Fat Camp sounds like something straight out of the 1980s. Phillip McKracken is a morbidly obese teenager who goes to a summer camp to lose weight. There are bullies and crushes interwoven into a coming of age story. Phil decides he has had enough of the camp and comes up with a scheme to head home. Before he can escape, a mysterious killer begins brutally murdering the other corpulent campers.
Author James Sabatta obviously loves the slashers that were so popular in the 1980s. His book is a loving homage to the period. There are many parallels that can be drawn between his book and movies of the period. It is a thin line between paying tribute and ripping off the source material. Some will may even think Sabatta has crossed it. Fat Camp definitely follows a familiar path.
Looking deeper than the recognizable setting will show the story is more of a love letter, however. Although Fat Camp is very much a 80’s horror movie, the book never seems like a cheap copy. Sabatta is treading different ground. It just so happens the area is one that has been traveled many times. The book is recognizable and still remains new.
This is mainly due to the protagonist. It is not often the hero is a 400 pound overweight teenager. Yet, Phil fits the role perfectly. He has a strong character arc that seems him progress over the course of Fat Camp. Most importantly, readers will be able to relate with him. Who has not struggled to control their own weight? Even those who are lucky to never have that issue have come across other obstacles. Whether it is school, work, or relationships, everyone has been overwhelmed and wanted to give up. Phil serves as an avatar for those reading the book.
Having a strong villain also helps. In every good camp slasher there has to be a mean counselor. They have to be intimidating, cruel, and spiteful of the kids they are looking after. They seem to take joy in making their residents suffer. Fat Camp has Sarge, an ex Marine who can barely hide his contempt. He is the type of character that readers will immediately hate.
Fat Camp deals with themes that may initially seem par for the course. There is a coming of age element to go along with Phil’s transformation. But the story also deals with issues that are usually only given a cursory glance in the genre. Obviously, it deals with body issues and shaming. However, it goes beyond simple mocking. It is hard to not actually pity Phil and his fellow campers. The peer pressure and bullying found is also surprisingly harsh. Sabatta is unafraid to push buttons as he deals with these topics.
Paying homage to 80’s horror requires getting some important elements right. From the throwback cover to some shockingly violent kills, Fat Camp does not skimp on the violence. There are even some deaths that will induce cringes from more sensitive readers. In true 80’s scare fashion, the story also makes sure to inject appropriate amounts of humor. It is the perfect mix of throat slashes and belly laughs.
The story is told from Phil’s point of view. For the most part this works. Readers are allowed to see things as they are happening. It is also a neat way to explore the main character’s motivations. It is not necessary to spell everything out. Word choices and opinions tell readers what they need to know. It can be tricky telling a story in first person, however. Especially when the character sees and knows things they logically should not.
Fat Camp looks and plays like a 1980’s horror movie. The Friday the 13th influence is heavy. There is sexual tension, humor, horrible counselors, and some very brutal death scenes. That being said, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as a poor attempt to cash in on nostalgia. The strong characters and willingness to tackle important issues make Fat Camp an enjoyable read.