Book: Camp Damascus
Author: Chuck Tingle
Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Synopsis : “Welcome to Everton, 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.”
Review : I’ve been a little hesitant to review Camp Damascus because, well, I didn’t like it very much. Structurally, I couldn’t find much fault with it, even for a review copy. There were few errors and the narrative flowed well enough, at least for a middle grade read, which I don’t necessarily find this to be, but it was written that way, so it appears it may be. I’ve struggled with how to review this book knowing that it isn’t bad, but also feeling strongly that it doesn’t move the cultural narrative forward or do any work to provide any kind of cultural healing. Maybe that’s too much to put onto a book, frankly it’s what’s kept me from being able to concisely put my words onto the page, maybe I’m asking too much of a book like this. But Tingle himself said something in the note to the reader that makes me think that maybe it isn’t too much, maybe it’s just enough : “Currently, there are conversion therapy camps working hard to strip the personalities and inner truths from thousands of queer youths. These camps see one’s identity as something that can be ground down and chiseled away, creating a new and improved version of something that was never broken to being with. This barbaric attempt to crush the glorious reality of young LGBTQ people needs to end. It’s my hope that Camp Damascus can be a voice in the choir of artists and writers standing up to shout “no more”.”
Camp Damascus follows a 20-year-old autistic girl named Rose as she begins to unravel her known reality, living within the confines of a small town whose population largely attends church who hosts what’s known as the nation’s most effective conversion camp, boasting a 100% success rate. Early on, Rose notes that the commercials for Camp Damascus don’t have a need to hire actors because of their extremely high success rate, however no one that she knows who she’s spotted in the commercials have any recollection of having ever being participants at Camp Damascus. Tingle weaves a web of confusion and strangeness right out of the gate, creating a book that is immediately a horror novel, with Rose vomiting up piles of strange mayfly type bugs, witnessing a horrifying visage anytime she begins to feel anything that may resemble same-sex attraction (though this connection isn’t made clear to Rose until part-way through the book), and some bizarre breaks in reality where she remembers things as being other than they are.
Rose begins to tug at the thread of strangeness, unraveling the world around her, and in doing so she begins to lose her faith. As the object of her affection is murdered by what she grows to learn is a demon and her reality becomes more and more skewed, Camp Damascus becomes more and more of a supernatural horror / thriller. Rose grows to learn that she was, in fact, a former conversion therapy camp attendee, having had a previous relationship with another girl named Willow, but having little to no recollection of the relationship and absolutely no memory of attending the camp. Because she’s driven by the need to know more and more information, to structure her world into a way that makes sense, Rose is able to begin to parse what’s happening and methodically works her way through people who’ve been to Camp Damascus before, hoping to understand why they’re all witnessing demons and barfing up flies. Rose finds solace in a friend from camp (though she doesn’t remember him), Saul, and together they plot to take down Camp Damascus and help save those who’ve been through the program and have subsequently lost their memories and found themselves tethered to a demon.
The point of the demonic tethering in Camp Damascus is to bring about something truly terrifying and out of alignment with reality anytime the tethered human experiences any form of same-sex attraction, pushing them to avoid the feeling or avoid the person who has lead them to “sin”. While the concept is true of conversion therapy, the execution is obviously made-up, but it is in this execution that I find the biggest flaws with the book. Tingle is attempting to draw a parallel to the fear that Christianity uses to convert, “fire insurance” if you will, by using literal demons in his book as a means of fear based conversion. In Rose’s research, though, she’s able to determine that the Demons are real beings from another, perhaps alternate, world. They can walk through walls and disappear at will, but they are flesh and blood like people. She gets a glimpse at real deal hell, as well, and is able to see exactly how the demons torture humans who sin. It’s here that I take the most issue. Rose loses her faith because she finds what the church is doing to be completely out of alignment with the idea of love and salvation, but the prospect of real hell continues to exist for her. I think by continuing to draw lines to the idea of fear through hell being a real place really does a disservice to what Tingle and other authors are clearly trying to do. If Christians are using fear to convert and fear to turn anyone who identifies as other into their perfect idea of a “sinless” human, then Tingle is no different by (spoilers ahead) having the demons drag bigoted church members to literal hell in the end of the book.
While I believe Tingle is making a point to show that being gay isn’t a sin, by allowing for hell to be a real place and for the demons to really be torturing humans who sin, his work no longer moves the cultural narrative forward. I believe that Tingle’s book comes from a place of anger, and rightfully so, particularly as a member of the LGBTQ community. Tingle has every right to be angry. He even has every right to write a book out of that anger. BUT if Tingle wants to join the growing chorus of voices saying “no more” then I think the chorus of voices needs to create spaces for forward movement and instead what he’s done is create a space of convoluted anger and continued fear that by acting certain ways we’ll be dragged to hell and tortured for eternity. I think this book missed the mark in terms of saying “no more” and bringing spaces of healing and momentum toward something different and better into the world. Rather, Tingle perpetuated the idea of a literal Christian hell and continued to create spaces of fear and fear-based conversion (though, not conversion in the conversion camp sense), and to me that makes this book disappointing and sad, no different than movies that perpetuate the fear we have over war and disease during times of war and disease. I think collectively we need spaces where we can grapple with what cultural reality looks like, but (and this is coming from someone who has not been through conversion camp, so take my opinion with a grain of salt) I don’t think this was quite it.
Advice : If you like horror, particularly supernatural horror, you will probably find this fairly enjoyable. If you have any form of religious trauma or trauma surrounding conversion therapy, I would steer clear of this one. Although, it’s possible you may find it cathartic – but I think there are definite themes that would be potentially triggering to those with PTSD, so bear that in mind. It was a miss for me, but if you love horror it may be a hit for you.