The Red Church
Pinnacle Books / Kensington Publishing
US Mass Market Paperback
Publication Date: 06-01-2002
352 Pages; $5.99
Date Reviewed: 04-22-03
Reviewed by Rick Kleffel © 2003
Horror is the original faith-based fiction. Part of its impact, part of its strength, part of its shock value comes from seeing our faith tested, found wanting and eventually redeemed. Now obviously, 'faith' can cover a lot of ground. Scott Nicholson knows apparently knows that ground well, and he's able to write well about it. 'The Red Church' offers all the pleasures of superior supernatural horror novels. Nicholson creates a small town with conviction and attention to detail. His cast of characters is small enough so that he's not overwhelmed with point-of-view changes, and each character comes to convincing emotional life. He's created a very nice twist on the old Christian mythos. He offers just enough familiarity to those who read and love the genre to make them feel down-home welcome. But most importantly, he packs this novel with all sorts of faith-based creations, from his chthonic creatures to his sons of troubled families. He brings a quiet conviction to all his work that gives the novel a subtle power.
'The Red Church' is about all sorts of revivals, Christian and Lovecraftian. As the novel starts, Archer McFall has returned to the small Appalachian town of Barkerville. He's going to start a congregation in the Red Church, where his ancestor was hung after performing a child sacrifice. The townspeople take this surprisingly well. But when people start dying, Sheriff Frank Littlefield, skeptical deputy Sheila Storie, the Day Family and the rest of the town find themselves slouching towards a two-Christ apocalypse.
For all the familiarity of the story and the setting, Nicholson excels by paying attention to detail and keeping his focus on the small cast of characters. I wish he'd paid more attention to the white trash of the town, the Abshers and the Buchanans. Their dry-as-dirt proclamations in the face of impending evil are tiny highlights in this novel. It's the sort of thing that makes the faith-based fun that follows funnier and more believable. But the demands of the plot require that the wrecked-car-on-the-lawn set stay in the background, and the author's other characters are very well-realized. In particular, David Day is a nice touch, not the usual bookish prodigal son returned, but a down-home guy who knows how to handle a gun.
With faith as a theme, Nicholson's vision of a family splintered by one member's induction into a religious cult becomes an important lynch pin. He handles it very well, showing how unfettered belief in the next world tends to distract one from the importance of this world. The family dynamics of the rapidly unraveling Days are shown through the eyes of Ronnie, who is drawn just a shade too nicely to be the typical troubled teenager fond in horror novels. That holds true for each of the characters. They're all created so well with understated skill that enables the writer to unleash the power of his writing rather than drawing a red line around it in case readers don't notice. Readers do notice, and this novel has the Stoker nomination to prove it.
Of course, this is a horror novel, and not just a family saga. On that count, Nicholson delivers a very nicely conceived and executed evil. He's smart enough to keep it mostly offstage until the finale, but his hints and surreal evocations will definitely keep readers ripping through the pages. 'The Red Church' is a taut novel of terror, written with enough familiarity to make it accessible to a huge number of readers and enough skill to make them want to come back for more. It's American faith-based fiction at its finest. You won't want to believe in the Temple of the Two Sons, but you will believe in Scott Nicholson.