Author Val Nieman is turning Appalachia lit on its head. With her novel To the Bones, she's married horror with satire with an eco-thriller, setting it all around a West Virginia coal mine.
She's been kind enough to share the book's opening with us. In it, Darrick MacBrehon, a government auditor, staggers bloodied and battered from of a mine crack in Redbird, West Virginia. Soon his experience in this pit of bones becomes key to solving a mystery. He pairs with Lourana Taylor, a sweepstakes operator, who is determined to find her missing daughter. According to West Virginia University Press, "Darrick and Lourana push against everyone who tries to block the truth. Along the way, the bonds of love and friendship are tested, and bodies pile up on both sides."
This thriller is available from Amazon and can be found at Appalachian Revival—our shop at 16 West Church Avenue, Roanoke, Virginia. You can also hear Val read from the novel and discuss her writing as she tours the region.
Horrible smell. Dark. Cold.
This is how it feels to be dead.
Darrick raised his head and immediately vomited. The nausea came in waves, at every motion of his battered head, echoed by his back, ribs, legs. If he was dead, and this was the afterlife, then it seriously sucked.
He breathed in through his mouth, but it didn’t help much. The smell. He tried moving his left leg, numb and twisted under him, and was surprised when it responded. The pressure on his knee eased. He rolled over, put his hands down to push himself to all fours, and his fingers slid in something greasy and vile. If this was the afterlife, then it wasn’t one he’d been prepared for, by catechism classes or college philosophy.
Dark. He shook with the cold and the dark.
Then I’m not dead.
He crawled, carefully anchoring his knees into the sloping ground, pausing whenever the nausea roiled his gut. Unsteady rocks shifted under his knees, and he heard a skittering sound.
The last thing he remembered, he had been driving. A two-lane road, the trees so close, an inky tunnel pierced by his headlights.
Maybe the car went off the road.
Maybe you’re buried, his unpleasant thoughts mocked.
There was a faint lessening of the gloom ahead. He kept crawling, sticks rolling under his hand. Something chitinous and leggy moved across his fingers. He pulled his hand away, then put it back down. The thin gray light increased. He could see that, if not much else with his glasses gone. And his shoes were gone, too, the toes of his socks dragging across the damp rocks.
He seemed to hear things breathing nearby. Waiting.
No one’s coming back for you. Ever.
He crawled around a ragged corner and the light became a crack in the sky, a white intensity that squeezed shut his eyes and made the back of his head spasm in pain. He opened his eyes just enough to see a hazy field of rocks and debris. A dump. He picked up a large round object and brought it close to his weak eyes. A pair of empty eyeholes stared back. He flung the skull away, hearing it crack and roll to a stop, and he realized those rocks and sticks were bones and that he was among the dead.
He looked up at the light. It was quite far away. A ragged slit. The opening of a cavern? A mass grave? Had all these dead just stumbled down from the surface like mastodons marching into a tar pit?
Darrick crept forward until the space ended at a wall of crumbling rocks. He crawled back to what seemed to be the center of the space. He patted his pockets. Coat, cell phone, wallet, keys—gone. Medication gone. He began to weep. The easiest thing would be to lay back down and let the process continue, until he became bones as well. Just fall asleep.
Can’t fall asleep. He could remember the infirmary nurse singing in a language he didn’t understand. “You have a concussion, little mausi. If you sleep, you may die. I will tell you the story of the brave knight but you must stay awake for the whole story.” All the night and the next day, the nurse had kept him from sleep.
I’m not dying here.
A gleam of something in the charnel caught his attention. He lifted it, but a chain held it to the skeleton. It was a locket, a heart-shaped locket. He let it slide back.
He had been driving. Late. Low on gas. The lights along the exit ramp ended and the trees closed in. For mile after mile.
He put his hands back into the muck and rot, and in a methodical way began to search for a way out. He crawled away from the locket until he came to a wall of sticky earth. Digging only brought down more dirt. He crawled back, turned left. The ground tilted downward—that was where he’d come from. A current of dank air rose from an even deeper place.
He made his way back. This time, he saw the flash of light on a lens. His glasses, one stem broken off. He settled them on his nose and felt infinitely reassured, for a moment, to be able to see—until he counted four skulls, and saw insects working in the flesh of a recent body. It was the one with the necklace. This time he yanked at the necklace once, twice, three times until it came free, the body settling back on a wave of carrion smell. He slid it in his pants pocket, proof of something, to someone—maybe to himself when he woke up to find no necklace, no bones, nothing but the rags of a dream.
This time, his progress ended at a rocky wall. He began to lever himself up, toward that ragged sky both close and distant, but when he grabbed hold of a rock, it pulled out and sent him sprawling backward. He needed something to anchor, something to climb with.
Darrick searched among the bones and found a femur. And another. He smashed them between stones until the knobby knee-ends broke off into splintered points. He jabbed them into the rotten rock and began to climb.