By Ellen Avigliano
Where do I even begin?! The Cult Called Freedom House is a stunning debut novel from Stephanie Evelyn (aka Sterp). It was one hell of a crazy ride from its first page to its last. It is a smart, fast paced, edge-of-your-seat detective murder-mystery thriller, and one you won’t want to put down. At its core though, it truly is a horror novel, and make no
mistake, this is not a book for the faint of heart. The Cult Called Freedom House is what you would get if the old school Wicker Man and every episode of Law & Order: SUV had a love child, and then that child was raised by The Silence of the Lambs. It’s weird and over the top, and you know what? I am so here for it; I was so engrossed I finished it in a single day!
TCCFH follows Officer Sophia Rey, a police woman with a troubled past, and Samantha, a 14 year old runaway from a broken home. Samantha seeks comfort, solace, and stability and is the perfect target for any cult. Officer Rey wants to save the world to fill the hole in her life that a desperate loss created, and that drive is what makes her the perfect candidate to go up against the cult. I’m not going to rehash smaller details or give yet another summary, because the less you know about the plot and what’s coming, the better off you are. Truly, half the fun of wading through these dark waters is not being able to see they’re shark infested!
Fair warning to the squeamish: there is a lot of potentially triggering content within these pages. This book has some truly brutally violent scenes, a fair amount of uncomfortable sexual content, domestic/child abuse, body horror, and….well…anything else more specific would really be a spoiler. Suffice it to say, I almost lost my lunch a few times, but was too emotionally invested in the story to let that deter me from continuing on at a rapid pace (one may also in general consider me a glutton for punishment, or perhaps a reader with a masochistic side who likes to suffer for the sake of The Art HAHA!).
The characters and their motivations are realistic and plausible, and well-crafted. Main characters Sophia and Samantha are relatable and sympathetic. They make great examples of how trauma affects everyone, but each of us process it in wildly different ways to cope with its existence. The villains are about as low-down and dirty as you could ever want; they are some of literature’s most lecherous, vile, despicable creatures! Cyrus and his crew are repugnant, despicable, and truly heinous, and their actions are reprehensible.
Freedom House itself is located in beautiful, sunny, laid-back California which makes an interesting backdrop for a creepy, sinister cult itself. California warmth and sunshine are a stark contrast to the scary underbelly of this cult. The hippie chic aesthetic of Freedom House is bright and “whatever man” on the outside, but lurking deep within its walls are the most horrific and harrowing of scenes.
This book is clearly well-researched and the cult lore/principles are firmly rooted in reality, which quite frankly only aids the terror. As with any cult, the manipulation tactics of the members within Freedom House are expertly employed on one another as well as new recruits. What appears to be a welcoming, free-flowing family on the surface really has its own terrible secrets at its center. Unlike other horror or crime novels I have previously read, the disturbing sexual content is not used as erotic fodder which I found to be a refreshing change of pace. Sexual content used as a plot device is there to add realism and drive home the point of just how awful humans can really be to one another. The abuses and behaviors the characters face are not glorified for simple entertainment value. Even the most brutal scenes are finessed in such a way that readers understand the implication of an action’s consequences, but never witness “The Act Itself.” The real terror throughout is the terrifying psychological impact on the characters and the reader as together we witness the unfolding of
each salacious event.
All of these ingredients together make for a truly delicious debut novel that you can really sink your teeth into. Make no bones about it, Stephanie Evelyn is pouring a solid foundation to cement herself as one of the greats in horror/thriller writing. She truly has a gift! The second installment in the Sophia Rey series is arriving in early 2020, and I seriously cannot wait to get my hands on it.
I received this book from the author for review consideration.