If you’re over the age of twenty-one, chances are, you have spent this season thinking back with fondness on those pre-CoVid (and perhaps, pre-marriage and children) moments spent relaxing with friends at a local watering hole. A hot summer night, a local townie bar, and new friendships: they are the stuff nostalgia-laden movies are made of, and thus begins The God in the Hills. Keri and Dale meet at the Hilljack Haven; they drink, they laugh, and they enjoy one another’s company. Dale suggests, “Hey, you wanna get out of here? ...I meant to a huge bonfire keg party just up the mountain.” In this age of social distancing mandates, this invitation sounds like heaven and sure enough, “Keri thought, tonight may be a lot of fun, after all.” But this is Jon Steffens’ world: Keri isn’t in for an evening of fun. She’s destined for a night of gory terror, and the reader is riding shotgun alongside her.
Part Ojibwa wendigo legend on steroids, part James Dickey’s Deliverance on PCP (and a few smart shakes of Bone Tomahawk for good measure), The God in the Hills made this big city girl terrified to ever step foot in rural Missouri, or any sparsely inhabited woodsy area, for that matter. “He had been here when these hills were made, perhaps before. He was here when the first people respected and feared Him. They paid Him tribute. At first, with animal flesh, [and then] they came to know what he [truly] desired…” And—excuse my pun, but—God help those hapless individuals who were tasked with providing that satiety. Steffens’ novella pulls out all the stops to show what humans are capable of doing once they pass the threshold into raw self-preservation.
The God in the Hills is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for any die-hard feminist horror fans: all of the male characters are despicable misogynists. There is an embarrassment of riches for fans of splattergore, for certain: characters are impaled, spines are broken, and orifices are violated in the most excruciating ways imaginable. The two scenes most unsettling to me, however, are one spotlighting gray pubic hair and another featuring bodily fluid the color of “custard yellow that tasted like rotting leaves and smelled of wet earth.” Steffens’ imagery is wickedly colorful and effective, so don’t read on an empty stomach unless you’re looking to lose a few pounds. This heaping plate of gore is short enough to be finished in one sitting, but it ends with an opening for a sequel. Fans of extreme horror will definitely be asking for a second helping.