Chuck Tingle is famously (and infamously) known for self-publishing absurdist erotica that almost always skews queer. Despite ridiculous titles like Handsome Sentient Food Pounds My Butt And Turns Me Gay: Eight Tales Of Hot Food and Not Pounded By Bi Erasure Because My Current Hetero-Presenting Relationship Does Not Invalidate My Queerness, Tingle’s work remains steadfastly earnest, which continues with his newly-written horror story. Camp Damascus is Tingle’s first full-length, traditionally published novel, and it expands on the tongue-in-cheek themes of queerness and survival he first wrote about with 2021’s Straight.
Up in the mountains and nestled in the pastoral forests of Montana, Camp Damascus, the evangelical conversion camp, looms over the town of Neverton. Rose Darling, a young woman who is just stepping into self-awareness and womanhood, has never been to Camp Damascus, but she knows people who’ve spent time there. She picks out faces from her church group in the cheerful ads that play on the television. But nobody, not even her friends, seem to want to talk about what happens at Camp Damascus.
What Tingle does throughout this book is set up expectations and then within the very same chapter (sometimes on the same page), rips them to shreds, leaving the bodies bloody and gasping in the wreckage. Camp Damascus is a sometimes-violent, often-thrilling book that plunges its entire arm into the open chest cavities of church-blessed corpses, searching around for hearts and squeezing. Within the recognizable trauma of religious expectation, familial rejection, and meeting someone at the wrong time, there is an underlying supernatural strangeness that feels right at home within Tingle’s absurdist sensibilities. He never pushes the envelope of either horror or queerness too much, but the premise and execution are fast-paced, inventive, and evocative.
As Rose tries to figure out why she’s suddenly coughing up mayflies, her father tells her that she’s never had a bedroom door, her mother continues to play judgmental evangelical-themed redemption games as they walk through neighborhoods, and the church-appointed therapist doesn’t seem to know much at all. Through the first act, the Darling family trades scripture for sentiment as Rose is haunted by a demon who only seems to appear when she has impure thoughts–when she thinks about a girl’s laugh or spends a little too long staring at the pretty stranger sitting on the field. When she realizes that some of her memories are missing, she breaks into Dr. Smith’s records and finds her name on the list of kids who attended Camp Damascus, Rose becomes obsessed with finding the truth.
Rose is an incredibly compelling narrator who surrounds herself with found family and freedom fighters. She is deliberately written as autistic in a way that feels immediately recognizable and understandable, even for folks who are not on the spectrum. Her constant refrains, her curiosity, her obsessions, all of these little hallmarks of her personality make her very sympathetic. She is, however, a relatively straightforward protagonist. While she is pulled along by the plot (mainly driven by homophobic persecution, gaslighting, and literal embodiments of evil), there is very little gray area to her story. She is an abused, queer autistic girl, and there is not much done to complicate her good guy status.
Tingle is incredibly precise when depicting real-world horrors; the use of religion as a cudgel for obedience, the emotional manipulation of a family who does not want you to be queer, the struggle to reconcile the truth of yourself with the image that people have of you. These scenes resonate in a reader, deftly turning the mundane horrific, and undermining the status quo that everyone around Rose seems to strive for. It is a fantastic sabotage, and allows us to fully support Rose’s decisions to change, even when there’s a cost.
While there are many moments that feel designed to pull at your heartstrings— especially if you’re queer and have lived experience that aligns with the kind of religious abuse and familial gaslighting that this book depicts—there is an underlying restraint to Camp Damascus. It’s clever and terrifying, but with Tingle’s earnest dedication to happy endings, even if there’s a cost, Camp Damascus is a very light kind of horror that refuses to let the bad guys win in any significant capacity. The horror and pain exist here, but neither push the boundaries of queer horror. It also lacks the nimble and frenetic mania of Tingle’s Straight, a novella that was very much without the kind of hesitation that traditional publishing might have imposed on Camp Damascus. The book is tame and its teeth filed down, if it had any to begin with.
The sincerity, almost saccharine in its ending, is also Camp Damascus’ greatest strength. Tingle has crafted a book that is easy to enjoy because it’s direct, single-minded, and deeply reflects the queer experiences of its author and main character. It is neat and tidy, and not at all what I expected from Tingle. While there is some messiness, I greatly enjoyed the whole book and would happily recommend the novel.
Camp Damascus exemplifies a horror story with an uncomplicated moral compass, making it easy to devour, and a clear extension of the positivity and wonder that Tingle himself radiates online. While Camp Damascus loses some of the weird in the process, it is a delightfully tingly book: just scary enough to be horror, but not so stomach-churning that it would turn people off the writing. Turning people on is, in fact, what its author does best.
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