In one of the most searing dialogues of Chris McGinley’s debut short story collection Coal Black, an eastern Kentucky drug dealer known as Hellbender asks a sheriff who’s been pursuing him: “Why do you think people around here are so addicted to drugs?” He answers his own question: “It’s because of depression. And by that I mean personal depression and economic depression. (…) When coal died out, the economy died out, and people’s spirits died out with it. There ain’t much else around here. Hopelessness is all there is. (…) And no one can live on hope alone, not for very long at last. I give the people what they want, what they need, even though it’s not really good for them.”
There is a streak of fatalism in Coal Black that is not just informed by the trappings of the crime fiction genre, but by the socioeconomic devastation of its rural Kentucky setting. The survivalist outlook of the characters in these stories is its inevitable consequence.
In “These Hills,” a poacher named Sims steals elm bark and snakes from state parks and sells them to a corrupt preacher. When he is finally caught by a game warden known as Vaughn, Sims asks him: “[T]his place, it must mean a lot to you. Do you think it’s a sacred place?” Vaugh answers: “Damn straight it is. All this sh#t around us. Drugs, poverty, sickness. The forest is the only good thing left around here.”
The setting of Coal Black is a land stripped of resources by extractive industry but also a mental landscape. McGinley often tells us more about it through details skillfully weaved in the background than through the action itself. The coal seams have been depleted, the mountaintops blown, and the rivers polluted, but there seem to be more stories waiting to be told, whether in a stack of unpaid medical bills lying on a living room table or in a scene glimpsed from a passing car.
A Potent Mix
In “Coal Black Haint,” Sheriff Bertie Clemmons looks in the mountains and an abandoned coal tipple for a missing young woman. While driving though a holler, she observes while a “… little girl in a dress too big for her played with a stick along the side of the road. It was all Bertie could do to manage a wave and a false smile. The girl eyed her with the indifference that would one day become either resignation or anger, maybe both.”
Children, including the sheriff’s own daughter, have gone missing in the area for years. Rumors about the disappearances become intertwined with local stories about a haint—a dead spirit common to Southern lore—that roams the hills. Her presence is one of the supernatural elements also insinuated by McGinley in stories like “And They Shall Take Up Serpents,” where another haint is said to attack workers mining a mountain, and “The Females Especially,” in which a cooper’s hawk displaced from its habitat by a mining operation becomes a symbol of misfortune. The sinister reveal at the ending of these stories may owe to supernatural causes or to how both readers and characters alike look for an otherworldly explanation to the relentless brutality. This ambiguity brings to mind West Virginian author Davis Grubb, whose haunting rural noir stories also veered occasionally into the supernatural.
The latest title from the Charleston, West Virginia-based imprint Shotgun Honey, Coal Black amalgamates pulp and literary fiction to form a potent mix of grit and crime.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review, among others.Review by Gonzalo Baeza