The 2020 novel Gilchrist by Christian Galacar is another horror novel I stumbled across while browsing the Kindle Unlimited free selections; the title and cover art intrigued me, so I thought I’d give it a whirl. Galacar, according to his bio, holds a degree in finance and worked in that field for several years before finally deciding, in 2012, to follow his lifelong passion and start writing fiction.
He lists Stephen King as one of his biggest writing influences, and this will become immediately obvious while reading Gilchrist. While some reviews I read didn’t like the book for that very reason, feeling as though it was too much of a pastiche, I didn’t find that at all, and I actually adored this book, and kept thinking about it long after I finished it. Yes, it is very Stephen King-y, which I’ll expand upon later, but that didn’t bother me one bit; I got hooked into this story early and read almost the entire thing—all 512 pages of it—in one sitting. I also got some Dean Koontz and some Robert McCammon vibes from the way the story unfolded.
The tale is set in 1966, near Concord, Massachusetts. At first, we’re following a married couple, Peter and Sylvia Martell, who are still grieving after the death of their toddler son Noah in a tragic accident about eighteen months before. They’ve both been drinking a little too much, and Sylvia is further coping with pills; in addition, their relationship is just a shadow of what it once was. They’ve been trying to conceive again, but it doesn’t seem to be happening for them; at the beginning of the story, they’re consulting with a fertility doctor who tells them that he can’t find anything physically wrong with either one of them, and that their best bet, if they really want another child, is just to keep trying. This ambiguity isn’t really what the couple want to hear, though, and Sylvia seems to settle a little further into her depression.
Peter, who is a successful novelist, has a very strange and unsettling dream one night in which he hears a voice saying the word, “Gilchrist.” He doesn’t know what this is, but the dream wigs him out just the same. Then, shortly afterward, he’s driving back from his publisher’s on a highway he’s taken a thousand times, and he suddenly notices a sign designating an exit for a town called Gilchrist. He’s never seen it before, but he figures he’s gotten so used to driving this route that he just took the signs for granted (the sign also had the exits for Concord and Worcester, so it’s not all that weird, he reasons).
Curious, he decides to pop down to the town and see what’s what. It’s a pretty small place, with not many people around, but since he’s hungry, he pulls in front of a tavern to see if he can get a cold beer and something to eat. On his way in, a very clearly drunk guy comes out of the tavern, says some bizarro shit, then licks his face. Peter is taken aback, but the man who runs the tavern, George, is super friendly and says to ignore that guy, because he’s just a drunk nut and he’s harmless. George then proceeds to make Peter a couple of the best burgers he’s ever eaten, and Peter starts to feel like maybe he likes this place; there’s some indefinable quality about it that’s very attractive to him, and he also feels as though he’s been here before, even though he hasn’t. It also has a really nostalgic smell to it, a smoky scent that’s reminiscent of autumn.
On a whim, he resolves to rent a vacation house for him and his wife, thinking a few weeks away from home will be something of a fresh start for them. The town’s realtor is also very friendly, and tells him there’s a lovely cabin available to rent, called Shady Cove, right on the banks of a lake the locals call Big Bath. As a matter of fact, a famous horror writer, Declan Wade, had stayed in that very cabin two years prior, and had even written one of his bestselling novels there. Peter is enchanted, and immediately signs on the dotted line.
When he gets back home, though, something has gone awry with Sylvia, and after that point, the focus of the narrative shifts to the various residents of Gilchrist. This was a tad jarring for me at first, because we don’t actually catch back up with Peter and Sylvia until a bit later on in the story when they arrive at the cabin, but once I got into the swing of things, I just let myself get carried along with the tale. Keep in mind, though, that this book has a fairly large number of characters, and it jumps back and forth between them frequently, so you really have to be paying attention in order to keep all the plot threads straight.
So the deal with Gilchrist is that it’s apparently something of a “cursed” town, a place where the barrier between this world and…somewhere else is very thin. Bad things seem to happen more often in Gilchrist than elsewhere, and it seems that some terrifying and amorphous beings from beyond the veil enjoy manipulating the humans in Gilchrist into situations that will result in tragedies, so they can feed on the fear and despair thus produced.
In many ways, the town of Gilchrist is reminiscent of the Derry, Maine of Stephen King’s It, although Gilchrist is less focused on a group of children, and the “monsters” of Gilchrist are less concerned with shapeshifting into people’s greatest fear as they are with getting into people’s heads and making them do terrible things. And a lot of terrible things happen in this book, much of it quite gorily described. It also really goes for the throat in terms of who gets killed off and in what manner; this novel has a pretty significant death toll, in other words.
I saw that some readers thought the monsters of Gilchrist were too vague and impossible for humans to really understand or defeat, but again, that didn’t bother me either; to me, the beings came across as something more akin to a cosmic horror type of antagonist, or something that was so alien or interdimensional that humans had absolutely no hope against it. Referring to Stephen King again, I also got a definite whiff of The Tommyknockers, though the monsters in Gilchrist weren’t really aliens in the way most people would define that term. I also quite liked the unsettling descriptions of what these things looked like, especially their creepy, colorful “faces.”
Though I will admit that the sheer scale of the story and the vast number of characters made the book feel slightly disjointed in parts, the more I thought about the book after I finished it, the more connections I realized I had missed while I was reading it. I do wish more had been done with a couple of the characters—such as Declan Wade, who just appears in one scene to explain some stuff, then is never heard from again, and the little psychic boy who reminded me of Danny from The Shining—but as I said, the book is ambitiously attempting to give a rounded portrait of a cursed town and its residents, so some of the characters get a lot more “screen time” than others. I feel there was enough there to get a solid feel for this town as a real place with real, sympathetic people living within it.
If you like Stephen King’s more sprawling novels and don’t mind a story that has elements of King homage (though is still very much its own thing, I must add), then you’ll probably enjoy Gilchrist as well. I found it quite immersive and page-turning, and I had enough emotional engagement with the characters to actually feel really bad when something awful happened to them. Keep in mind that this is a story you need to focus your full attention on, because character perspectives shift quite a bit, and sometimes you’ll be following one set of characters for a while, only for it to move to another set for a long stretch of time. It does this less as the story goes on and builds toward the climax, though. Also bear in mind that if you’re a fan of happy endings in horror, then maybe give this one a pass, because the ending is pretty sad and somewhat ambiguous.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.