The Red Church was Scott Nicholson’s first novel and it is so good it earned a nomination for a Stoker Award in 2002. The story is set in the isolated town of Whispering Pines, up in the Appalachian Mountains, and the first chapter of the book introduces young Ronnie Day who is thirteen-years-old and already has more than his fair share of things to worry about. For one thing, his parents have separated and only ever seem to get together to share an argument. It isn’t easy when you come from a broken home and it doesn’t help matters when you have a dingle-dork like Tim for a younger brother. Dingle-dork or not, Ronnie loves his little brother and he knows that it’s his job to take care of him.
At the beginning of the book, Ronnie’s main worry is not his parents or little brother, it’s something else. A red something else that is the haunted home of a creature with wings and claws and livers for eyes. This horrible entity is known locally as the Bell Monster and its chosen place of residence is the old, deserted Red Church.
The Red Church was built in the 1860s. The minister at that time was the Reverend Wendell McFall. The Reverend’s faith was unconventional, to say the least, and his church reflected that fact. McFall believed that God had not just one son, but two and that the Second Son was evil and would one day return to earth to undo all of his brother’s good work.
McFall painted his church red, believing this would summon the First Son to save the world from the Second one and McFall’s congregation met every Sunday, at midnight, to listen to his increasingly demented sermons.
The people believed in McFall and followed his teachings until he went too far and sacrificed a young child across the altar of his red church. When that happened McFall’s congregation didn’t need to look to the walls around them to see red. They took the bell rope and used it to hang the preacher from the old tree growing near the door of his church.
McFall’s ghost is still seen from time to time swinging from the end of its rope, but at least the dead preacher stays put. The Bell Monster is not so obliging and the local kids avoid the church in case monster ‘gets’ them.
Ronnie and Tim know all about the Bell Monster and yet the first chapter of the book finds Tim running off into the graveyard that surrounds the church, leaving Ronnie with little choice but to follow him and see what has attracted his attention. As it turns out Timmy has found a copy of Playboy magazine and the two boys are just debating who should look after this treasured find when they discover the owner of the magazine, Boonie Houck, mutilated and close to death in some nearby bushes.
Boonie is only the first of many deaths in and around Whispering Pines and the local Sheriff Frank Littlefield has few doubts about what is happening. Frank grew up in the town, he knows the stories and has seen the hung preacher with his own eyes. He even lost his brother, Samuel, to the Bell Monster. Frank knows that it will be hard to convince his colleague, Sheila Storey, that the Red Church is haunted, but he does his best to let her know what she is getting herself into.
Storey was not born locally and she does not believe in ghosts, but when she and the Sheriff discover that the hung preacher’s descendant Archer McFall is back in town and that he is the new owner of the Red Church neither one of them can rule him out of their investigations.
I really enjoyed reading The Red Church and I find the idea of a monster with livers for eyes particularly creepy, but ghosts and monsters alone do not make a story. A good book needs to have believable characters for the reader to sympathize with and I am happy to say that there are some great characters to be found among the pages of The Red Church. The Day family alone are interesting enough to bring the book to life: David Day—the loving father who probably has a better idea of what is really going on than anyone else in town. Linda Day—mother and wife whose only loyalties seem to be to Archer McFall. He comes before her husband, her children, and even before God. And then there is Ronnie and Tim, who I have already mentioned.
The relationship between the Sheriff and Detective Sergeant Storey is also an interesting one and once you scratch beneath the surface it begins to look like there is a little more than just mutual respect between the two. Of course, the big question is, will the Bell Monster get them before they can get it together? If you want to know the answer to that one you will have to read The Red Church because I’m not for telling.
The Red Church is 352 pages long and has an abundance of interesting subplots to keep the reader interested. It is one of those books where you can never really be sure what will happen next. All you can do is keep turning the pages and hope that it will all turn out okay in the end.