The Damned Place by Chris Miller
Publisher: Black Bed Sheet Books | Release Date: July 6, 2019 | Pages: 582
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Prior to starting in on The Damned Place, I had read an interview in which author Chris Miller discussed his inspiration for this novel being equal parts Stranger Things and Stephen King’s IT. Frankly, it shows, particularly during the first twenty-five percent or so as Miller sets up his story. It takes him a while to escape from the shadows of those inspirations, but once he does, The Damned Place is a pretty effective bit of 90s-set coming-of-age horror.
In the woods of suburban Texas lies an old wooden shack. Ryan’s father went hunting in those woods and came out a raving lunatic ranting about shadows. The father’s friend, though, never made it out at all. When Ryan and his buddies, Jimmy, Freddy, and Honey, are playing in the woods, a trio of bullies torment them and force them to flee deeper into the woods, into the cabin. It’s there that the friends stumble into another world, and their lives are changed forever.
There’s a lot about The Damned Place that feels overly familiar, particularly the plucky band of young kids being the subject of ire for high school bullies, and the powers that Jimmy eventually displays. The alternate world the the kids flee into feels an awful lot like Stranger Things’ Upside Down, and Jimmy’s powers are very Eleven-esque (although since this is set in the 90s, Jimmy’s eventual understanding of his powers and what they are is actually pretty darn funny), and the dynamic between the kids and their bullies is very much a riff on IT’s The Losers Club. On the prose front, it’s a bit bloated and over-written, with too much repetition and unnecessary scenes that should have been cut. There were a number of times where I couldn’t quite quell my inner editor, mentally shortening sentences and trimming away some of the fat here, particularly regarding a wholly unneeded chapter dedicated to introducing a sump pump repairman who saves the life of one of the boys early-on, and is never heard from again. It’s a single chapter, but one that exists simply because (presumably) the author knows stuff about sump pumps and is entirely irrelevant to the story. The whole point of this chapter could have been simply summed up in a tiny bit of dialogue and brought readers to the same point, and a hell of a lot quicker, too. Miller also has a frustrating habit, especially early on, of setting up an action scene only to derail all the built-up tension and grind everything to a sudden halt with lengthy backstory. To complicate matters, much of that backstory ends up being repeated several times thereafter.
Despite these issues, there is actually quite a lot to enjoy here and Miller eventually finds his footing pretty solidly. Where The Damned Place really separates itself from those works that inspired it is in the measure of extremes Miller is willing to take his characters.
The Damned Place isn’t as interested in nostalgia as either IT or Stranger Things, but it is very much interested in being as dark and brutal as all get out. Jake Reese and his buddy Bart aren’t interested in just being bullies — these dudes are freaking psychopaths on the road to becoming hardcore killers. What begins as an alleyway beating of one of the younger boys by Jake and his gang nearly ends in murder, and that’s just the beginning of their descent into depravity. There’s a very deep seediness to this book, particularly as it relates to the bullies, and The Damned Place is filled with incest, gay slurs, animal mutilation, attempted rape, torture, and violence.
There’s also monsters of the non-human kind, in the form of The Glutton, who exists on the other side of reality and lives to eat entire populations. We get his background in an extended section of the book that gives us the full history of the run-down cabin and the family that lived there nearly a century before. It’s a section that I absolutely adored and wanted more of. In fact, it was hands-down one of the strongest segments of the book, next to a powerful climax that absolutely revels in throwing all its characters through the meat grinder in a hellacious battle for survival. It’s mighty gripping, chock full of suspense and gore.
Although Miller initially seems overly reverential to other works that have fired up his imagination, he does do a good job of introducing some new concepts and tonal differences to make The Damned Place an enjoyable, although certainly not always pleasant, read that stands on its own. He also sets up a sequel that promises to take this book’s survivors into some interesting realms, and I’m pretty eager to see where this story is headed. Overall, this is a pretty decent read, but one that could have benefited from some deeper editing and a bit more originality. If you’re looking for a dark and far more adult-oriented riff on Hawkins, Indiana you might want to swing by The Damned Place.