Book Review

Karen Salyer McElmurray on
Coal Black
stories by Chris McGinley
Shotgun Honey, 2019


Chris McGinley’s Coal Black is a startling short story collection—part noir, part stories of ghosts and lost souls, and part evocation of an Appalachia we know exists but might never want to see. The place names are familiar: Hadley County; Caudill Mountain; Red Thrush Mountain. The stories take us deep into an Appalachia we think we recognize: past an old coal tipple and into dense trees rising on a hillside. Then circumstances become more uneasy. A red tail hawk circles. Timber rattlers hiss. And in the midst of chestnuts and sycamores, slipper elm and sphagnum moss, the characters are left seeking a new kind of supplication. Oxycontin. China Girl. A pull on a bottle of Early Times for courage. 

Chris McGinley’s short stories have appeared in a variety of journals including Mystery Tribune, Mystery Weekly, Retreats from Oblivion, and Tough, and he is at work on a crime novella called Once These Hills, about the extractive timber industry and its effects in a little mountain community. He is a crime writer, and he draws much of his creative power—and his love of eeriness—from the work of the American Romantic tradition of Hawthorne and Melville. But as he says in an interview in Shotgun Honey, he has long sought inspiration for his work, though he is not from the region itself, via the stories told and heard in Appalachia. The question of writing about a place one is not from lingers as we read these stories, but McGinley takes on this question as he describes his history as a writer. Like solving a good mystery, he has read and researched, seeking information from the Appalachian Regional Commission and from careful study of writers from the mountains: Janice Holt Giles; Wilma Dykeman; John Ehle.

While he grew up middle-class, with access to education and employment opportunities not involving corporate exploitation and the cycles of poverty that plague large segments of the mountains, those stories and those people interest him. 

The stories in Coal Black begin with crimes and repercussions. At Sheriff Shelby Hines’s office, it’s “open season on users and addicts,” and Hines goes in search of Hellbender, a small-time dealer who has become the opioid king on Black Owl Mountain. “The Quilt” begins with Royal and Reely, two addicts looking for an easy house to break into up on a hill in a place called Hot Fork. Other stories are about missing women. They’re about contraband ginseng and slippery elm bark and rattle snakes. They’re about stealing copper wire to resale, ripping off convenience stores, trapping bears via trespass and off season. As stories of crimes and repercussions, they function well—but it’s their deeply specific details and incisive characterizations that make them outstanding. “Hellbender” takes us inside a hot and suffocating trailer rife with the smell of death, a beach towel stretched over a window. McGinley’s stories want to know who the people are who live behind the words. He wants to know what made them, and why. 

        . . . It reaches far inside—inside the mountains, inside trailers with their La-Z-Boys and TV trays and vials of prescription drugs, inside lost characters looking for new ways to live
and asks us not just what the cause of crime and addiction is, but where the question of who we are came from in the first place. Not satisfied with questions about the cycle of poverty, crime, and addiction, McGinley pulls back the noir curtain to reveal other kinds of mystery altogether. 

When asked why so many people in the mountains are addicts, the drug-dealer in the story called “Hellbender” tells us just why. “It’s because of depression…personal and economic depression. And the one fuels the other. When coal dies out, the economy died out, and people’s spirits died out with it. There ain’t much around here. Hopelessness is all there is. It’s sad, but you can’t live on nothin.’ And no one can live on hope alone, not for very long at least. I give the people what they want, what they need, even if it’s not really good for them. But it’s my only way out.”  This could be the point at which the psychological/philosophical landscape of these stories diverged into something far more than crime drama. As another character says, “gotta steal to pay are parents’ medical bills.” But Coal Black is not only more than stories about crime. It reaches far inside—inside the mountains, inside trailers with their La-Z-Boys and TV trays and vials of prescription drugs, inside lost characters looking for new ways to liveand asks us not just what the cause of crime and addiction is, but where the question of who we are came from in the first place. Not satisfied with questions about the cycle of poverty, crime, and addiction, McGinley pulls back the noir curtain to reveal other kinds of mystery altogether. 

Some of the strongest characters in the stories are their women. Pearl in “The Quilt.” Bertie Clemmons in “Coal Black Haint.” Celia, in “The Females Especially.”  Women figure out how to survive loss, how to be tough enough to wield a badge. We see women having survived prison, physical assault and verbal abuse; we see women living with bitterness, alone and lost; we see survivors. It would be easy to say that this story collection hangs together with the power of women and their voices, their ability to make it through or not make it through, the “something” that nudges these stories beyond—way beyond—the crime genre. This moment in “The Quilt” shows Pearl, fresh off having driven the getaway car for her boyfriend as he and his buddy rob another house for things to sell to replenish their stash, then days of binging, arguing, exhaustion and anger once the drugs begin to run out. We see Pearl, curled up under an extraordinarily beautiful quilt taken with the latest haul. The quilt has become her point of reference, the igniter of memory. She was something else once, someone else, a creator of beauty even. Her boyfriend carelessly picks the quilt up to wipe his filthy body with and she surrenders to rage: “Naked now and with blood coming from her lip she cut an odd figure, like something feral, something rabid. She tore at Royal, slashing with her nails, punching and biting. She was screaming at him from some place inside herself that Royal had never seen.”

It’s this “place inside” that becomes the real point of divergence for the stories in Coal Black. As these stories go deeper, so does the memory that inhabits them. As Hellbender says, the stories in Coal Black show us what we remember of our mountain pasts, and make us want those times back again. Far from being genre crime stories, the stories move toward another place, another time, a primal moment or history or memory, beginning with the stories of women. Drawn from mountain tales, haints inhabit the hills where deputies go to hunt their runaways, where unwanted babies are abandoned, and where girls and woman have vanished. In “Coal Black Haint,” a nun who proselytized out in the coal fields, disappeared…[comes] back as a haint who takes in wayward girls and runaways.  And in “With Hair Blacker than Coal,” a baby is raised by bobcat, and becomes a wild woman who walks with bobcats, her hair a tangled nest grown to the waist, blacker than coal. Easy enough to say that crime stories have thus become ghost stories, and that restitution has merely taken on another face. But these spirits of women seem more than ghosts. They are spirits of vengeance. They are spirits who rage, who will not tolerate violation, be it of ways old or ways new. Like the Hindu goddess Vashti, these haints are rebellion itself, wicked and powerful and frightening.  When Celia, in “The Females Especially,” comes back from having robbed another convenience store, she runs through the hills, possessed by some power that she takes home with her along with the stolen cash in a backpack. She builds a fire in her yard and, “On impulse, she slung the backpack near the fire, like the haunch of some deer, she thought, or a cougar even. She ran her fingers through the tangled mess of her hair and looked at the scratches and cuts all over her hands and arms. But she felt no pain, nor was she wet or cold anymore. Her fingers were black from the ash in the bottom of the pit and she smeared the resin on her face, imagining the look of some cave woman.”

The images of cave woman, and of caves, cave paintings, and even a pre-historic man discovered beneath a bed of sphagnum moss—all take Coal Black to its deepest place inside of all.  In a story reminiscent of Flannery O’Connor’s Wiseblood, “Kin to Me,” the main character steals a pre-historic man and returns him to “the cave of the ancients,” a place where there are images made in charcoal and berry juice…deer, elk, bear, and even some fish. This cave, and another cave where the wild woman who lives with bobcats, take us to a kind of womb inside the ordinary world. The stories and their womb-caves push the stories into another realm, one that takes us back to author Chris McGinley’s love of both American Romanticism alongside the literature of Appalachia. Like the dissection of the whale in Melville’s Moby Dick, the stories have taken apart the world of Oxycontin and drug busts, poverty and staying alive. They have moved from crime-telling to something akin to the infinite. We could leave these stories thinking about how their author is from beyond the region, did not grow up with the mountains and their truths, but he has found a kind of mysterium tremendum in Coal Black that is beyond place, time, and region itself.  

Karen Salyer McElmurray
is the creative nonfiction editor for
Still: The Journal. A novelist and essayist, her latest collection is Voice Lessons from Iris Press (2021). She has published three novels and a memoir.


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