THE CHILDREN OF RED PEAK
Published by Redhook. 384 pages. 2021
Available in paperback, kindle and audio.
Religious Doomsday cults are always fascinating – though God forbid anyone reading this review should ever be unlucky or foolish enough to join one. Sometimes, however, there isn’t a choice. especially if a child’s parents are drawn into one. That’s sheer bad luck.
As it is with “the children” of Red Peak, whose parents are attracted to what is at first an easy-going, almost paradisical cult intent on returning to a simpler life in a farming community of like-minded individuals, safe from the stresses of modern life.
They have a hierarchy of elders – Shepherds – under the guidance of a Moses-like figure, the Reverend Peale, whose gentle understanding helps to temper the sometimes more hard-line attitudes of those under him. But it is this same leader who eventually turns the group onto a path that takes them to self-destruction, after he temporarily takes a leave of absence to go on a pilgrimage of personal enlightenment – and sees God.
It is this eye-opening event on the heights of Red Peak, an isolated mountain range some distance from where they live, that changes everything. When their leader returns he informs the group that God has told him the End Times are about to take place and they have been selected to be part of the elite that will ascend to Heaven when this happens. To be saved, though, they must abandon their pastoral paradise and journey with him to Red Peak, where he saw and spoke with God. There they will establish a new community to await their salvation.
All of this is told in retrospect through the four surviving children who decades later meet at the funeral of the only other child to have lived through the terrible final weeks of the cult. Unable to bear her memories of what happened any longer, the suicides, murders and self-mutilations that occurred that day, she has ended her life. Which brings the suppressed memories of all the traumas the others suffered back to the surface, as well as questions they have struggled to deal with over the years: What really happened that day? Why did the loving, kind-hearted Reverend persuade their parents and everyone else to kill themselves – or to kill those who were unwilling to do it themselves? Was it really God the Reverend saw? If so, what kind of “God” was it?
Worse still, no amount of searching by the authorities had ever been able to find any trace of those who died, as if their bodies really did ascend to heaven, leaving a mystery behind that people still talk about with awe.
Now grown into adults, the survivors have built careers for themselves, though their choices appear in some ways not much more than desperate attempts to block from their minds what they glimpsed, suspected, or worried happened, unable to move from beneath the shadow of that awful event during which they not only lost their parents but most of their friends too. It is the violence of what took place that haunts them, as some of the parents murdered their own children to “save” them, and, during the days before the apocalypse, cult members tried to exculpate whatever sins they thought they had committed through acts of self-mutilation. One mother, who had become convinced she was too fond of talking, cut out her tongue, while another, because she was vain about her looks, savaged her own face. The compulsion to carry out bloody acts against themselves, is yet another trauma with which the survivors have had to deal.
Their reunion at the funeral acts as a catalyst towards what happens next – because they know that whatever drew their parents to Red Peak is still there, if not in reality at least in their minds. Is it God? Does the mountain really hold a path towards heaven? Is there still time in which to seek their own redemption for everything that happened? Or to find out what really took place there – and why?
This is a fascinating tale, told from the viewpoints of the four survivors who decide their only hope to move on with their lives is to return to Red Peak to try and find answers to their questions. It is a decision that will awaken more than just memories, though, and their determination to clear up the horrors of the past, when their childhoods came to a hideous end, builds towards a chilling climax of what is a brilliantly visualised and illuminating tale.