Mike Thorn’s debut novel, Shelter for the Damned, is out in digital and paperback formats, and is an absolute must-read for fans of novels like Carrie and the early catalog of John Saul.
Set against an all-too-familiar suburban backdrop, the novel centers on Mark, a teenage boy dealing with no small amount of alienation, anxiety, and pent-up rage. When he and his friends discover a mysterious shack in the middle of the woods, they decide it’ is the perfect place to hide-out and smoke.
Mark soon realizes, however, that there is a strange presence inside this shack. It is as seductive as it is hungry, and Mark is exactly the vessel it needs to sate that hunger. As his obsession grows with the feelings the shack provides him, he finds himself on a dark path to pay its even darker price.
Thorn proved himself a master storyteller in his previous short story collection Darkest Hours. In Shelter for the Damned he further underscores that talent, creating a tale that is both immediately gripping while instilling an insidious dread in his reader.
At its core, this is a character study, and one that we rarely see. Thorn forces the reader to take a good long look at the fallout of the hyper-masculine conditioning of the adolescent male, not only in the central character but also through his friends, each of whom seems to deal with it in different ways.
Adam has a temper with unpredictable bursts of violence; Scott is fastidiously clean and helpful in an attempt to avoid punishment, and Mark, well, Mark has a smart-mouth, a mean-streak, and a tendency to fight. Still there is something different about Mark. All three entered the shack, but he is the only one that exits with this fascination and attachment.
Is there something truly unique in him? Is it his anger? His frustration in not understanding his own actions? His predilection for violent confrontations? There is no clear answer, and that feeling of chance only heightens the book’s ties to reality.
The thing that really gets under this reader’s skin is that even Mark isn’t sure why he does some things. He smarts off and says callous things without even remembering what he said or did. He acts without thinking and is stunned by the consequences. After a while, it becomes second nature to tense whenever he makes the inevitable bad choice.
I wanted him to do better. I wanted him to be better. I wanted him to resist the shack’s influence, and the tension created in that desire was palpable as the book rushed to its inevitably ambiguous conclusion.
For those who think that all of this sounds boring , let me reassure you that Thorn does all of this character work while still telling a compelling, gore-drenched, terrifying story, especially toward the end when he tiptoes over the line into something more cosmic than I was first expecting.
Now, while I thoroughly loved this book, there were things that I thought could have used just a little more polish. I love an ambiguous ending, but I would have liked to know just a bit more about the shack’s origins. It reminded me of reading Lovecraft. There is an evil that is evil because it is evil. There is merit in this, but I would have preferred a little more fleshed-out explanation. You don’t have to tell me everything, but give me just a little more.
It also takes a little while for the full action of the story to begin. However, to this second point, once the story is underway, it does not slow down. Think of it like a slingshot. Thorn takes his time, taking precise aim, ensuring there is just enough tension, then sends the reader hurtling toward his target.
Shelter of the Damned is published by Journalstone. You can pick up a copy by CLICKING HERE!