Demon Camp: A Soldier's Exorcism

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In 2005 a Chinook helicopter carrying sixteen Special Ops soldiers crashed during a rescue mission in a remote part of Afghanistan, killing everyone on board.

In that instant, machine gunner Caleb Daniels lost his best friend, Kip Jacoby, and seven members of his unit. Back in the US, Caleb begins to see them everywhere—dead Kip, with his Alice in Wonderland tattoos, and the rest of them, their burned bodies watching him. But there is something else haunting Caleb, too—a ...

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Demon Camp: The Strange and Terrible Saga of a Soldier's Return from War

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In 2005 a Chinook helicopter carrying sixteen Special Ops soldiers crashed during a rescue mission in a remote part of Afghanistan, killing everyone on board.

In that instant, machine gunner Caleb Daniels lost his best friend, Kip Jacoby, and seven members of his unit. Back in the US, Caleb begins to see them everywhere—dead Kip, with his Alice in Wonderland tattoos, and the rest of them, their burned bodies watching him. But there is something else haunting Caleb, too—a presence he calls the Black Thing, or the Destroyer, a paralyzing horror that Caleb comes to believe is a demon.

Alone with these apparitions, Caleb considers killing himself. There is an epidemic of suicide among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, men and women with post-traumatic stress disorder who cannot cope with ordinary life in the aftermath of explosions and carnage. Jennifer Percy finds herself drawn to their stories, wanting to comprehend their experiences and pain.

Her subject, Caleb, has been bringing damaged veterans to a Christian exorcism camp in Georgia that promises them deliverance from the war. As Percy spends time with these soldiers and exorcists and their followers—finding their beliefs both repel­lant and magnetic—she enters a world of fanaticism that is alternately terrifying and welcoming.

With a jagged lyricism reminiscent of Michael Herr and Denis Johnson, Demon Camp is the riveting true story of a veteran with PTSD and an explora­tion of the battles soldiers face after the war is over. Percy’s riveting account forces us to gaze upon the true human consequences of the War on Terror.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jennifer Percy first encountered Army veteran Caleb Daniels while tracking the story of returning Iraq and Afghanistan soldiers who were suffering from Post Traumatic Disorder. Her conversations with the former Special Ops machine gunner convinced her to visit him at a Christian camp where he and others participate in formal exorcisms of their personal demons. Told without sensationalism or condescension, Demon Camp takes us inside the lives of veterans fighting battles from wars the rest of us have left behind.

Publishers Weekly
Tropes surrounding veterans in the public discourse—invincible warriors, heroic patriots—mask the reality of warfare, but Percy peels back the gauze, revealing deeply wounded individuals. Having enlisted to escape hometown oppression or untenably low positions on the socioeconomic ladder, veterans return haunted by the violence they’ve endured. Caleb, Percy’s primary subject, is besieged by apparitions after his closest friend dies in a helicopter crash, and comes to rely on his hallucinations to get him through the day. An army psychologist explains that sufferers of PTSD will relive their trauma “again and again until the mind is able to assimilate and process the event,” experiencing a world of demons more real than physical objects. Caleb and other veterans are drawn to tiny Portal, Ga., where a self-taught pastor engages in “spiritual warfare,” claiming he stopped counting the number of exorcisms he’s performed after 5,000. Percy becomes part of the life of the church, where the veterans and the true believers maintain a measure of distance, treating each other with a mutual wariness. Her sharp, unadorned writing captures the rawness of the congregants’ lives, the permeability of the borderline between reality and imagination —her own exorcism proving to her “how easily, how intrusively, a heightened situation can make us, any of us, slip.” (Jan.)
The New Inquiry
"The most unusual and beautiful portrait of trauma to come out of the last thirteen years."
“A powerful debut and a haunting portrait of PTSD, and the effects of war on the psyches of the soldiers who fight and the extreme lengths they'll go to to find relief and heal.”
the Oprah magazine O
“A chilling work of narrative non-fiction.”
Shelf Awareness (starred review)
"You can't walk away from Percy's strong debut without feeling like you've spent a frightening moment inside the heads of soldiers who come home from war with nothing but demons, no place to go and no easy role to play. . . . An auspicious debut."
Los Angeles Times
"Shines a bright light on America's wounded psyche. . . . Percy's beautiful, lucid writing takes the reader into the lives of soldiers wrestling with faith in this often harrowing book on the personal, cultural, and political costs of war."
Winnipeg Free Press
"[A] talented young writer... Chilling and raw."
Bookforum - Jeff Sharlet
“[A] darkly brilliant book… Remarkable… Startling, precise prose.”
The Daily Beast - Brian Van Reet
"Thrilling . . . Percy is on to something essential here: understanding PTSD is one key to understanding our present cultural moment."
Portland Oregonian
“The writing is beautiful… Percy has a photographer's eye… She deftly makes this story part of a bigger picture — for her, what happened to Caleb Daniels is a key to understanding the way America deals with war and its aftermath.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Haunting . . . Exposes the raw reality of pain and loss. Many of us have read and heard about the post-traumatic stress disorder . . . Percy has lifted the veil for us.”
Tottenville Review
“Ambitious…. what Daniels, and Percy as his medium, have provided is a meditation on trauma, a haunted interior made external: an exorcism provided by the text. It is a rough-and-tumble first book for Percy and a remarkable one.”
Teddy Wayne
“Jennifer Percy has taken a sensationalistic, tabloid-worthy subject and explored it in a remarkably clear-eyed and empathetic fashion, without a trace of condescension. Demon Camp is not only luminously written and exhaustively researched; it's an important account of post-traumatic stress disorder in modern warfare.”
John D'Agata
“Beneath the taut, wry surface of Jen Percy's Demon Camp is a deeply felt investigation that is marvelously disturbing—-a pitch-perfect blend of reportage, meditation, and outright fantasy that beautifully captures the wounds of mind and heart in ruins.”
Kim Barnes
“This is the book I’ve been waiting for. Lyrical, haunting, surreal, as fiercely brave as it is fearsome, Jen Percy’s Demon Camp is both damning and redemptive, a shot straight to the hellish heart of war.”
Claire Vaye Watkins
"Demon Camp is the most urgent, most harrowing book to yet emerge from our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Jennifer Percy is a brave and relentlessly powerful witness, again and again confronting us with the monsters of our own making. Written with haunting austerity, this exceptionally important book must be read not only by every voter but by every one of us yearning to be more humane."
Donovan Hohn
“A triumph of reporting, storytelling, and sympathy. Jennifer Percy writes as if possessed, not by her own demons but by the war-torn lives she documents. Like some pilgrim in a latter-day Inferno, with machine gunner Sergeant Caleb Daniels for her Virgil, she has descended into an all-American hell, eyes open, notebook in hand, and returned with this haunted and haunting fever-dream of a book.”
Benjamin Busch
"This wild journey alongside madness leads Percy to the place where myth is conceived and destroyed, our wars overseas brought home as nightmares. You will begin to wonder how much pain is dreamed and if fantasy might be the way to cure it. A unique, fascinating and always surprising book."
Michelle Huneven
"With exquisite patience, a wide open mind, and a willingness that trembles on vulnerability to immerse herself in her subject, Jennifer Percy recounts the terrible, ongoing struggles of soldiers whom the war has followed home. Writing in lucid, beautiful sentences, Percy exposes the great psychic cost of the Bush-era wars as paid by these young men, and gives us to understand that their stories are America’s stories, their demons, America’s demons."
Doug Stanton
"Demon Camp is for fans of Michael Herr's Dispatches or Hunter Thompson's own dark journeys through America; indeed, it's hard to describe Demon Camp as anything but a tour de force literary experience: exquisitely written, psychologically deft and nimble, and shocking. Jen Percy writes a book that is at once so singular that it speaks to despair and joy yawing over our collective horizon. Here is a new, utterly surprising world we can scarcely imagine being in, except in Percy's hands."
Dexter Filkins
Demon Camp is the amazing story of one man’s journey to war and back. It’s a tale so extraordinary that at times it seems conjured from a dream; as it unfolds it’s not just Caleb Daniels that comes into focus, but America, too. Jen Percy has orchestrated a great narrative about redemption, loss and hope.”
Alexander Chee
"If you want to understand America now, read Jennifer Percy's Demon Camp. An electric, unflinchingly brave and entirely necessary debut."
Luis Alberto Urrea
"Jennifer Percy has walked far out into The Twilight Zone and leads us into realms of horror and dread, mystery and high weirdness. I have never read anything quite like it. Are there devils? You might come away from this book thinking it's possible."
Shelf Awareness
“Percy seems to have been schooled in the Hunter Thompson/Tom Wolfe style of immersion journalism…. You can't walk away from Percy's strong debut without feeling like you've spent a frightening moment inside the heads of soldiers who come home from war with nothing but demons, no place to go and no easy role to play.”
New York Times Book Review
“Visceral, seductive… It’s hard to pull away… Percy’s narrative artfully upsets a common misperception: that all veterans’ experiences of war are alike.”
“A powerful debut and a haunting portrait of PTSD, and the effects of war on the psyches of the soldiers who fight and the extreme lengths they'll go to to find relief and heal.”
Kirkus Reviews
A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop turns her sights on the dark story of a soldier with PTSD who is haunted by his demons. This odd blend of nonfiction, meditation, new journalism and self-expression by debut author Percy wants to be so many things that it becomes difficult to sort it all out. For such a gothic tale of horror, it starts sparingly. In a parking lot in woodsy Georgia, the author met a young man named Caleb Daniels, a traumatized veteran of the war in Afghanistan. As the young writer unraveled the soldier's tale, she learned that Caleb's illness manifests itself as an actual demon that he alone can see, a beast he calls "The Black Thing." For Percy, it becomes a way into a culture that she can never fully understand. "In primitive cultures, if one is sick, it has to be a demon, and finding the one who cursed you is halfway to the cure," she writes. "Does the exorcist ever require an exorcism? People see post-traumatic stress as a problem specifically of war, but it's also a problem of our culture. A physical reaction is a sign of societal malaise. Their demons, and America's demons." The author became increasingly embroiled in the story of Caleb and a remote Christian camp where he and other veterans swore of liberation from demons like "the Ruling Level Demon of Antichrist," as well as the dangled promise of salvation. The book suffers from its lack of perspective and straight-ahead reportage--names and details have been changed--but the story goes way over the top when Percy decided that she was suffering from the same conditions as Caleb. "I see the bat in the dark and the bat says suicide and the bat rapes me. But those are just the dreams," she writes. Percy wields language with admirable restraint, but her poetic gifts might be better served in fiction.
From the Publisher
"[Percy's] sharp, unadorned writing captures the rawness of the congregants' lives, the permeability of the borderline between reality and imagination." —Publishers Weekly
The New Inquiry - Jesse Barron
"Percy’s book gets so close its subject’s consciousness that it stops being about any social issue, the way Executioner’s Song isn’t really 'about' the psychology of killers. It’s the most unusual and beautiful portrait of trauma to come out of the last thirteen years."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781451661989
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 1/14/2014
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 411,788
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jen Percy is a Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and received an Iowa Arts fellowship from the Nonfiction Writing Program. Winner of a Pushcart Prize, she is also a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts grant.
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Jennifer Percy, Author of Demon Camp

Your book examines the epidemic of suicide among veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by delving into personal stories—notably that of one former sergeant, a troubled veteran whom you call Caleb Daniels. What got you started on this project?

It began with an article I read in the McClatchy Report about a young soldier who committed suicide after he believed he was being followed night after night by the dead Iraqi man he killed. I called up the soldier's sister and she started telling me about the haunting. The conversation completely defamiliarized my understanding of PTSD. She told her story without relying on a prescribed vocabulary—a vocabulary divorced from politics and psychiatry. I was used to a different conversation about PTSD because, like most people, I only knew what the media was telling me.

Caleb brings you into an evangelical community in Portal, Georgia, that promises people deliverance from their "demons." The question of what demons really are hovers over the narrative—whether, in the eyes of this community, demons are actual beings or merely a way of describing trauma.

Absolutely. To the people I met in Portal, the demons are literal. To anyone who doesn't believe in demons, they talk in perfect metaphors of war and illness. For Caleb, and for the veterans who did manage to find comfort in the world of deliverance, it gave them a way to talk about the war in the context of religion.

In the book, as you get deeper into reporting the story, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern what is real from what your characters imagine to be real. Does this mirror your own personal experience?

I hope that it mirrors Caleb's experience, or at least gives us a taste of what it might be like to feel haunted, by war and by our past. In terms of mirroring my own experiences, I did begin to fear my imagination and its power. But that's not to say I couldn't distinguish it from reality. The worlds our imagination creates are seductive ones. I also think that to assume that we know what's real and what's not is already a stance of ignorance. To question everything—to interrogate our own reality—is important. Of course, it's also a dangerous task. Questioning breaks things apart and creates new ways of seeing—and sometimes we don't like what we find.

What was your writing experience like?

Once I found a structure for the book, it wasn't hard. I tend to write in the manner of a collagist—a more raw and impressionistic style—and then go back and add the connective tissue. It was certainly difficult to process the narrative without some space between myself and the experience, but I suppose that's true for most writing. It took a long time, for example, to process the way I sometimes reacted to deliverance because I didn't believe in it—not in any intellectual way. Yet I was having an emotional, almost primitive reaction. And, from beginning to end, Caleb reminded me that a demon didn't want me to write the book. Sometimes when I was transcribing notes or reworking scenes, I'd turn on a few extra lights in the house.

Who have you discovered lately?

I'm in love with the work of James Salter. I always have one of his books by my side. Sometimes I'll just read a few paragraphs of his work and I'll feel nourished. I'm reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, which is a great testament to the way nonfiction, despite subject matter, can and should be held to the same literary standards as fiction.
[Behind the Beautiful Forevers was a 2012 pick and shortlisted for the Discover Award that year. -Ed.]

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 22, 2014

    Incredibly well-written, Riveting.

    I can't recommend this book too highly. This is not a journalistic report. This brings you into the lives of young veterans with PTSD, in a life and death struggle to find relief from the suffering that pierces them. The writing is breathtakingly good, spare, and beautiful. The best book I've read so far in 2013-14.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 7, 2014

    more from this reviewer


    It is amazing what an affliction such as PTSD forces a person to do, let alone get help. As far as the "camp" helping people, it is to be determined; a sad trailer park story at times.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2014

    Fantastic read.

    Fantastic read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 12, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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