In a country growing more homogenous with every generation, nowhere in America holds greater mystique and misunderstanding than Appalachia. For decades, fictional and cultural studies sought to analyze a region in crisis, struggling to reinvent itself amongst decline. Chris McGinley’s thoughtful story collection Coal Black is a journey beyond the pop-culture stereotypes into the hard realities of life in a part of the country most don’t consider until it becomes politically advantageous.
The affects and grip of opioid addiction and its impact on communities run throughout many of the stories, notably in “Hellbenders” where Sheriff Shelby Hines spends his days in pursuit of suspects under the chemical influence, futilely stemming the tide of desperate actions. When the Sheriff takes his wife to the emergency room to be treated for the early stages of heart failure, the harried hospital staff’s attention is consumed by the multitude of issues relating from drugs, specifically efforts to treat an overdose, which irritates the Sheriff.
“They seem more interested in saving a junkie than anybody else around here.”
“Well don’t let it get to you.”
“But I do let it get to me. And why shouldn’t I? I deal with these people every goddamn day.”
Tragedy befalls Sheriff Shelby; his grief simmers as he endures a naloxone seminar with colleagues, testing his patience as former addicts in recovery lead workshops only reminding him of the cycle of dependency without hope. They’re lectured by “people whose only achievement thus far was their commitment to drugs. At least that’s the way he saw it.” Shelby’s pain clouds his judgment and leads him to embark on a quest for justice; it’s a fatalistic neo-western that opens the collection with a bang.
“Kin to Me,” an inventive inversion of a buried treasure tale, Ephraim trespasses on coal company land, harvesting moss, when he unearths a shallow grave – in it a small man preserved in an ancient burial plot. Ephraim anonymously calls in the discovery, hoping the archaeological find would unfold differently, shedding national attention onto the forgotten area and its history.
“Ephraim got $2.00 a pound for the moss from his connection, almost a hundred bucks all told. But it was the coal company who really planned to cash in on the discovery. They launched a media campaign to celebrate the find of “Brunson Corporation Man” but the name didn’t go over as big as they had hoped.”
What starts out as an inadvertent story of grave robbery morphs into an unforgettable genealogical heist.
McGinley distinguishes his foray into Appalachian narratives with an infusion of folklore in several stories. Most notably, “With Hair Blacker Than Coal” which melds a tale of an abandoned baby raised by bobcats who grows to be a feral mountain woman perfectly blended along with a sheriff in pursuit of two brothers who poached a black bear. Sherriff Curley Knotts is called upon to track the Clatter brothers, a lawless, profane duo who savagely killed a black bear, taking only its paws, leaving the carcass to fester and rot. The Sheriff known for his tracking skills as much his relentless nature, heads deep into a holler that never ends, reminding him of a similar remote search and destroy mission when he served in the Mekong Delta that still haunts him. The perfectly paced story is the crown jewel of the collections (sure, we’re biased-- we originally published it). McGinley weaves a pursuit story so filled with hair-raising, breathless chills he gives the reader the sensation of being hopelessly lost deep in thick woods, an unseen rustling adding to the growing unease separating the prey from the preyed upon.
McGinley effectively uses the undefinable sense of dread giving it multiple forms, often that of an angry spirit, as in “Coal Black Haint”. Bertie Clemmons, protected early in her life when her mamaw helps defend and kill her abusive husband:
“Her mamaw nodded knowingly a week later when Bertie learned that she was pregnant. “It’s mountain instinct,” the old woman had said. “It’s the females that protects the young in these hills, not the males.” Bertie didn’t know whether she meant animals or humans.”
Years later, Bertie has become the state’s first female sheriff investigating the disappearance of Charlotte, a young girl believed to have run away, a situation reminiscent of her daughter, who ran off years earlier after they fought. A friend of Charlotte’s believes a haint got her, a theory Bertie quickly rejects as a ridiculous mountain ghost tale. The further she digs, the traumatic echoes and shame of Bertie’s past haunt her, which made her an angry ghost of her former self, as she patrols the same community trying to get it right this time.
Even though not every story fires on all cylinders--in plot mechanics, similar themes and repetitive characters--McGinley shows a progression of elements honed carefully in the multiple narratives capturing the rugged beauty of the region. He creates a sinister landscape of uncomfortably recognizable characters struggling to come to terms with their past as they forge ahead, trying to find a place for themselves in an ever-shifting country. Those unfamiliar with Appalachia would do well to spend time with McGinley’s gripping, homespun yarns.