Scott’s life is in shambles. He’s dealing with a strained marriage, unpaid bills, and a house that’s crumbling from the inside out. Naturally, all of these problems are coming to a boiling point at the same time. So why can’t Scott focus on anything besides the foreboding cloud formation just visible on the rural Illinois horizon? What is it about that cloud that is making him so anxious?
This is the situation that opens Downpour, the winner of the 2023 BookLife Prize for Fiction, an annual contest for indie authors. Christopher Hawkins’s novel was selected from hundreds of fiction entries across five categories: general fiction, mystery/thriller, romance/erotica, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, and YA/middle grade. The first horror novel to win this award, Downpour tells the story of a family whose personal troubles, especially between husband Scott and wife Dana, become magnified as the aforementioned cloud descends upon their town.
It quickly becomes clear that this is no ordinary storm cloud but one whose rain has mysterious, dangerous properties. Initially, Scott is the only one in his family who cares about the strange cloud, and Hawkins masterfully brings readers into Scott’s anxiety; readers can practically taste Scott’s urgent desire to keep his family inside the house away from the rain. The plot moves quickly as the situation devolves and things go from bad to worse for Scott, Dana, their teen son Jacob, and their young daughter Tallie. Successfully combining elements of horror and mystery with a high gothic setting and apocalyptic atmosphere, Hawkins seamlessly fits Downpour’s multiple sources of conflict into one gripping story.
The prize judges were impressed by the originality of Downpour’s plot, the compelling characters, and—perhaps most of all—the unrelenting tension that starts on page one and never lets up. The novel earned a perfect score of 10/10 in the initial round of judging, with a reviewer describing Hawkins as “a polished, talented storyteller, with chilling prose that splatters visceral fright across the page” and noting that “the book’s setup is intense, and the writing style delivers shocking turns through succinct, measured phrasing.” A recent BookLife review (the novel was an editor’s pick) called Downpour “a propulsive horror story, suspenseful throughout,” praising its “psychological suspense” and comparing it to Bird Box (Josh Malerman), Dead of Winter (Darcy Coates), and Hitchcock’s classic film The Birds.
“I wanted to write a story about the choices people make in a situation where it’s impossible to know what the right choices are,” Hawkins says, explaining that typically “most of those decisions have already been made by the time a postapocalyptic story gets started. The rules of the world are already set. But what happens when you can’t know the rules because the rules keep changing from moment to moment?”
When asked about what makes an unforgettable scary story, Hawkins told BookLife, “I think the key is to have characters that the reader can connect with. You’re never going to come up with a concept that scares everybody, but if you can frighten your characters, and readers can identify with those characters, then the readers will be frightened on their behalf,” adding, “you can’t be afraid for a character unless you care about them.” This is exactly what Hawkins does in Downpour, drawing readers into Scott’s mind and keeping them there even when Scott’s problems shift from relatably quotidian to surreal.
The BookLife Prize is not Hawkins’s first award. His as-yet-unpublished novel I Contain Multitudes took second place in the Chicago Writers Association’s First Chapter contest (2021) and was a finalist for the Claymore Award at the Killer Nashville Contest (2022). He is also the author of Suburban Monsters, a collection of horror stories set among the white picket fences of suburbia.
Despite his successes, the path to getting Downpour published was not an easy one for Hawkins. “It’s been a long road,” he told BookLife. “I spent a lot of time chasing after a traditional publishing deal, working with agents, and in one case, turning down a contract that didn’t sufficiently protect my rights. It was a lot of frustration, but it also gave me time to keep working to develop my craft.” To fellow writers who might be struggling through the process, Hawkins says, “Don’t measure yourself against anyone else’s success. Run your own race. Write what you can, when you can, and always focus on being a little bit better than you were the day before. You’ll get there.”
Leah Grisham is a Cleveland-based writer and reviewer whose work can be found at Leah She Wrote.