Reed's Recommendation Corner: Camp Damascus by Chuck Tingle


In the background framed by trees and mountains, is an open mouth with teeth showing. Mayflies are erupting from the mouth, almost as it is screaming. You can see the person's nose as well. In front of this face, are trees, cleared land, and then cabins. One cabin has a blue light shining from the windows and door.
Camp Damascus by Chuck Tingle

CW: Homophobia, conversion therapy, gaslighting, religious abuse

There are times that I read books and it feels like walking through sludge to get to the end, even if I really enjoy it. Then, there are times, that I fly through books, eager to see how it ends, only to be sad that I've finished something I was really getting into. This was a book I flew through and then.... I sat with it. I sat with it for a while. Now I'm sitting down to write this, excited and elated. 

Creatures of various sizes, shapes, and personalities, I present to you the phenomena that is Chuck Tingle. 

A man in a light pink suit, with a light blue dress shirt and black tie, stands in front of a plywood background. He is hold a copy of Camp Damascus on the left. He has a pink sack over his face with black sunglasses covering his eyes. The bag says across the forehead "Love is Real".

Chuck Tingle has garnered a following for his absurdist self-published erotica. With titles like Pounded In The Butt By My Handsome Sentient Library Card Who Seems Otherworldly But In Reality Is Just A Natural Part Of The Priceless Resources Our Library System Provides and any number of other titles that have "Pounded in the Butt". These "books" aren't very long - I think they average about 50 pages for the most part. But every time I see a new one up, I always get a giggle. Chuck Tingle is not above social commentary in his work  (I'm looking at you Trans Wizard Harriet Porber and the Theater of Love which, by the way, also has anthropomorphic dinosaurs. Tingle is, basically, chaos with a good heart. 

A very muscular man stands in the foreground. A library card with a human face floats next to him. There are library books shelves in the background.
And the covers are fantastic and not AI generated. 

Camp Damascus is Tingle's first full length, traditionally published novel. If you go into it expecting the same sort of absurdity that you get from his erotica, well.... you are a little bit right. Some parts of it seem absurd, but they are absolutely a fun house mirror reflection of our current world. Like reality, with a slight bend to the left. 

The novel is set in Neverton, Montana, home of the world's most successful gay conversion camp, called Camp Damascus. Many of the town's inhabitants follow an offshoot of Christianity that feels like a more radical version of Mormonism. Our main character, Rose Darling, is a devout member of the church. For Rose, it's more like a routine that she knows she doesn't quite fit in, because she is autistic. Now, apparently, she's seeing things like creepy white-eyed women with abnormally long, multijointed fingers and red polos. She's also, somehow, throwing up mayflies.

Without getting too much into the plot, Tingle tackles religious gaslighting, homophobia, and the love-hate relationships we have with family who have conditions on their love for us. We see this all through the lens of a neurodivergent person who is finally figuring out that her idyllic life isn't one that she actually wants. I don't think I've ever seen self-stemming written quite this way, and it's pretty amazing. I have obsessive compulsive disorder (actually diagnosed and on medication, not the "ha, ha, I have to have it perfect, I'm so OCD" kind), and I sometimes stim in order to counter intrusive thoughts. This was a GREAT representation of what that can look like. 

I know, in a lot of ways, I am lucky. I have a family who is supportive, who is willing to apologize and change how they look at things. I have partners who care about me, a husband who loves me even though I'm a feral goblin on the best of days. I was raised Jewish, but half of my family (on my mom's side) is Southern Baptist. I live in the south. I've seen the dangerous religious rhetoric that seeps into everything, including the logic that allows a certain subset of people to determine what's right and best for others (even if it isn't what makes them happy or healthy). It's dangerous - and Tingle really hits the nail on the head with the cognitive dissonance. The idea of cherry picking the Bible, of picking and choosing what's good and what's evil based on some arbitrary words that someone decided sounded good and helped further their political agenda is something that we live with everyday. 

For those of us who are transgender or queer, that cognitive dissonance can and does kill us. It makes our lives hell. While this book seems, on the surface, to be a poke at that attitude, there were a few parts where I felt like my heart was breaking in my chest. Specifically, the scene where Rose's mom waits for her on a street corner, with a duffel bag. There's also a line about relationships that made me cry:

Text reads: "Our relationship wasn't all sunshine and rainbows, but it was real. It was misunderstandings and growth and forgiveness and acceptance, and, of course, the beauty that comes along with all that. We were so much more than a montage of upbeat music and endless smiles.

Chuck Tingle also provides some insight into the book on his Tumblr page, breaking down the various symbolism in a few blog posts that should only be read AFTER you read the book. They're cleverly titled "Deconstructing Damascus" and you can find the first one here.

I really hope that Chuck Tingle continues to write the absurd AND that he continues to write books like this. Chuck Tingle is our modern day Kafka, holding up that fun house mirror and laughing along with us at our discomfort. 

A screen capped Tweet from Chuck Tingle that says: "Breaking News: Love is Real. Get the heck out there and have a dang good day" in all caps.