In spite of West Virginia’s rich folklore and modern myths like the Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster, the state’s literature—or even that of Appalachia as a whole—is not typically associated with horror and the supernatural. Nevertheless, West Virginian writers have created several fine exponents of literary fantasy, ranging from Pinckney Benedict’s outstanding magical realist short stories to Ron Houchin’s young adult horror novel The Devil’s Trill, and Victor Depta’s vampire gothic House of the Moon.
Valerie Nieman’s To the Bones (West Virginia University Press, 2019) is an addition to this small canon of the supernatural, albeit one that walks comfortably between literary fiction and an assortment of genre elements that help make it a page turner.
Set in the fictional West Virginia locale of Redbird, Carbon County, the novel opens with a vivid and gruesome scene, as Darrick MacBrehon, a federal government auditor, wakes up in an abandoned mine pit full of human bones. An open head wound serves as a reminder that he was attacked at a gas station, but he does not know why nor how he’s going to return to his home in Washington, D.C., without his wallet, cellphone, and his medication for ataxia—a condition that affects muscle coordination.
MacBrehon manages to climb out of the pit by sticking two femurs into the walls. He reaches a road by following the sound of water flowing down a river “filled bank to bank with orange glop,” the result of the waste generated by Kavanagh Coal and Limestone, the family business that controls Redbird.
Darrick stumbles into town, but he’s seen walking down the road by a local family which, horrified by his gaping wound and plodding pace, starts the rumor that a zombie is prowling the area. He reaches a sweepstakes parlor managed by Louranna Taylor, who simply warns him: “You don’t call the police hereabouts. Ever.”
A Deeper Mystery
The stoic and jaded Louranna has her own ghosts. Her daughter Dreama vanished over a year ago, shortly after becoming the personal assistant of the younger of the two Kavanagh brothers. Her disappearance is but one in a long list of people who have crossed paths with the Kavanaghs, including a local environmentalist investigating the polluted river. The incident is dismissed by the county sheriff, who claims that “agitators come in from outside and then they’re gone, on to the next thing.”
What could have been a more conventional police procedural set against the backdrop of an environmental catastrophe and political corruption adds a new element to the story when Darrick comes face to face with his assailant and he turns out to be a local police officer. The encounter triggers a psychic reaction in MacBrehon, who unwittingly kills him through sheer mental power. As Darrick learns how to control his newfound abilities, he and Louranna delve deeper into the mystery of the Kavanaghs’ stranglehold over Redbird and stories about the family’s own connection to supernatural forces.
In To the Bones, bodily decay serves as a metaphor for a ravaged land and ecological devastation while Redbird’s zombie panic and end-times paranoia are the expression of the prostrate hopelessness of the town’s residents. While some of the story elements like the Kavanaghs’ brooding mansion bring to mind familiar cinematic tropes, the story progresses assuredly thanks to Nieman’s strong characterizations and sense of place, hallmarks of earlier works such as her superb realistic short story collection Fidelities (2004)— an entertaining supernatural thriller about all-too-real threats.
— 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