Leisure reading time is rather hard for me to come by right now, so whenever I start a new book I want to be sure it’s one I’ll like. Well, as sure as one can be about such things, anyway. Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Craig DiLouie’s earlier books ONE OF US and OUR WAR, his latest novel THE CHILDREN OF RED PEAK was among my most anticipated releases of 2020. Classified as Horror, this is a book that defies genre tropes and explores the darker aspects of human nature, both in groups and in individuals.
Fifteen years ago, five youngsters survived the grisly final days of the Family of the Living Spirit in the shadow of Red Peak. The bodies of the dead were never found, leading to the incident being known as the Medford Mystery (after the nearby town) and sowing confusion about what really happened among the survivors. When one of their fellow survivors commits suicide as the anniversary draws near, David Young, Deacon Price, and Beth Harris find themselves reunited at her funeral and forced to face those lingering questions from the cult’s final days.
Craig DiLouie excels in creating compelling, complex characters, and intertwining their individual stories to create something that is more than a sum of its parts (a technique he employed to great effect in both ONE OF US and OUR WAR). Any one of David, Deacon, or Beth could’ve carried an entire novel on their own, but by braiding their narratives the reader is given a richly layered examination of theme and different perspectives on events both present and long past.
THE CHILDREN OF RED PEAK is a slow burn, but certainly a rewarding one, as the reader follows each of the three coming to terms with their past in their own ways. Each draws on their childhood experience in their current professional lives; David as a cult exit counselor, Beth as a psychologist, and Deacon as a black-clad, heavily-tattooed musician. As the story progresses, we also see how their personal lives have been affected by what they went through. They’re all coping in the best way they can, with varying degrees of success. In each of their stories, we see how David, Deacon, and Beth have internalized their trauma and built some sort of life over the last fifteen years. DiLouie is not one to gloss things over, though, and rightly portrays these characters as troubled and flawed, each a maelstrom storming under a veneer of functionality.
Flashback chapters trickle out vivid remembrances of life with the Family of the Living Spirit, tracing the group’s metamorphosis from an idyllic commune focused on simple living and piety, to a fanatical cult defined by acts of physical sacrifice and repentance that go well beyond flagellation, a shift marked when the Family moves from their farm to nearby Red Peak. The cultists, believing their ascension is imminent, eagerly submit to bodily mutilation as a rite of purification with the offending articles being given as burnt offerings at the altar of their new temple. The willingness with which the practice is embraced by most of the faithful is one of the true moments of horror in the book; while it would’ve been easy for this to have read as a caricature of cult behavior, the few dissenting voices present make the passage feel all the more real.
The question threaded through the novel, both in the present and flashback chapters, remains “Is there really anything at the top of Red Peak? And if there is… is it God, or something more sinister?” It turns out the Family of the Living Spirit are not the first (or last) group to think there’s something to it, and the latter chapters of the book find the survivors seeking answers of their own as the anniversary of the Medford Mystery draws near. I won’t go into the details (as that would spoil the book’s truly worthy ending) but the final scenes for David, Deacon, and Beth are as introspective and deeply personal as any found in the book and are, for each character, wholly satisfying. Suffice it to say, there’s much in the ending that is left open to the reader to interpret, and while that ambiguity may leave some feeling cut loose without answers, it’s also a reminder that the answers to life’s questions typically aren’t handed to you in an envelope with a big gold seal.
THE CHILDREN OF RED PEAK
Craig DiLouie, Redhook Books/Orbit 2020