“What the fuck could happen? It’s a fucking shack. It’s an old, run-down piece of shit and Mark has a hard-on for it, for some goddamn reason.”
Mike Thorn’s debut novel SHELTER FOR THE DAMNED is a remarkable journey into suburban insanity, adolescent rage, the power of addictions, the struggle for identity, and so much more.
Having read Thorn’s short fiction—his short story collections DARKEST HOURS and DREAMS OF LAKE DRUKKA & EXHUMATION are essential—I went into this thinking I knew what to expect. Oh, many of Thorn’s hallmarks are here, to be sure; there’s gore, and violence, and unspeakable creatures in unexpected places. But SHELTER FOR THE DAMNED takes the reader deeper into the dark and tormented world Thorn continues to probe like that raw bloody tooth socket you can’t stop tonguing.
Now, before I dive in, I want to mention that I felt something of a personal connection to the book’s setting, which is central to the story. Not the actual setting, of course, as that remains unspecified… but as it turns out I spent my teenage years in the same suburb as Mike Thorn (coincidentally enough, I moved back into the old neighbourhood in 2019). As such, I had no trouble at all picturing the streets, the strategically spaced-out greenspaces and playfields, Mark’s school, and even the convenience store as described in the book. But all suburbs built between 1970 and 2000 look, smell, and sound the same anyway (and all that has changed in those built after 2000 is cladding and lot size) so don’t feel that you’ll be at a disadvantage here if you grew up in some other postal district. What Thorn explores to great effect in SHELTER FOR THE DAMNED is what you don’t see when walking those streets at night. Malice lurking behind practiced smiles. Violence hidden behind manicured lawns. Subtle (and not-so-subtle) psychological warfare swirling behind double-glazed bay windows. There is no shelter to be found in these perfect little houses.
Perhaps that’s why, when Mark and his friends find an old, abandoned wooden shack in a field one night, he feels drawn to it. His friends see the shack as a place to hang out, kill some time, and smoke some cigarettes, but before he even walks through the door Mark is overwhelmed with a euphoric sense of belonging. The Shack is everything suburban life is not, a home he never found in his parent’s house. The Shack soon edges out just about anything else in his thoughts (second at times only to the smile of a pretty girl in his math class). But it’s not long before the Shack begins to reveal its true nature and purpose, and Mark’s grip on reality and his own sanity start to slip.
It’s clear, though, that Mark’s problems don’t begin with the Shack. His troubles at home and history of schoolyard violence stretch back to well before he ever laid eyes on the Shack. Perhaps that’s why, of the three youths who entered, he is the one chosen for the Shack’s diabolical ends. Answers about what exactly the Shack and its inhabitant(s?) are remain few through to the very end. It’s entirely possible (and in this reader’s opinion very likely) that the shack and the horrific entities within and without are all aspects of the same being. The whole thing veers toward cosmic horror, and while some readers may feel shorted by the ambiguity in the narrative, in my opinion keeping things vague in this regard works here.
A short read, SHELTER FOR THE DAMNED crams a wealth into its roughly 190 pages. Thorn’s prose is stripped-down and accessible, and works to bring the reader into Mark’s adolescent POV. Where Thorn peppers in references to the giants of horror cinema (particularly Wes Craven, George A. Romero, and John Carpenter) could easily have come off as fanboyish, but some of the book’s most memorable scenes effectively call such visuals to mind; the creature in the closet is pure Carpenter, and is wonderfully realized. The lasting scares and most visceral horror herein, though, come from the more mundane elements. SHELTER FOR THE DAMNED is a powerful comment on idle suburbanism, and absolutely worth your time.
Trigger & Content Warnings: Addiction, Alcoholism, Child Abuse, Psychological Abuse, Gore, Graphic Violence, Murder, Abduction/Luring, Mild Teen Sexuality, Overall Morbid Theme
My thanks to the author and publisher for providing a complimentary advance copy for review. This in no way influenced my rating or review.
SHELTER FOR THE DAMNED
Mike Thorn, Journalstone (26 February, 2021)