Very few Christian writers have ventured into the horror genre since Charles Williams and the days of the Inklings. Frank Peretti contributed The Oath, and James Byron Huggins wrote a couple of military/horror thrillers, but that’s about it in the last few decades. So one has to give Shane Johnson credit just for writing a Christian horror novel.
Beyond that, he needs more credit for the audacity of setting a Christian horror novel in 1857... on the Oregon Trail!
Chayatocha focuses on a wagon train that is led into a strange mountain detour where a series of unexplained events are followed by horrifying attacks. As the settlers are slaughtered or vanish one by one, Daniel Paradine, a teacher, is faced with trying to save his wife and son from the horror that stalks them. But he faces a creature that defies his reason and logic, an ageless evil whose designs go far beyond mindless slaughter. Mysteriously spared, Daniel is offered a bargain that could save his family, but cost him his soul.
Shane Johnson included some horror elements in one of his previous books, The Last Guardian. While it worked well, the horror dissolved quickly into the larger plotline. This is his first attempt to sustain that feeling for an entire novel. For the most part, he succeeds very well.
The mood is set very quickly in the prologue, set sixty years prior to the main story in a Native American village. The title comes from there, as well, identifying the evil as Chayatocha, a spirit that devours the world. Johnson employs many standard horror elements, such as cold and darkness, to provide a fitting setting for his villain. The build-up to the actual confrontation between Daniel and Chayatocha is tremendous, a truly chilling tour-de-force of mystery.
In any horror situation, much of the tension comes from the unknown. As things begin to become more “known,” as it were, the tension fades. The mystery fades, and the conflict becomes more straightforward. Sometimes, a story can lose its momentum entirely when this happens. Johnson tries to avoid that by using much of the rest of the story to reveal Chayatocha’s “origin” and bring Daniel Paradine’s character/spiritual journey to its climax before reaching the final showdown. It works, almost perfectly. The “origin” stretches out just a tiny bit too long, it seems. It doesn’t derail the plot, but slows it down just a tad.
Shane Johnson doesn’t ever seek to hide anything about the Christian aspect of his stories. There’s no subtle, hidden message. It’s out in the open. With other writers, that can be a problem, as heavy-handed spirituality can derail a story just as much as bad plotting. But Johnson knows how to make his message an integral part of the story. While the Christian message is overt, the story itself could not exist without it. That’s the way to do it. It’s much more satisfying than a spiritual struggle/conversion shoe-horned on top of another story that has nothing to do with the spiritual side of things.
The story is not for younger readers, obviously, but neither is it just an exploration of evil, as most horror seems to be. Highly Recommended.