Todd Keisling’s Devil’s Creek recently made it onto the Final Ballot for the Bram Stoker Award in Superior Achievement in a Novel, and there’s good reason for that. It’s very likely the best thing I read in 2020, and also one of my favorite contemporary horror novels, period. Reviewers have compared it to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, and while usually I might roll my eyes slightly at such a comparison, in this case it’s very apt.
As King did in Salem’s Lot, in Devil’s Creek Keisling paints the vivid portrait of a town rotten at its very core. He does this in varying degrees. Some folks are just downright bad, others — like those who lived in the Lot — harbor dread secrets deep inside. Some are directly complicit in the evil lurking in their town, others oblivious to the darkness simmering just beneath the surface, until it’s far too late. It’s the painstaking characterization of these secondary characters which makes Devil’s Creek so much like King’s vampire magnum opus.
Also, at a time when, for the last several years, our country has experienced deep conflict over what it means to be a “true believer” or what “real faith” looks like, Keisling’s novel couldn’t be more timely. Its depiction of a small, fundamentalist town and its conflicting ideals of religious zealotry and the love and compassion faith is supposed to preach is well-written and nuanced. It’s not hard to imagine “people of faith” today trading their faith in God for something more demanding and merciless — as the people of Stauford, Kentucky do — so they can serve something just as heartless as they are. It’s not hard imagining a Jacob Masters in our world, giving himself over to dread cosmic forces, and using the mantle of organized religion to spread his “word,” and this makes the novel that much more terrifying.
Finally, it’s a testament to Keisling’s craft that such a sprawling novel reads so smoothly. It’s a novel of epic proportions, but it’s well-paced and well crafted. For a big novel, it’s absolutely engrossing, and a pleasure to read. If you love big, sprawling, small-town horror which paints an entire town on a wide canvas, this novel is definitely for you. Highly recommended.