Religion is ripe soil for horror writers. If you squint a bit when you read the Bible, it’s a vast catalog of horror itself: Adam and Eve’s eviction from paradise, the invention of death, Cain’s killing of Abel, the torture of Job — and we haven’t even gotten past Genesis! But the Bible is the source of salvation as well, as God provides his people with manna in the wilderness, preserves the human race despite a flood that covers all the earth, and rescues Moses from the bulrushes. With so much rich material to work with, it’s no wonder that writers plant their plots in these vineyards.
Sarah Pinborough uses the Tree of Knowledge and the snake who tempted Eve to eat therefrom as the foundation for Tower Hill. Her choice of evils is unique, but the way it plays out is classic.
Tower Hill is a small town on the coast of Maine a good bit north of Bangor, fairly isolated from the rest of the world. It is home to a small but high-quality university that attracts more serious students who are not interested in the bright lights of the big cities. Although the town and the university are separate worlds rather than fully integrated, the town is proud of the school.
As the novel opens, a new school year is just beginning. Pinborough focuses on a trio of freshmen who are sharing half a house that’s been turned into an apartment: Liz, a quietly religious girl who is nonetheless escaping an extraordinarily religious family; Steve, a casual church-goer who plans to major in accounting; and Angela, who intends to study divinity in order to debunk religion. They immediately strike up a friendship despite their differences, one of mutual respect and genuine liking.
On the first Sunday of the school year, Liz finds that she has promised to attend Mass at the local Catholic church despite her determination to give organized religion a pass for a while. The church is an old stone building, seemingly older than anything else in town, and it intrigues Liz simply as a building. But she doesn’t have time to dwell on the building for long, because the new priest, who arrived in town at the same time the new students did, comes from the vestry and immediately launches into a sermon about Communion. He speaks with an odd sort of music playing behind him, his sermon inexplicably fascinating his congregation almost to the point of hypnosis — except for Liz, who is bored almost to tears. The Communion he serves his parishioners seems sufficiently strange that Liz only mimes sharing in the bread and wine. (Pinborough, by the way, egregiously fails to describe an actual Mass. No Mass begins with a sermon, no Catholic sermon goes on for 45 minutes, and Communion does not immediately follow the sermon. It is surprising that Pinborough would choose a Catholic church for the setting of her story if she was going to ignore Catholic ritual; it throws any reader with a knowledge of Catholicism right out of the story, and niggles throughout the rest of the book.)
At the same time Liz is attending Mass, Angela is participating in the first meeting of the paranormal society at the university. The history professor who leads the meeting is a handsome fellow who begins by teaching his group to meditate. He lights a strangely dark and lumpy candle, asks his students to close their eyes, and whispers a word in the ear of each attentive student to use as a mantra. Before long, they are all dead to the world, as hypnotized as the Catholic congregation.
The reader already knows that the priest and the history professor are not who they seem, and that they are up to no good, but the nature of their plan only gradually reveals itself. The entire town falls under the spell of the two men, whether it is through church or school, Communion or some specially baked chocolate muffins one of the churchgoers starts delivering to every home and business. Few people escape partaking of a substance incorporated into the muffins and Communion wafers and squirted with an eyedropper into the mouths of the mediating students, a substance that seems to be blood. None of the townsfolk notice that anything peculiar is going on, because they are all part of it. Few escape — Liz, Steve, and a sheriff’s deputy are nearly the only souls who do.
And that means that those three, together with the town drunk, now reformed, are tasked with saving the world when the world needs saving. As the plan the priest and professor are following becomes clear, as the town draws in upon itself in preparation for the culmination of their plans, it is up to the only four who have avoided the spell in which the town is enmeshed to call upon their God to put a stop to Armageddon.
As the plot summary should make clear, Tower Hill reads as if it were written to a formula. The characters are types rather than individuals, and Pinborough makes limited use of her setting. In particular, the religious culmination of events feels forced and even undeserved by the characters, who have done nothing to merit the extraordinary intervention of God to save the day.
Pinborough has been hailed as one of the fresh new voices of horror fiction. Her short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. But this novel belies that reputation. Tower Hill is the fifth novel Pinborough published in five years, and perhaps the author simply became fatigued with writing about dark and horrible happenings, because this novel is unremarkable. Though it is competently written (despite her misuse of Catholic ritual), it fails to provide the thrill of terror that leads one to read in this genre.