★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Written by Mike Thorn.
Written by Mike Thorn, 2021’s Shelter of the Damned is that perfectly constructed coming of age story that terrifyingly dissects the most awkward period in our lives. Not that being a pock-marked youngster is bad enough, the Shelter of the Damned trucks in a health dose of alternate reality in the form of a vast and timeless hellscape.
Shelter of the Damned follows a tight band of high school dudes as they navigate social structures, the perverse want to smoke cigarettes, clumsy glances at girls, and a myriad of parenting styles and demands. The trio made up of Mark, Scott, and Adam — almost inexplicably set in 2003 — falls upon an ethereal shack in the middle of their suburban geography. Seeking a quiet and off-the-beaten path location to surreptitiously sneak a smoke, the trio curiously takes up the shack as a welcoming respite from their troubled teen realities.
While the trio of Mark, Scott, and Adam and their adolescent ways are exceptionally routine, the shack is anything but. After their first visit their passing interests to find an out of the way smoking hang begins to unfold a vast and obsessive nightmare.
While Mark eventually becomes the true protagonist, Thorn does a wonderful job at slowly unpacking each of the boy’s foibles and parenting associations. As we’ve all experienced some have pleasant parents and relationships and some do not. Mark’s difficulties are a tepid combination of parental indifference and maladjusted rage. He’s a fighter, he’s a smoker, he’s trouble. He’s the perfect vessel for an unknown entity from an unknown dimension to sink their snake-like claws in to.
Each step Mark takes to try and work through his teen surroundings is quickly undone by this otherworldly presence hissing and howling the repetitious phrase “you/I/we you/I/we you” punctuated with the simple and chilling “…kill.” Mark’s already shaky grasp on the complexities of his high school years is pummeled with grisly visions and voices. While he vacillates in and out of reality only one thing keeps him grounded — the shack (AKA: the Shelter of the Damned).
Along his travails Mark is also forced to confront an issue even more complex than unknown entities from unknown dimensions, love. As he becomes smitten with his classmate Madeline, she’s able to see past his hardened nicotine sheen and becomes his unwitting ally. She’s entirely uncertain why she’s drawn to Mark’s dark magnetism, but she inherently knows that love will prevail and they will do what it takes to unmask the shack.
While the temptation for the novel to go to the darker and weirder side of Lovecraftian horror is certainly there, Thorn opts for a more approachable and relatable story that harkens back some of our worst collective teen fears. In telling a story that’s been told before Thorn is able bring us all in to the fold through an awkward first love and recall these difficult years.
The third act of the Shelter of the Damned has the potential to devolve in to a Marvel super-hero punching and kicking soirée, but it definitely doesn’t. The final 30+ pages of the book are paced with a furious intensity that follow Mark and his need defeat this ethereal beastie. Packed with excitement, tension, and oddly empathy and kindness, the Shelter of the Damned ends in a gruesome and horrifying climax.
Trust us, you’ll definitely want to stick around until the end.
Shelter of the Damned — ISBN: 978-1-950306-60-5