Despite the assertions that Craig DiLouie’s novel The Children of Red Peak is a “genuinely unsettling psychological horror novel” and “a chilling tale of horror”, I wouldn’t call this book horror or even psychological suspense. It’s really more a family drama, a story of the after effects of trauma. Make no mistake, though, the trauma is real.
Deacon, Beth and David have reunited to attend the funeral of their childhood friend, Emily, who has taken her own life. These four, along with David’s older sister, Angela, were the only survivors of a terrible mass suicide which took place on Red Peak. But before Red Peak, there was Tehachapi, which is where David and Angela’s mother takes them after her husband leaves them because “Everybody at the community lives in harmony with each other and God. I want to be surrounded by people who love me no matter what and won’t hurt me just because they can.”
Sounds ideal, which is the appeal of most cults, I guess. Angela and David are skeptical, but David eventually settles into life in the valley where isolation from society, and a steady diet of hard work, fresh air and religious doctrine from the leader of the Family of the Living Spirit, Jeremiah Peale, slowly wins him over.
The Reverend founded the Family after the 9/11 attacks, which he interpreted as a sign. History was coming to an end, and Jesus was on his way back after being gone two thousand years. He didn’t know the exact time and date of Christ’s return, only that he was certain it would happen. After all, Jesus had promised he’d come back, it said so right in the Bible, and the Bible never lied.
DiLouie wisely flips between past and present, and in doing so strings out the mystery of what happened to the Family. We see the bond forged by the main characters when they were kids and we see what their lives have become as adults (Deacon is a musician who writes his trauma into his songs; Beth is a psychologist; David helps people exit cults; Angelais a cop). It is apparent, though that these adults, all four suffer from PTSD which they cope with by either starting their day with a glass of Cab Sav or ignoring their past completely. Emily’s suicide, though, necessitates a return to the time and place where all was lost.
Cults are fascinating, and the Family is no different. It’s a doomsday cult and when Jeremiah visits Red Peak and comes back to the valley with news that the end is nigh, his followers are excited at the prospect of eternal life. This is what they’ve been longing for. I think the novel does a good job of examining the religious doctrine and hysteria that might cause this wholesale belief in an afterlife. I did think that there might be something else going on at Red Peak that was never really explored, and so for that reason I found the novel’s dénouement sort of anti-climactic.
So, while not a horror novel and not – for me at least – scary, I still found The Children of Red Peak a quick and interesting read with characters I did care about.