Cover of Campfire by Shawn Sarles. Closeup of a pair of eyes, reflecting a campfire

About the Book

Title: Campfire
Published: 2018

Cover Story: Spot On
Drinking Buddy: Flat
Testosterone Estrogen Level: 50/50
Talky Talk: Jump Scare
Bonus Factor: And Then There Were None
Bromance Status: Tag Along Kid Brother

Cover Story: Spot On

This. This is what covers of horror books should look like. The eyes have it, so to speak. Though I am uncomfortably reminded of the movie poster for the 1976 horror classic God Told Me To (Kill):

Movie poster for God Told Me to Kill

The Deal:

When she was eleven, Maddie Davenport witnessed her mother die in a mysterious explosion. Five years later, Maddie is camping on an isolated mountain with her best friend Chelsea, her brother, her father, and various other family members and friends. As with most camping trips, everyone is miserable and on edge, so hunky trail guide Caleb suggests a round of campfire stories. It’s the usual fare: a bloodthirsty bear, the ubiquitous escaped mental patient, and a tribe of deranged mountain men. But strange things begin happening. Little events from the stories start occurring in real life. Just a coincidence, right? But soon, things take a turn for the grim and these stories no longer seem fictitious. Maddie wonders if any of them are going to get off this mountain alive.

Drinking Buddy: Flat

Two pints of beer cheersing with a "Denied" stamp over them

Maddie was certainly…there. I mean, she existed and everything. But for the POV character, I didn’t get much out of her. No reactions. No fear. Just vague complaining and trying to flirt with Caleb. Even when the survivors are running for their lives, she seems more interested in asking her brother if he’d really lost his baseball scholarship. When Caleb is accused of being a murderer and is being tortured by another camper, Maddie really disapproves. Kind of.

The rest of the characters were rather stock: The enemy-turned-friend, the obnoxious uncle, the handsome, mysterious guide, the conniving businesswoman, the quiet, Korean-American aunt…they all felt like extras.

Testosterone Estrogen Level: 50/50

This was a short book, and for the first half, absolutely nothing scary happened. Nothing. Not even a little bit. All the creepy stuff turned out to have perfectly logical explanations. Even the ghost stories had kind of a ‘golden arm’/’bloody fingers’ vibe. We’ve heard ’em. Other than that, it was a bunch of bickering family members off in the woods.

And then the gore fest starts. People start dying off every few pages. I got slasher movie overload: wait, I thought he was already dead. No, it was the other guy who got shot. Or did he get his throat slashed? It all kind of ran together.

Talky Talk: Jump Scare

It could have worked. It was a neat idea. But the campfire stories weren’t anything special, and by the time they start showing up in real life, people were already dying. We could have used a lot more foreshadowing and one or two more tales.

With fourteen campers, I was kind of overwhelmed with names. Some of them, like Maddie’s cousin Brian, barely said two sentences the entire book. I think we could have pared down the cast a little. There were also a lot of niggling little continuity errors and questionable judgements. Nothing glaring, but little things like wondering why they had all their equipment sent up the mountain, but no water, took me out of the story. And no, it wasn’t logical to get their water from a mountain stream, unless they liked drinking e coli and raccoon piss.

A good horror story builds and builds, implying the terrors to come, with moments of mind-numbing violence separated by stretches of unsettling calm. We don’t need to be told who was secretly boning whom, and we needed the scary parts to be…scary.

That being said, I did NOT see that ending coming.

Bonus Factor: And Then There Were None

Previously titled Ten Little Indians or Ten Little…Jesus

So we have fourteen campers, cut off from the rest of the world. Their phones don’t get reception, someone has smashed up the radio, and now they’re being killed off by an unseen murderer or murderers.

As in Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, no one is sure who to trust, or if the killer may be one of their group. The accusations fly. One of campers brought a gun, and he’s a little trigger happy. Will the group flush out the murderer before it’s too late, or will they finish themselves off in a panic? Both books kept me guessing until the end.

Bromance Status: Tag Along Kid Brother

You tried to imitate the great horror and mystery novels that came before you, but didn’t quite make it. Keep trying. You’ll get there.

Literary Matchmaking

The Troop

For a better (though grosser) book about a murderer in an isolated setting, try The Troop, by Nick Cutter.

Thirteen Chairs

Want a nice compilation of creepy stories in an unsettling setting? Read Thirteen Chairs by Dave Shelton.

The Wrong Train

Or Jeremy du Quidt’s The Wrong Train.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher, but no money or s’mores.


Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.