The book follows the five survivors of a cult who all vanished in what the world believes to be a mass suicide. But some of the survivors have memories that suggest that other forces were at work. As the fifteen-year anniversary of the tragedy approaches, one of the survivors kills herself and the remaining four have to face what they’ve been running away from.
The cover copy suggested that this was a horror novel, which I didn’t find to be the case. It reads more like a torture porn novel when we get to the scenes of the cult’s last days. I did not appreciate the awful self-mutilation scenes, and I also don’t think a lot of them would have survived stuff like getting their hand cut off when malnourished in a non-sterile environment, so it was also unrealistic enough to jar me out of the scene. I guess the back cover saying that this is his “most intense novel yet” should have been a clue, but I was expecting supernatural horror instead of relentless mutilations. The author’s acknowledgement page says that this book is “about the search for the meaning of life and the yearning for existence beyond death.” I find his search to be nihlistic and empty. I didn’t think that the vague explanations the author tried to make at the end of the book made any logical or even faith-based sense. This was like being trapped in a room with a philosophy student who is trying to turn you on to the innate darkness of the universe or something. I also found his female characters to be underdeveloped and all of the character’s viewpoints to be weak and hard to understand in general. David in particular was irritating. I understood that he was supposed to be weak-willed and afraid of everything, but it was grating.
I also really do not like the use of a throw-away “Kool-Aid joke” and the blatant rip-off of the Jonestown tragedy to be used for a cynical look at faith. The people at Jonestown did not die from drinking Kool-Aid. They were forced to drink Flavor Aid mixed with cyanide, and it was a mass forced murder that Jim Jones thrust upon innocent people, including 276 children who deserve better than to have their lives reduced to a joke in a sub-par horror novel. I recommend reading Raven or A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Jonestown for a more nuanced portrait of the tragedy that focuses on the victims of Jim Jones and what was lost. Jonestown: Terror In the Jungle is also a good TV series to watch that foregrounds the survivor’s experiences.
The fact that Craig DiLouie pushes some sort of message that struck me as pro-suicide at points disgusted me. Maybe I am being overly reductive in what he was trying to say, but the fact that three out of the five survivors end up basically killing themselves for some tenuous promise from an unknown force that struck them as evil before they went up the mountain was upsetting. The book seemed to be pushing that faith equaled doing terrible things to yourself and others on the force of weak arguments and a hope to see your loved ones again after dying. I don’t believe that, and I am a religious person. I found this vision of religion to be reductivist, empty, and death-focused, both in his use of the Binding of Isaac story as some sort of gotcha for faith, and the use of the shofar to herald everyone being raptured/killed, which I thought was insulting and weird in a book that focused so much on how Christianity is supposedly like a cult.
One star only for an effectively scary scene midway through the book. That was the only time I was creeped out, and the rest of the time I was alternately annoyed and grossed out. Highly not recommended.
Warnings for: suicide (individual and mass), mutilation, psychological torture, murder, lots of gory and gruesome scenes.