Chuck Tingle's new queer Christian horror novel Camp Damascus is genuinely terrifying

Camp Damascus is a brand new novel from Tor Nightfire, the horror wing of Macmillan's Tor imprint, that tells the terrifying tale of a queer autistic girl who's literally haunted by the demons of her time spent at a brutal gay conversion camp run by Christian cultists. It's also written by Chuck Tingle, the pseudonymous author who's perhaps better known as the prolific writer of wacky speculative gay erotica short stories such as Space Raptor Butt InvasionBigfoot Pirates Haunt My BallsPounded in the Butt By My Own ButtSlammed In The Butthole By My Concept Of Linear TimePounded In The Butt By The Sentient Manifestation Of My Own Ignorant Climate Change Denial, and of course, the classic Pounded In The Butt By My Book "Pounded In The Butt By My Book 'Pounded In The Butt By My Book "Pounded In The Butt By My Book 'Pounded In The Butt By My Own Butt'"'".

This is an important detail to address. Because Camp Damascus is very, very different from those other books. Yes, they all deal with queer characters. Yes, Tingle's writing style in this new book is similar to the prose you'd find in, say, Bisexual Mothman Mailman Makes A Special Delivery In Our Butts. It also wouldn't be fair to say that Camp Damascus is more "serious" than Tingle's other writing. But it is certainly a departure from his other work. It was certainly a bold move for a Top 5 publisher like Macmillan to take on a writer of Tingle's reputation (and I say that as an unapologetic fan of his for years). But in this case, it paid off: Camp Damascus feels like a fantastic debut, and a subtle reinvention, and a proper evolution, all at once. It's also just a really good horror novel.

Here's the basic setup:

Welcome to Neverton, Montana: home to a God-fearing community with a heart of gold.

Nestled high up in the mountains is Camp Damascus, the self-proclaimed "most effective" gay conversion camp in the country. Here, a life free from sin awaits. But the secret behind that success is anything but holy.

And they'll scare you straight to hell.

I love this plot description because it's simple and accurate and sets your expectations well. At the same time, Tingle finds clever ways to subvert his own setup numerous times in ways that feel like literary jump-scares of their own. It's the kind of book that pulls the rug out from underneath you halfway through in a genuinely thrilling way. You go into the book expecting one thing, waiting to reach the promise of the premise (the eponymous "Camp Damascus"), only to realize — to your horror — that you were looking for the wrong thing all along. It's not a "twist," per se; but it does feel like you're searching for the monster, while the monster's right behind you, and you know that the audience has been yelling at the screen the whole time, but you still can't really hear it, until it's too late. I don't want to say much more than that, in hopes of preserving the thrill. Tingle walks a delicate balancing act here, and pulls it off impressively well.

It's also incredibly refreshing to read a horror story with a central character who is neurodivergent. Rose, the narrator and protagonist of the story, is autistic, and that diagnosis is central to the story. Tingle himself is autistic, and he does a fantastic job of crafting Rose's perspective on the world, while illustrating how her autism is both a boon, and something that can make it difficult for her to move through the world. It's clear early on that Rose's autism diagnosis was weaponized by the Christian community she lives in as a means of belittling and gaslighting her. The experience of these seemingly well-intentioned people patronizing her is its own sort of painfully pedestrian horror. And it's absolutely heartbreaking as Rose begins to realize that the things about herself that she's been taught are shameful and troublesome could in fact be a benefit in their own ways. Rose's autism is not the problem; the problem is that her community isn't built to consider her autism.

It's an experience that's tragically familiar to anyone who's neurodivergent or physically disabled. And when Rose finds a community that does embrace those qualities of herself? That feels real and lived in, too.

That being said, some readers may be initially put-off by the rhythms of Rose's first-person, present-tense prose. It can feel clunky or awkward at times, especially as her narration hyper-fixates on certain details at the expense of others. There can be moments where it can feel overly internal. But I'd argue that this fits with the character, and if you're willing to just give yourself to the storytelling, the clunkiness swiftly disappears and just pulls you along into Rose's experience. And I think that's a mark of great storytelling.

Of course, the hyper-realistic gaslighting of Rose's autism and queerness aren't the only horrifying aspects of Camp Damascus. This isn't just a book about cruel Christian cultists (though there's plenty of that). Tingle has also come up with a unique demonic flavor that eerily subverts a lot of the genre tropes of sleepaway camp horror, and general Christian horror. Think The Exorcist but … the opposite, in a way? Let's just say the approach to possession and demons is delightfully clever, and leads to some grotesquely shocking body horror, and some very exciting, fist-punch-the-air action sequences.

It feels like a back-handed compliment to say that Camp Damascus is a genuinely great horror story, as if it implies that Tingle's other work is somehow lesser. That's not the case. But it is definitely a great book, and I'm glad that Tingle, Tor, and Tingle's agent, DongWon Song, were able to usher it into existence.

Camp Damascus [Chuck Tingle / Tor Nightfire]