To the Bones by Valerie Nieman
West Virginia University Press (April 2019)
204 pages; $19.99 paperback; $11.49 e-book
Reviewed by R.B. Payne
At the core of every person, there is a twisted black seam which offsets the good that we might do. Some call it original sin. Others recognize it as karma. It is a swirling darkness of the soul from which no light escapes.
In West Virginia, it’s called coal.
The exploitation of lignite, sub-bituminous, bituminous, and anthracite coal is as addictive as heroin to those who have no conscience about the subjugation of their fellow man and the natural world. This is true, at least in Redbird, a struggling community on a backroad in Appalachia, where the Kavanagh clan has built a mining empire atop death, black lung disease, cave-ins, suffocation, and the occasional gas explosion.
And perhaps worse.
Something supernatural is happening, hidden behind Kavanagh wealth and power, in this remote community.
In To the Bones by Valerie Nieman, a man named Darrick awakens in a black hole filled with bones, not knowing how he came to be there. Although left for dead, he is obviously not. Escaping the hole only to be trapped by a snowstorm, he finds himself tentatively aligned with Lourana, a woman haunted by the disappearance of her daughter. Reluctantly, Lourana joins his quest to discover what is going on in Redbird. With few allies and the forces of evil gathered against them, they must find a way to prevail.
Part mystery, thriller, and supernatural horror, this tale was extremely enjoyable to read. It’s one of my favorite books of the past year. Ms. Nieman’s writing is poetically engaging, and I was whisked back to my university days when I was overwhelmed by James Dickey’s Deliverance. Even more so, I vividly recalled a small volume of poems by Mr. Dickey entitled The Eye-Beaters, Blood, Victory, Madness, Buckhead and Mercy. Fifty years later, I am still haunted by one of those poems.
Like Mr. Dickey, Ms. Nieman’s prose reaches deep inside our human condition and I found her descriptions of coal, mining, and West Virginia communities insightful and emotionally moving. And I am not a person who finds solace in coal mining and poverty of the spirit. In her hands, the setting of this story is an equal character with the protagonists. Her description of yellowboy, a river turned “greasy orange under plates of stained ice,” actually made my stomach turn and my heart ache.
Darrick and Lourana are in danger from the get-go. The story moves rapidly as they try to simultaneously solve several mysteries. No one in town is truly to be trusted. Alliances shift, and the closer they get to the core of the terror, the more the supernatural forces gather against them. Lest they forget, they are perceived to be meaningless in the grand scheme of all things. But, together, they are strong and they push forward. Meanwhile, Darrick is discovering that he has a gift. A dangerous gift that is extremely difficult to control.
At its heart, To the Bones is about people trying to survive: economically, personally, spiritually and physically…not to mention the broader forces which seek to manipulate their lives for some other purpose. The citizens of Redbird are victims of Neo-Feudalism after having spent a century under Robber Baronism. Along with psychic powers, corruption of the spirit, and simply pure horror, I think Ms. Nieman intended a slight economic commentary about corporate and personal responsibility in these modern times. When you mix all of these themes into a singular story construct, you have a page-turner.
To the Bones is a highly recommended read from this reviewer. I am anxious to see if the spotted breadcrumb in the story will lead to a sequel.