January 14, 2019
The opening pages of Scott Thomas’s debut novel, Kill Creek (2017) are likely to produce two immediate impressions: the prose is beautifully rendered, especially for a first novel, and the for a haunted house, the Finch House near Lawrence, Kansas, appears to be benign although a “monstrosity” of “three stories… at least six thousand square feet, maybe more” sitting on “a good quarter acre” in the middle of the prairie. “It was not built on unholy ground. It was not home to a witch or warlock. In 1859, a solitary man constructed it with his own two hands and the occasional help from friends… the many rooms within the grand house were filled with a passionate love, albeit one shared in secret, a whisper between two hearts.” As readers continue, one of these elements changes and the other does not. What doesn’t’ change is Thomas’s rich, flowing, literary prose. What does change is the seeming innocence of Finch House, made famous by a hack writer’s alleged non-fiction work, Phantoms of the Prairie: A True Story of Supernatural Terror written in the eighties—a book “short on details and long on atmosphere.”
Justin Wainwright has created a smash Internet site of popular culture. Keeping the on-line site a number one destination for users takes creativity and originality. His latest plan involves a familiar horror trope with a twist: without revealing all the details to them, Wainwright wants access to four famous horror writers for a two-day interview for which he will pay each one of them one hundred thousand dollars. His plan is to live-stream them being interviewed in the Finch House—no tricks, no gimmicks, only he and his assistant, Kate, filming; Wainwright doesn’t even believe Finch House is haunted himself. The writers include Sam McGarver who has known real horror in his past which he refuses to talk about and who is fighting writer’s block, hasn’t produced a new work in years, and is “hiding out” teaching university classes about horror and “other people’s books.” T. C. Moore’s work is tremendously popular, “raw and primal” it combines explicit horror and sex—and pain. She is disgusted the film being made of her latest novel is removing most of the grisly portions of her last novel and changing it into a romance. Daniel Slaughter is a popular Christian writer producing mainly forgettable horror books for teenagers which he likes to think “teach a lesson through entertainment” and his popularity is dwindling as more and more Christian parents begin to disapprove of his subject matter. Sebastian Cole is the senior member of the quartet, who has been writing for over three generations and has influenced untold other writers including Sam McGarver, but whose legacy is fast becoming that of a member of the “literary royalty” rather than a still popular writer. For all four, Wainwright’s offer is an opportunity to renew or solidify their reputations with the reading public.
Although it gets revealed Finch House has a history of a deplorable and sordid incident and a bad reputation among locals, “there were no documented occurrences, no unexplained phenomena recorded by giddy parapsychologists.” Unlike Shirley Jackson’s infamous Hill House, Finch House appears to be considerably less sinister. Still, Thomas does take a few pointers from Jackson’s playbook, however. Not only does he bring together a diverse group of individuals to stay at the Finch House to be interviewed, but they all have secrets—baggage they bring with them from their earlier lives. Like Jackson, Thomas builds suspense slowly, allowing Finch House to breathe, as it were, before becoming fully awake, allowing its evil to manifest itself.
Midway through Kill Creek, Thomas takes his story in an unexpected direction; into a new, at first subtle course before those who spend the night in Finch House slowly come to the realization of what is happening to them—led off by Sam McGarver—and they all decide upon an ill-fated, but essential strategy. Although there are faint echoes of the influence of Stephen King’s justly popular and influential The Shining (1977) during this portion of Thomas’s work, readers are most likely to feel the presence of Robert Marasco’s distinctive haunted house novel, Burnt Offerings (1973; reprinted by Valancourt Books in 2015) lurking behind the scenes.
The horror of Finch House escalates rapidly during the last third or more of Kill Creek, as mystery and questions multiply faster than answers are provided, and a full-scale manifestation of horror and dismaying deaths befall the characters. The final chapters of the book are a true tour de force and Thomas leaves readers with an ominous twist at the end. For a first novel (although in the book’s acknowledgements Thomas states the first draft of the novel was written “more than ten years ago” with numerous revisions later), Kill Creek is an extremely well written book with a deliberate pace, realistic characters, and powerful, memorable scenes of genuine dread. The author displays an acute awareness of the multiple kinds of horror which exist within the genre as well. At almost twice the length of Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959), Kill Creek easily enters the ranks of accomplished haunted house stories and given the recent plethora of them, such is not an easy feat to accomplish.