REVIEW: Camp Damascus by Chuck Tingle

Last Updated on June 19, 2023

Camp Damascus did not begin where I expected it to. The title and blurb suggest it might be set in a conversion camp that is hiding even more than the usual. On the contrary, very little of the active storyline actually happens in Camp Damascus. We join the first-person POV main character of Rose as she approaches her high school graduation, trying to enjoy a normal summer in the town of Neverton, where she has been raised in the faith of evangelical, strict, and staunchly patriarchal sect Kingdom of the Pine.

Cover for Camp Damascus by Chuck TingleBefore we continue, I will give you some content warnings for both the book content and, by dint of reviewing said book, this review. This book features themes on the persecution of LGBTQIA+ people, I mention the real-world parallels here, there’s religious cults, mentions of and implications of the torture of LGBT youth (including children) and extreme conversion therapy with a supernatural twist. If you’re not feeling up to it right now, keep yourself safe; there’s no obligation to read on.

Rose enjoys spending time with her friend Martina and finds her company electrifying but she’s not gay. Absolutely not. No way. Rose’s parents are trying to set her up with friend Isaiah (a fellow Kingdom kid), who she has no interest in that way. Chuck Tingle’s method of queer-coding Rose as a young, in-denial lesbian is both clever and powerful. As readers, we can see what’s going on but Rose herself is – as yet – none the wiser. She also feels neurodiverse in how Tingle has written her, and other neurodiverse folk will be able to home in on this.

Frightening, odd things start to happen when she thinks of Martina; a dishevelled, hunched woman with elongated fingers starts to appear. She’s wearing a red uniform. While daydreaming after seeing a Camp Damascus commercial on the television, the dishevelled woman appears in Rose’s home, charging at her, before hiding in a closet. Awoken by Rose’s screams, her parents exchange worried-yet-knowing glances as they open the closet to reveal it empty.

Something feels very wrong, as if the whole wide world is in on some joke that I’m completely oblivious to.

Not long after this encounter, Rose’s close friend Martina meets a grizzly fate at the hands of the madwoman stalking Rose. In her deepest grief, she believes this woman to be a demon – attached to her for reasons she doesn’t understand. On a late night drive, Rose encounters another demon, this time a man with the same haggard appearance and red uniform. Attempting to run him down with her car causes a severe crash. While she escapes the demon, Rose ends up hospitalised on a hefty dose of opioids. This is when the veil begins to drop. She was at Camp Damascus, she remembers now, and they attached the demon to her. A demon that comes to punish her if she even thinks about another woman in that way.

It’s hardly the worst thing organized religion has come up with.

What follows is Rose’s quest to recover her memories, her friendships, and a lost love by dismantling what Kingdom of the Pine has built in Camp Damascus. Seeking out other former camp-goers attracts unwanted attention, and she risks being dragged back to the camp and her memories erased again.

Along the way, Rose begins to accept what has happened to her and the reason behind it: she’s gay. She walks away from her parents, her religion, and searches for meaning elsewhere before ultimately carrying out her plan to destroy the camp and free everyone else who has ever been affected by it.

There’s nothing deviant about me.

Chuck Tingle has pulled together a very clever horror in Camp Damascus that exposes some raw fears for the queer community that can be universally understood. Torture, brainwashing, and death are real-life occurrences for some LGBTQIA+ youth in more than just America. While some of Rose’s journey may be tough reading, it is worth the commitment and, it is cathartic. As a queer person in the 21st Century, some of us could do with a bit of cathartic revenge. And, as it turns out, demons don’t care if you’re gay, but they’re not fans of fascist child-abusers.

Forcing bigoted views on others and ramming them through a destructive system of conversion therapy, however, appears to be a massive transgression.

4/5

For support if you have experience of conversion therapies, please take a look at the below:

Read Camp Damascus by Chuck Tingle

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Rai Furniss-Greasley

Rai Furniss-Greasley

Rai is an avid SFF fan, with a leaning towards the darker stuff, and has been ever since they were a little kid. Rai lives with their partner and two cats, Noomi and Scout. They work in IT and are also a post-grad researcher into non-binary experiences. Besides reading, Rai enjoys walking, gardening, TV & films, and gaming, where they are a co-host of The Offline Gamer. Rai posts reviews and other bookish content on their site, https://aspectsof.me , where you can also find some of their own fiction writing.