DarkEcho Horror
deccoclock by Rick Berry
Book Review

The Red Church
by Scott Nicholson
Pinnacle Books/ $5.99/ 352 pages
ISBN: 0786015039 (June 2002)

Cover THE RED CHURCH offers the post-King traditional horror lover quite a bit: ghosts, monsters, a haunted church, an ancient curse, the dead rising from their graves, a cult, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and more. It also has an over-the-top rip-snorter of an ending if the reader has the patience to get there.

Archer McFall, thought dead by some for 20 years, returns to his ancestral turf and buys the church where his great-great-granddad, the Rev. Wendell, was hanged from a dogwood in 1864. Seems his local flock could tolerate his message that God had two sons -- Jesus being a failure, the second son would appear and undo everything his brother had wrought -- but they brought out the noose when he sacrificed a child. Ever since the church, painted red to welcome the Second Son, has been haunted not only by the swinging preacher, but by a monster that lurks in the belfry.

When McFall shows up, people start getting killed in gruesome ways and worse is to come.

Nicholson's craft is sound enough -- he can execute paragraphs, write dialogue, and compose scenes. The characters are a bit flat, but that's often a first novel flaw. It all might work, too, if not for some distractions.

The first distraction is the setting of Whispering Pines. Situated in an Appalachian valley, it's not far off the interstate, has a nearby Holiday Inn, a ski resort and condo-chalets within spitting distance. The kids watch MTV and you can bet they know where WalMart is. In other words, the fictional citizens live in a completely believable 21st century environment -- everyone EXCEPT the characters in the plot. They conveniently live in some sort of Blue Ridge Brigadoon where you can swallow the supernatural without chewing. Try that with a Big Mac. Yes, you can justify isolated community-American gothic goings-on these days -- Elizabeth Hand does it beautifully with her Kamensic, New York -- but you *do* have to justify it. Face it, there IS good reason Stephen King hasn't visited Castle Rock in over a decade.

There's also an age/time problem. The sheriff is 40, but acts as if he's near retirement. The allegedly bright 13-year-old Ronnie acts more like an 11-year-old, maybe younger. His parents--Linda and David Day --are both about 38, as is the major bad guy, Archer McFall. But Mama Bet, Archer's mother is over 80 with nary a mention of being an extremely elderly parturient. Time really goes haywire when we learn McFall took off for California twenty years earlier with seven local female virgins in a peace symbol-bedecked VW van. [The girls sing Beach Boy (60s) and Eagles (70s) songs as they depart.] In 1982?

Okay, maybe you can ignore this stuff -- but for me it means I have trouble buying into the story. If you can't do that, then nothing else works.

Nicholson did try valiantly to make the core of this good vs. evil tale work. He obviously knows that you have to have the good equal the bad. The problem is he's working with Christianity as interpreted by Baptists. Catholics make good Devil-fighters because they have a lot more to work with historically, theologically, and hierarchic-ly. Even the trimmings -- vestments, holy water, crucifixes, rosaries, saints, guilt, etc. -- give a novelist some weaponry to creatively defeat the Enemy with. That's why the not-so-old adage that lapsed Catholics make the best horror writers has some truth to it. Baptists don't even have transubstantiation -- there goes the old "body of Christ"/ human sacrifice parallel.

Nicholson, in a very well-intended effort to make Ronnie deal with his faith or lack of it, blows a Baptist basic -- once saved, always saved. You can't be saved and re-saved as Ronnie is portrayed as being. THE Baptist belief is that baptism -- the public demonstration of belief -- must be delayed until children exhibit the ability to believe. This "age of accountability" varies and can be much younger than thirteen or much older. Since this is age is vague, children can worry about whether they are "still safe" from Hell or not. And, since this is all tied up with original sin, kids aren't the only ones who worry. Maybe there is a Baptist sect somewhere without these key tenets, but the belief in "adult" baptism vs. infant baptism is usually what is used to define any sort of Baptist.

Pshaw! you say. Big deal. Well, it is a big deal because it robs the story of the primal supernatural substance it needs to make it work. At least for me.

There are some other plot/character bugaboos, too: The second chapter is a red herring. (Can't say more without plot-wrecking.)...Dogwood trees live, at best, only about 80 years and would have to have been full-grown to hang a man from in 1864. This tree is a major symbol....Why doesn't Sheila Storie, the token skeptic detective, make a routine call to California to get info on McFall? (A later weakness is really out of character, too.)...Okay, let's leave it at that. The point is that there are a few imperfections.

VERDICT: Nicholson has potential. The reason the above details bug me is because he provides plenty of details. Most of them are just fine and add to the richness of the story and its characters. He hasn't found an individual voice and there are a lot of signs he is trying to write like someone else rather than himself. If he can develop some authenticity (and maybe a little more attention to all those details), he may make the grade. -- Paula Guran (Orginally appeared in DarkEcho #12)

|back to index|

Many of the books mentioned on this site are available through By using the link to the right to search for and order books (or anything else) you are benefiting this site. Thank you.
In Association with

[main] [about] [features] [reviews] [interviews] [link] [search]
Copyright © 2002 Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.