This review was originally shared as a guest post on the Kendall Reviews site. Link to the original post is here
I’m just back from a literary escape to the town of Stauford, Kentucky, and let me tell you something: this was one unforgettable trip. If I close my eyes and listen closely, I can still hear the children singing. Their lyrics may sound holy, but beneath the surface, there’s something sinister in their sound. They’re begging me to join in on the chorus, but I know better. The only hymn I’ll be singing today is one of praise for this superb piece of horror fiction known as DEVIL’S CREEK.
We’re only four full months into the year, and I can confidently claim that this novel has a place on my Best of 2020 list. It was my introduction to Todd Keisling’s writing, and I’m blown away. There were so many things I loved about this story, but what first caught my attention was the visual aspect of the cover and the internal formatting. Both are stunning. The cover lured me in, and aside from the words within the pages, I was taken with the illustrations scattered throughout the book. The design definitely adds to the haunting atmosphere throughout the story.
DEVIL’S CREEK was tough to put down once I started. You know those reads that settle into your bones and you’re left with an ache every time you have to set them aside? This is one of those books. Keisling drops the reader right into the action from the beginning, giving us a full glimpse into the church’s history. I was hooked immediately by this flashback, and then eased right into the present-day portion of the novel, feeling like I was along for the ride as Jack made his way back home. Speaking of this, I loved reading about this character’s return to Stauford after many years away. It seems like a simple thing, but the author’s descriptions of Jack’s return really moved me. Keisling perfectly portrayed the feelings one has upon arrival in their hometown after a long absence. I loved the reminiscence and the descriptions of what it’s like to experience new growth but also decay in a place where you’ve grown up. As Jack cruises around town, the moments of nostalgia are both relatable and gripping at times. This is where those early chapters lay solid groundwork for the ultimate small-town horror experience to come.
The author tackles important topics throughout the novel, one of which is organized religion and the negative aspects that can accompany an overzealous group of people. The reader witnesses the hypocrisy, racism and bigotry that sometimes breed faster in small towns. There are clear messages in the writing, but it’s never preachy (no pun intended) and seamlessly woven into the fabric of the story. Another aspect that I loved was the slow-building dread. The author did an excellent job providing just enough nuggets of information from the characters’ past to keep me guessing about the future and flipping those pages. The excellent pacing and the setting were two main factors in the success of this story. Keisling’s descriptions of the surroundings are so well done—you don’t need to be from the south or have traveled there to feel the setting come alive. But if you have been to this region, it will only enhance your reading experience and immersion into the story. When I was a teenager, I actually traveled to southeast Kentucky one summer, with a youth group of all things (you’ll get this when you read the book), and we stayed at a campground. Having been to this region before really made the images in my mind come to life as I was reading.
This is another book that I’d love to see adapted as a film. There were so many moments that actually frightened me, and that’s a rare occurrence. Jacob Masters, the leader of the Church of Holy Voices, is as creepy as they come, especially in his later form. The description of his image and even his voice is terrifying at times. As things begin to go south in the town, the creepiness and gore intensifies, and it’s some of the best I’ve read in a while. I don’t want to give spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that and allow you to experience it firsthand. As I visualized this story in my mind, some scenes, while original to the story, were vaguely reminiscent of some favorite horror films, and I loved that aspect as well.
I’m so excited to read more of Todd Keisling’s work, and hopefully soon. Those of you who are familiar with my reviews often hear me talk about that “triple threat” of horror, humor, and heart. These are the factors that propel a read to the top of my list. If it feels authentic, I connect with the characters, and I can feel the emotions coursing through the story, then I’m sold. Sometimes the balance of these three things is not equal, but they are all there in some measure in my favorite reads. This novel has a heavy dose of horror, and it comes in both human and supernatural forms. It also has a heartbeat that carries the reader along as they experience a range of emotions—fear, anger, grief, nostalgia, and even joy at times. This one left me both haunted and exhilarated. If you’re looking for the thrill and adrenaline rush that accompanies a solid horror experience, be sure to book a trip to DEVIL’S CREEK.