Kill Creek (2017) by Scott Thomas

Kill Creek
Kill Creek
Rating

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This review contains spoilers, but you should read it anyway. It’s horror–things end badly.

Kill Creek (2017) by Scott Thomas makes two moves at once: It describes the process of sanitizing America’s racist past while it participates in that process, modeling how black history is erased. If there is a critique of white-centric storytelling and historiography here, I am not discerning enough to see it. Also, the novel attempts to align readers with toxic male characters. The idea seems to be that if we understand their inner turmoil, then we’ll excuse their terrible actions. And while I typically try to avoid blunt binary readings, I think it’s safe to say that Kill Creek has a problem with women. 

Horror novelist Sam McGarver accepts an invitation from media mogul Justin Wainwright to spend a night at the reputedly haunted Finch House, an abandoned mansion on Kill Creek, just outside of Lawrence, Kansas. Specializing in the darkness of small town America, Sam is joined by three authors with different perspectives on the horror genre: Sebastian Cole, who presents cosmic themes in a literary style; T.C. Moore, who packages drugs, sex, and violence in a slick aesthetic; and Daniel Slaughter, who brings a Christian narrative of sin and punishment to his teen horror series. All of them regard Wainwright’s stunt as a great way to promote their work, but at what cost? After the project wraps, the writers are driven by their personal demons to produce the same novel: A story of a house that protects a secret and a brick wall that must come down. Can Sam and his cohort discover the nature of the house’s power and destroy it before it destroys them? 

My problem with Kill Creek is that it strips the story’s originating event of its historical and racial specificity. The house’s dark past begins with a racially motivated murder, the full details of which are only released by Professor Adudel toward the end of the book: As pro-Confederate guerrillas slaughter people in Lawrence and set the town ablaze, a detachment of the group visits the Goodman farm, where they shoot Joshua, a white man, before raping and lynching Alma Reed, a formerly enslaved woman. The Lawrence Massacre is a real event, though you may not know it from the prologue’s peripheral references to ”tragedy”; and the novel’s opening description of the killing at the farmhouse is so vague as to be disorienting. After reading a very general delineation of events, we learn that even the most basic facts of the crime–one person was shot and another hanged–were eventually lost to time as the story became “gossip,” ultimately morphing into a “tall tale” of spooky lights and sinister shadows told by mothers to their children. The victims’ names, the rape of Alma, the war context, and the political motivations of the attackers–all of this information is absent from the prologue. And when it emerges later in the book, it isn’t framed as an important disclosure that offers insight into the house’s supernatural force, but rather as an aside, an interesting anecdote, that has zero impact on the story. This history of white supremacist violence is incidental to the plot because the house’s entity–and, indeed, this novel–could have been catalyzed by any murder.

I would have found Kill Creek more satisfying if the house’s force were inflected with Alma’s spirit and contoured by her story–maybe not something as straightforward as revenge horror, but a novel in which the haunting energy acknowledges and reflects its cause. Instead, it is distinctly white, always assuming the form of the pale Finch sisters. While Alma’s death was the pretext for the gossip that imbued the house with its power, the Finch sisters are little more than its caretakers. So why do they get to be the face of this god-like entity? 

If the novel denies Alma a share in the house’s power, it also strips her of her humanity. In all of the iterations of her story, Joshua is given perspective and emotion, while Alma is reduced to “the woman he loved,” “his love’s body,” and–when she hangs from the beech tree–“the slack weight of the original owner’s forbidden love” (5, 9). Most disgusting of all is when Dr. Adudel, attempting to paint the horror of Alma’s rape and hanging, tells the writers to put themselves in Goodman’s place: 

So there lies Joshua Goodman, staring through his open front door as that rogue band of William Quantrill’s men first raped his beloved Alma, then strung her from a branch in that twisted old beach tree. You can imagine his view–her legs kicking beneath her… (350)

The prioritizing of white experience and suffering in this passage is sickening. Why must they assume Joshua’s vantage point? Why not depict Alma’s terror and pain from her own perspective? If the novel is critiquing how historical horrors are typically related, then that criticism is too obscure for me. From what I can see, Kill Creek’s erasure of black humanity continues tradition rather than commenting on it.

Kill Creek also privileges toxic forms of masculinity. We are supposed to like Sam McGarver and take his side against Wainwright when the media entrepreneur asks him about his dwindling output and potential divorce. Though Sam is aware of WrightWire’s brand of sensational news and happy to collect a 100k payout, he seems to feel that his personal life and struggles as a writer are sacrosanct. Who, without prior negotiation, would expect such things to be off limits? The reader is expected to sympathize with his rage and even support his violence when he physically attacks Wainwright. After all, none of the other writers (who are our stand-ins) ask the obvious question, which is “what the fuck is wrong with you”? Instead, they seem to understand his unprovoked assault on Wainwright, who–to my shock and amazement–actually apologizes to his attacker, another sign that Sam’s actions are justified. If this kind of manipulation doesn’t increase our identification with the protagonist, the novel lends him pathos by giving him a schlocky backstory: When he was 10 years old, his abusive mother died in a house fire and, though decades have passed, he has never recovered. Throughout the book, Sam is overwhelmed by grief and incapacitated by hallucinations of smoke and fire. The constant flashbacks are tiresome to read and his pain is ridiculous. Not to sound unfeeling, but his mother was a monster. Who would mourn such a loss? It’s just a device to make his bad behavior more acceptable.

More common than the device of a dead mother is the trope of the sullied wife or daughter. We’ve all seen it in Death Wish and Braveheart: Men commit unspeakable acts to avenge the rape and/or murder of a pure woman. The Charles Bronson of Kill Creek, Daniel Slaughter is driven to violence by the loss of an idealized feminine figure. When a representation of his dead daughter convinces him to kill the other writers, we are supposed to see his dilemma. Wouldn’t any parent sacrifice their friends for the sake of their child? While that’s the ideal upheld by our culture, the answer, I think, should be a resounding no. The book seems to suggest that he’s insane, not because he’s slaughtering people, but because Claire isn’t really there. What if she were? Would that make her demands legitimately actionable? Anything to protect the family, I guess. 

The final message of the book seems to be that men are not accountable for their actions: Daniel blames his daughter for the massacre. Sam’s failed marriage and stalled career are the fault of his mother. The entity in the house is clearly coded as feminine (down to the “gossip” that created it). And in the end, Moore, the only female author, is responsible for unleashing this evil on the world. In Kill Creek, men might be blameless but women certainly are not.  


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