The only way for teens to free a condemned soul and prevent their own damnation is to endure seven levels of hell’s infernal game in Lo’s (The Red Lantern Scandals, 2013, etc.) chilling YA horror novel.
Five high schoolers defy the Halloween night curfew in Deer Creek, Kansas, to see the reputed Gateway to Hell at the local church cemetery. But Jake, Kristin, and twin siblings Ashley and Ashton are horrified when bullied Ronnie is pulled away by giant black hands. Two years later, the teens each receive a letter from “The Gamemakers.” They have a choice: win a game and free Ronnie’s soul; don’t play and get a guaranteed pass to hell. And for good measure, a 666 seared onto the backs of their necks validates the game’s legitimacy. They must participate in a bizarre scavenger hunt and locate tokens before their time is up; failure means eternal damnation. The first half of the novel is a solid thriller hitting on relevant social issues. Ronnie is a perpetual victim of bullies, and mean-girl Ashley assures his popularity if he goes into the church. Afterward, when the boy dies, one of the group heads to juvie for murder—while others from affluent families remain free. In the second half, Lo cranks up the terror. An initially subtle religious theme becomes explicit once the game begins, but it’s never heavy-handed. The Seven Deadly Sins, for example, are key components of the game’s seven levels. They’re abundantly clear at first—gluttony’s a part of the cringe-worthy opening level (there’s a lot of slimy, slithering eels)—but are harder to pinpoint as the game continues. Lo deepens the tale with a basic explanation of the game and its origins. The unseen baddies, however, lose a bit of their edge once we see their perspective: they form a council and are upset that someone may be helping the teen players. But Lo churns out genuine frights and unremitting suspense along the way, while a number of turns, including characters’ fates, are irrefutably startling.
There’s nothing tongue-in-cheek here; just terror, sturdy characters, and unadulterated entertainment.