Shelter for the Damned
by Mike Thorn
JournalStone, February 2021
190 pages, $19.95
Warnings for: Spoilers, Child Death, Child Abuse, Intimate Partner Violence, Murder
There’s a pernicious saying in our society: “Boys will be boys.” The implication? Boys will do destructive, harmful things, but it’s all in good fun. It’s meaningless, harmless. Boys just being boys. Even if they hurt others, even if they destroy others, it’s just boys being boys. We use it to excuse violence, rape, murder. Boys will be boys.
Mike Thorn’s Shelter for the Damned proves that boys tend to be something else, too. Thorn’s debut novel is an insight into male violence, the sloppily-hidden depths of suburbia, and the isolation of abuse. It’s not typically what you would find in the pages of a horror novel about teenage boys and a deadly, abandoned shack, but it’s the subtleties of Thorn’s narrative that keep the story moving along so quickly.
We jump feet first into protagonist Mark’s mind as he’s having a conversation with his two best friends, Adam and Scott. Mark is a delinquent one step away from being expelled from school, with only two close friends and parents who have no hope for his future. He’s afraid of his dad’s anger and doesn’t know how to connect with his mom. Adam’s dad is a known drunk who abuses his kids and wife with no concern for who’s watching. He’s been thrown in the town’s drunk tank more times than anyone can count. Scott’s dad is anal-retentive about cleanliness and parenting, and doesn’t approve of Mark, even if he does have a soft spot for Adam’s situation. The three are outcasts at their school, with no other friends on the horizon. The only other person Mark cares about in his life is Madeline, who has her own trauma.
The story starts with the boys trying to find a secret place to smoke cigarettes away from their parents. After stumbling across a seemingly-abandoned shack in the middle of a field they’ve never seen before—which, I know for teenage boys might seem like a boon, but as an adult, all I could shout was, haven’t you seen any horror movies! Don’t go in there!—they decide to go in. Something about the place instantly attaches itself to Mark, even as the other boys are weirded out by the creepiness of the shack. A sort of whisper that talks in his head to him in his own voice. For the first time in his life, something has taken Mark in, and it doesn’t plan to let go.
At school the next day, a fight between Mark and the school’s biggest student, Clinton, shows us just how much the shack has already changed him. He can’t remember what he said that sets the other boy off, but it’s enough that they immediately come to blows. Clinton, the only character in the novel who seems to genuinely love and have a good relationship with his father, has just lost him to a sudden heart accident. Clinton was actually one of only two male characters I felt sympathetic towards in Shelter for the Damned. He truly did nothing wrong, and his fate seemed the cruelest, to me, for how oblivious he was to its coming.
Nearly all of the characters in this novel are tragic in some way or another. Mark and Adam both deal with abuse from their fathers—although Adam deals with physical abuse and the abuse of his mother, while Mark deals with his fear of his father’s anger and the memories he has of the abuse he suffered at the man’s hands. Scott’s fate is sudden and jarring. Madeline is suffering the loss of a cousin that she blames herself for. These are clearly teens going through the thick of it, even before you add ghastly shacks into the mix.
We walk with Mark as he descends into the madness of the shack. We watch the things that come out of his closet, the figures that kidnap his friend and have the power to take control of his physical body. We see the hallucinations that haunt Mark, even when no one else around him seems to notice. That sometimes made me question whether or not the events of the novel were all just an extended breakdown on Mark’s behalf, but I think it’s a disservice to Thorn’s storytelling to file everything under “mental breakdown” and move on.
It’s clear that Mark’s dependency on the shack comes from the void where parental love was supposed to be. We witness Mark’s memories of the violence inflicted on him by his father; we’re just as tense as Mark is every time the man’s footsteps stop outside his bedroom door. Even his mother, who he genuinely seems to care for, doesn’t know where to begin understanding Mark. It’s possible that her being unable to see the gore spattering Mark’s room is a reflection of her inability to see his father’s abuse of him (although her habit of spinning her ring on her finger when she’s nervous belies this ignorance, in my opinion). Mark’s father might try to hide his nastier side from his wife’s gaze, but it’s impossible to hide everything forever.
There’s a tragedy inherent to Shelter for the Damned that starts on page one. Before that, even. It’s in the title of the novel itself: Shelter for the Damned. There’s no point where Mark can get off the path he inevitably finds himself on, even when he focuses on the one good thing in his life (Madeline). He has no ability to deviate from his future, because he’s been given no tools to change himself. Even when on the brink of expulsion and police investigation, Mark’s parents only say they “don’t know what to do” with him, and that certain “privileges” might need to be taken away. It’s clear they don’t know what to do to help Mark, either, even if they could understand the horrific circumstances he finds himself in.
Mike Thorn is clearly a fan of horror. You can see references in his novel to greats of both horror literature and cinema. King, Carpenter, Lovecraft, Craven. He treats the genre with respect, but also as a space for commentary. There’s more going on in Shelter for the Damned than a scary shack, and I appreciate the work he’s doing towards raising awareness of the toxic masculinity inherent in the genre. This isn’t a story where the cis-het, white, violent male character gets away with the bad things he does. There are consequences to the decisions the characters in this novel make. Violence is not glorified in any regard. It’s treated like the horror it really is. Definitely give this one a read. Thorn is heading places.