In this unusual tale of death and monsters and environmental devastation, horror, science fiction, romance, and satire bleed together to form a vibrant literary delight that is as powerful and imposing as the fearsome orange-hued river that runs through it.
To the Bones is the fourth novel from American author Valerie Nieman, who teaches creative writing at North Carolina A&T State University. Nieman, whose poetry and prose have appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, was once a journalist and a newspaper editor. She has also worked as a farmer. Here, she applies her knowledge of Appalachian heritage, coal mining in the region, and investigative journalism to chisel out a post-apocalyptic, eco-justice love story set in the vivid yet fictional Carbon County, West Virginia.
The tense and atmospheric story, enlivened by Celtic lore, Appalachian legends, and killer zombies, captures the reader’s attention from the outset, beginning with the intriguing emergence from a deep, coal mine crater of the central character, a hapless government auditor named Darrick MacBrehon. Darrick, we discover, made an ill-fated decision to stop for gas in Redbird, West Virginia, on his journey from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., and was viciously assaulted, robbed, and discarded down one of the areas many cavernous cracks in the ground. With a brutal “mammoth gash” across his head, and tainted by an odorous whiff of death, having lain for days among “rotting bodies and skulls,” this “inoffensive, wounded creature,” labeled a zombie by motorists who spot him lumbering along the highway, staggers to a sweepstakes café. There he encounters the sympathetic storekeeper, Lourana Taylor, who offers him food and shelter.
The hardened, strong-minded Lourana, a single mother whose adult daughter, Dreama, has mysteriously disappeared, holds the mighty Kavanagh clan responsible, but has been unable to get the police interested in the case because the family has an “economic stranglehold” on the town. Darrick’s revelation about human remains in the mine pits makes Lourana believe there may be a connection between the attack on him and the disappearances of both her daughter and a scientist who was analyzing pollution in the river. Holding a strong, unexplained feeling that Darrick may hold the key to finding her daughter, she works with him, police deputy Marco DeLucca, and local journalist Zadie Person to explore the network of “seventy thousand old mines, tunneling under the Appalachians in every direction,” determined to discover the truth and expose the many atrocities committed by the Kavanaghs.
Nieman maintains an air of mystery, horror, and suspense throughout, and implants a supernatural element by giving Darrick the ability to kill men “stone dead without touching them,” which he does on multiple occasions. Rather like a scene out of the 1931 movie version of Frankenstein, the townsfolk, inflamed by news reports of law enforcement officers being killed by a zombie, pursue Darrick through the woodlands—with guns rather than torches and pitchforks—resulting in yet more fatalities.
Key to the narrative is Broad River, once “one of the prettiest in the state,” but which has since become an abandoned swimming area and a source of despair. Nieman writes, “The river sludged along, greasy orange under plates of stained ice, yellowboy glopped on the banks like some kind of demonic pudding.” Consistently drawing attention to the environmental impact of the coal industry through her striking descriptions of this “mutilated river,” orange due to the high volume of sulphur that has spilled into it from the Kavanagh Coal and Limestone Mines, Nieman depicts a river that “might have boiled right out of hell.” Indeed, so toxic and harmful is it that, right after the recent acid mine spill, people could “hardly breathe for the stench of dead fish” and now dare not go near the water for fear it will burn their skin off. Inevitably, this visually arresting, toxic brew provides the most appalling, grisly episode in the book, as Nieman draws the story to a chillingly climactic and satisfying conclusion.
This nicely paced, suspenseful tale, imbued with detailed knowledge of the Appalachian region and the coal mining industry, is aided by Nieman’s rich, artistic language and redolent descriptions of a grim but fascinating literary ecosphere where giant cracks open in the ground, ordinary rock underfoot leaks a kind of vile pus, and orange goo fills the waterways. It’s a strange, disconcerting place populated by thoughtful, articulate people; trigger-happy rent-a-cops; zombies; and residents who can mysteriously evaporate or be stripped to the bone.
About the Reviewer
Nicholas Litchfield is the founding editor of the literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, author of the suspense novel Swampjack Virus, and editor of nine literary anthologies. He has worked in various countries as a tabloid journalist, librarian, and media researcher. He writes regularly for the Colorado Review, and his book reviews for the Lancashire Post are syndicated to twenty newspapers across the UK. He lives in western New York.