Ghost Stories from Camp (Part 1)

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"I learned the past is not the past, a lump of time you can quarantine and forget about, but a reel of film in your brain that keeps on rolling, spooling and unspooling itself regardless of whether or not you are watching it."
~ Will Dillard

Story Synopsis: Will Dillard is a graduate student working on his dissertation in film studies, at what he describes as a “midwestern university—one which I’ll refrain from naming because it hardly matters for my story.” He loves old movies, but real life is a different story. He enjoys analyzing fictional characters, but has difficulties connecting with people, and even tends to keep his friends at an emotional distance.

He’s haunted by his past, particularly and specifically a summer when he and four other high school boys attended Camp Levi, operated by his aunt, her husband, and assisted by two seminary students.

The goal: change the boys’ sexual orientation—by whatever means necessary.

One of the boys died.
There was an investigation.
The camp was shut down.
Then came the trial, and Will had to testify.
His aunt disappeared, never to be seen again.
Her husband was convicted.

For years, Will has suppressed—intentionally or as a coping means of survival—those memories, refusing to confront the specters of the past that left him emotionally hollowed out.

When we meet him, he’s an openly gay man, but he's closed off.
His life is essentially in a holding pattern.
Will is aimless, going nowhere, and seems content with that direction.

Years after that summer, one of the camp counselors wrote a book about the events, but Will refused to read it.
Then, a slasher movie—based loosely on the book—is released, getting plenty of publicity in the LGBTQ community. He tries to watch the film, but it triggers him to the point he gets violently ill and has to leave. In the movie, a masked gay man is murdering teenagers who come to the area. The serial killer in the film is known only as Rooster, Will’s nickname when he was young.

Is the movie trying to present Will as a heartless, deranged murderer?

He can no longer ignore the trauma.
He must confront what happened.
Including his possible role in the tragic death of a fellow camper.

One night, on the way to a double date, Will makes the impetuous decision to return to his hometown. To his disapproving, estranged father. And to Camp Levi. He wants to re-visit where it happened to help him deal with what happened, and maybe clarify why it happened. He’s determined to exorcise the demons that have plagued him since that summer.

General Thoughts:
This is a well-written novel; the author is a gifted storyteller. (He’s a professor of creative writing, and that shows.) It’s thoughtful, poignant, often caustic, occasionally funny. But it is not (NOT!) what I’d call a happy story. It was difficult for me to read; several times, I had to put it down and come back to it later.

As the main character and narrator, Will is emotionally disconnected. He’s a young adult man dealing with something ghastly that happened to him as a teenager, when he submitted to those who wanted to “fix” him. His sexuality wasn’t changed, but his entire life was impacted by the experience. He's...damaged! Will knows he’s wounded, and as objective observers, the reader often get glimpses in his interactions with his few friends, his treatment of others, how he responds to situations, and even in the way he tells his story. He’s withdrawn, inconsiderate, and self-absorbed. I wouldn’t classify him as shy, but he’s uncommitted and non-confrontational to the point of cowardly. Honestly, I never fully connected with Will; I wanted to like him, but I didn’t.
As a writer, I want to believe this was an intentional choice by the author. (If so, well done!)

There’s lots of Will’s backstory, told to us in flashbacks. A few times, there are flashbacks within flashbacks, which can often be confusing, and is one of my pet peeves when it comes to storytelling. (Example: Will remembers times with his mother, as she tells stories of growing up. Hence, we have her flashbacks inside his flashback.)

This is considered Southern Fiction, so there’s the expected cadre of quirky, secondary characters:

  • A free-spirited, deceased mother with her own secrets.
  • A hyper-religious father/pastor not pleased with his less-than-masculine son.
  • A Fundamentalist Christian singer, determined to “save” gay boys from eternal damnation.
  • Her strict, enigmatic husband.
  • A feminist lesbian/LGBTQ right activist.
  • A trans guy, who’s interested in Will but is frustrated with his emotional distance.

They are all here.

Whether the reader likes these characters and is able to identify with them is always subjective. For me, that didn’t happen. It’s not that they weren’t interesting (they were) or unlikable (some truly were), but because the entire story is told from Will’s point of view, we only know what he tells us about them. Will is not an omniscient narrator, so we never learn much about who they really are, or their internal motivations/motives. (i.e., Why they do what they do.) Like Will, we can assume, or project, or speculate, but these folks are never more than one person’s perspective. It made them less real for me. (I think that’s one of the primary drawbacks/challenges of first-person narratives.)

And what Southern gothic story would be complete without fanatical religious beliefs and institutions?
This one is no exception.
In fact, it’s the underlying driving force in the plot.
Most of the characters are responding to or reacting against religion, in one form or another.

Author’s Note: Writing about religion is a tightrope, especially when it’s part of a fictional story. 
If there’s not sufficient personal experience, or adequate research, it’ll read hollow and superficial. (I've read and abandoned books like this! I could tell the writer knew nothing about the subject.)
Without objectivity, it could be seen a “preachy.” (i.e., This is how you should feel about religion!)
If the author has a personal vendetta against religion or the church, the characters who inhabit that religion in the story will become little more than a caricature or stereotype. And therefore, unbelievable. 
(Trust me, as one whose books are rooted in a religious setting, with religious characters, I’ve been accused of each of these!)

Since this is technically not a book review, I’ll skip detailed analysis of author’s style, character conflict, plot development, etc. (I could go on for pages!)
If you're interested in reading it, check it out on Amazon

Personal Note/Warning: This is NOT a book recommendation. Admittedly, this one might not be everyone’s “cup of tea.” I can’t say I liked the book, but I’m glad I read it. For many who’ve been through these programs, the events in this story could be a major trigger.

I decided to read this book based solely on the subject matter—“ex-gay” programs. I’ve spent 30+ years exposing the deception and dangers of the individuals and groups who espouse this snake oil, and was curious to see how it was presented in a fictional context.
(Check out my extensive writing on this topic, as well as my personal experience with these groups and programs.)

Let me confess: the “ex-gay” elements of this story were disturbing, shocking and repugnant. The descriptions of what happened to the boys at the camp were gruesome and inhuman. (I’m sure it wasn’t like reading a gory, graphic horror novel, which is not my forte, but it was enough at times to keep me holding my breath.)

But...was it accurate?

In order to avoid one overly lengthy post (See how considerate I am?), I’ll use a second entry to concentrate on the “ex-gay” program described in the book. I think there are important aspects worth examining in more detail.