focus on religious hypocrisy (and it is there), but Camp Damascus is a sincerely heartfelt, if imperfect, examination of religion, sexuality, free will, and love, combining together religious horror, romance, found families, religious extremism, and breaking the cycles of abuse. With some startling imagery and a finale that feels truly cathartic, Camp Damascus works best when it embraces the warm, kind heart at the centre of its tale, one which in this time of increasing discrimination of LGBTQIA individuals proves to be more vital than ever.
Camp Damascus is out now from Titan Books.