Camp Damascus by Chuck Tingle
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Chuck Tingle (he's also on Bluesky, but I don't think non-invitees can see their threads yet) is the author of many self-published "Tinglers," which are (mostly) gay erotica intertwined with social commentary. This is his first traditionally published book, and while it has a few problems common to new authors, it's certainly worth reading.
This is the story of Rose Darling, a young queer autistic woman raised in a Christian fundamentalist cult, the Kingdom of the Pine. Over the course of the story, she discovers she was sent to the titular Camp Damascus, where she was subject to "conversion therapy" to attempt to eradicate her love for Willow, another young woman in their small Montana town. Only thing is, this camp, as part of its "therapy," tethers LGBTQ people to literal demons to "cure" their same-sex attraction. (Which doesn't work, of course--Rose and Willow still love each other, even when Rose can't remember who Willow is.) The "demons" are just one of the interesting aspects of this story--they're not supernatural but rather beings from another dimension who are sometimes flesh and blood and who are vulnerable to fire. This plays into the climax when Rose, Willow and their friend Saul burn down Camp Damascus and free the surviving demons, who take an appropriate revenge on the church elders who have enslaved them to use in their bogus "therapy."
Chuck Tingle is also autistic, and Rose's characterization rings true: the rhythmic movements she makes with her fingers to calm herself down and focus, the notecards she prepares with conversation topics, the curious hyper-rational way her mind works. She undergoes a convincing character arc in this story, rediscovering her sexuality and her love for Willow and discarding the cult but not her faith. The broader themes of this book are love and acceptance and sticking to who you truly are, and laying bare the horrors of weaponized religion.
The book is fairly short (only 246 pages) and the pacing is a bit uneven. Also, the ending is abrupt. I wish the author had spent a little more time on that. Still, this is a promising debut, and I'm happy to see it seems to be finding its audience.
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