Book Review: Devil’s Creek by Todd Keisling

“[Keisling] has received praise from some fans of the indie horror scene, but it is time that all horror fans knew his name, thanks to the universal appeal of Devil’s Creek, a masterpiece of horror fiction.”

 

Devil's Creek by Todd Keisling - coverA horror author and graphic designer from Kentucky, Todd Keisling is the author of six novels and one collection of short stories. His second novel, The Liminal Man (Precipice Books, 2012—book two in the Monochrome Trilogy, which will be rereleased in its entirety by Bloodshot Books in 2021) was a finalist for a 2013 Indie Book Award in Horror and Suspense and two of his earlier works were recipients of the University of Kentucky’s Oswald Research & Creativity Prize for Creative Writing in 2002 and 2005. His graphic design work has featured on the covers of books from noteworthy independent presses such as Flame Tree Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, Nightscape Press and many more. His latest novel has been described as his magnum opus, and is arguably one of his most personal.

Devil’s Creek takes place in the small town of Stauford, Kentucky, and is loosely based on the small towns of Keisling’s youth. We are immediately introduced to the religious commune that exists on the outskirts, led by the oppressive Father Jacob Masters, as a group of six grand-parents race to Calvary Hill and the Lord’s Church of Holy Voices to save their grandchildren. It soon becomes clear that Father Jacob is worshipping a far different deity than the typical Christian version, and he has fathered six children with six different mothers to offer as sacrificial lambs.

All of the above takes place in a fast-paced “part one”, all of the action occurring in 1983, with each of the children aged about six-years old. Keisling quickly sets the scene for the catalyst of the whole story, and cleverly bridges the gap of the intervening years with excerpts from the journal of one of the rescuers, Imogene Tremly, as well as excerpts from a local newspaper, covering the gripping story of that night, and the fates of the “Stauford Six”, the children. It brings us up to the present day when Imogene’s grandson—and our protagonist—Jack, arrives back in town to settle her estate. He is a successful artist who drew inspiration from his traumatic childhood at the hands of his father, Jacob, to create nightmarish scenes. And he wants nothing more than to get in and out as quickly as possible, reluctant to dredge up long-buried memories or take a trip down memory lane with any of his five half-siblings who never left Stauford.

While Jack is the main protagonist of the story, time is given to each of his half-siblings (shock jock Stephanie, lawyer Chuck, reverend Bobby, troubled Susan and meth addict Zeke) to develop them as characters and reveal the part they will play in the bigger terrifying story. Keisling does an excellent job of this, weaving each character’s strand together so that, when we leave one sibling to focus on another, we are never taken out of the story. And there is no danger of returning to a character’s arc to find we can’t remember what is happening. Exactly how much planning went into how the individual chapters were plotted and how they all came together to form the bigger picture is hard to know without asking the author, but it is clear that a great deal of work went into the structure, as well as the character development. Even secondary characters are fully realised to give the town of Stauford the perfect texture.

The longer Jack stays in town and the more he interacts with his siblings, going over their shared trauma, the more we learn about the town and its dark past. It soon becomes clear that Father Jacob, dead since that fateful night in 1983, along with all but one of his followers (Jack’s mother survived, only to be incarcerated in a psychiatric facility), isn’t finished with his children, the town of Stauford, or his dark master. But then, neither is Imogene (affectionately referred to as Mamaw Genie) as Jack, using her journal, uncovers more about her past and what she knew about Jacob’s nefarious plans. The evil that consumed Jacob begins to infect the town, in gleefully gruesome scenes reminiscent of Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, and brings the most horrible and violent aspects of the victims’ personalities to the surface in their worship of this ancient and mysterious deity. To add to the authenticity, there is even one distressing scene of racially-influenced bigotry and violence that Keisling lifted from true Kentucky history, showing that, sometimes even the best imaginations in horror fiction can’t out-do the real-life human race for true evil.

Apart from the occasional flashback or aside to shine more light on the mystery of Devil’s Creek, most of the action takes place over a few days, and this is reflected in the quick pace of the story. Every scene in every chapter, despite possibly focusing on the relationship between a main character and a secondary, or an element of the town, serves the main story as Jack—along with Chuck and Stephanie—seek to unravel the mystery and get to the truth. It is an intricate plot with layers upon layers of character development that makes for a joyous reading experience. It is reminiscent of King’s It, but with the scenes from Jack and his siblings’ childhood much more streamlined and incorporated into flashbacks, and, honestly, without any of the baggage that sometimes slowed down the older book.

Given the large cast of characters, the great detail afforded the setting, and the overarching theme of good versus evil (not to mention the drama of the familial relationships), we would be forgiven for expecting a huge doorstopper-of-a-book. However, at just over four hundred pages, it exemplifies the effort expended in constructing such a tight and intricate story. It would be reasonable to say delivering such a grand story is quite ambitious, but it is also our opinion that, not only did Keisling deliver his magnum opus, he delivered it in style. He has received praise from some fans of the indie horror scene, but it is time that all horror fans knew his name, thanks to the universal appeal of Devil’s Creek, a masterpiece of horror fiction.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Silver Shamrock Publishing
Paperback: 405 pp
Release Date: 16 June 2020

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