Title: The Children of Red Peak
Author: Craig DiLouie
After years of outrunning the past, David Young now drove straight toward it.
Fifteen years ago, the members of the Family of the Living Spirit committed mass suicide after months of torture and near starvation. Only five kids survived that fatal night, but the trauma they experienced still haunts them to this day.
Now Emily is dead as well. She committed suicide, after sending each of her friends a note to tell them that she couldn’t fight it anymore. David, Deacon and Beth get together for the funeral. They all coped differently with their trauma, finding solace and safety in family, music, or career. As they share their stories and memories of that time, they come to understand that there’s only a way to really leave the past behind them: go back to Red Peak, where their world ended fifteen years ago, and finally find out the truth of what happened.
A closer look
I wouldn’t have classified this book as horror. Yes, there are a couple of horrifying scenes, but if you’re going into it expecting to have nightmares and experience chilling, blood-curdling horror, then you came to the wrong place. This ended up reading more like an existentialist tale than a horror story, at least for me.
I also didn’t love the way this book was written. I liked the way the story played with timelines, moving back and forth from present to past and back again, but I didn’t care nearly as much for the present timeline, and there were a few descriptions that started to sound repetitive after the third or fourth time. Even the characters were not that good in my opinion: I liked them when they were children, but their adult counterparts felt more like blueprints than real people. I couldn’t get myself to care for them.
And the ending. The ending took everything that was good in this book, stacked it into a nice pile, and set it on fire.
But let’s take a step back.
The story is told in alternating sections by all three of the main characters, and they all have different enough voices and beliefs.
The book opens with David Young, driving to her childhood friend’s funeral. Emily has given up at last, after years of struggling to forget the past – or maybe to understand it.
David has struggled as well: he became an exit counselor for people who are part of cults and want to get out, or families who want to help loved ones to get back to a normal life. He also has two lovely children to whom he devotes almost all of his free time and energy. But the shadows of his past are never far from his mind, and even his wife doesn’t know about it.
He is the denier of the group: he was hiding in a closet that night, and even though his friends claim to have seen something supernatural, he’s convinced that it was some form of mass hallucination. He wants nothing to do with Red Peak.
Deacon Price is the angsty musician: he keeps reliving the past and his pain to fuel his creative self in a self-destructive cycle, over and over again. The songs he writes are his way to keep going, to transform his pain into something else and let it out. He grew up with the Family when it was still a loving and joyful group, and he tried to justify their actions even when he stopped understanding them. He now lives following the mottoes and quotes he has tattooed all over his arms as reminders.
And then there’s Beth Harris, the cynic one: she can’t remember much about that night, her memories buried deep in her subconscious mind, but she keeps going back to it as if she were picking at a scab.
She is a psychologist, and the most analytical of the group. The reason she’s studied the brain and its workings has more to do with a desire of understanding her own self, than helping others. At times she feels like she’s been left behind on that last night, and she keeps wondering if she hasn’t made a mistake after all. Her pristine apartment is her attempt to maintain control over something she can’t begin to understand, and the red wine she so likes is the only thing that helps her turn off the critical part of her brain.
I’m not qualified to talk about the depiction of trauma and coping mechanisms represented here. What I can say is that I liked David more than the others, if only because I could understand his point of view a little bit better. Deacon was too intense at times and too detached at others; and Beth was mostly thinking about her red wine, and then talking about her job. While I appreciate the attempt at explaining a bit of the psychology behind her therapy options, I feel like the dialogues in which Beth and her colleague talk about them and explain them back and forth to each other were really not realistic. It would have made more sense if they were explained to one of the other characters.
What this book did pretty well in my opinion was keeping the reader interested in the mystery. I didn’t care that much about the characters, but I was curious about how the Family, who started out as a Christian farming community, became a proper doomsday cult and ended up the way it did. The parts set in the past were what kept me going most of all.
I didn’t care about David’s absent behaviour toward his wife, or Deacon’s concept album about cults, or Beth’s sad love life. I cared about the children they had been; I cared about the idyllic life they were living before they moved to Red Peak and it became akin to a nightmare. The snippets and hints that we get as we follow the protagonists in their recollection of the past were the most interesting parts, at least until we catch up with that last night. Because this is where it all fell apart for me.
The characters finally decide to go back to Red Peak, just as they had been teasing almost from the start of the story. We’re now in the last quarter of the book, though, so there’s just enough time to end it with a bang after a meandering middle part. I have to say, at this point I still held a little hope that the ending would surprise me and make me rethink my opinion of the story. And it kind of did, but sadly not in a good way.
The ending felt rushed, the characters became sappy, and the revelation was a big disappointment. There are hints that something supernatural may have been going on all along on Red Peak, but they way this element played out in the ending took away from the horror of the story instead of adding to it. Of course this is only my opinion, and a lot of people have enjoyed the book just fine or absolutely loved it, so don’t take my word as the Truth. If it sounds interesting to you, go for it.
To sum it up: I liked the premise of it, and I’m always intrigued when a story promises a mystery that may or may not be of supernatural nature; I wished we had spent more time exploring the protagonists’ past instead of their present, and I also wish it was more focused on the cult and the horror.