Book Review

Dale Neal on
a novel by Chris McGinley
Shotgun Honey Press, 2023


Walk a ways by yourself in the woods and hollers of the Appalachian mountains, and you quickly sense you’re not alone, maybe you’re even being followed. These hills hold presences and predators, prey and victims.

Chris McGinley unearths those buried fears in his debut novel Once These Hills, reviving the familiar formulas of crime fiction into a closer look at a changing Appalachian community. Instead of the usual male suspects, McGinley focuses on women as heroes, not just passive victims. 

In 1898 in a remote eastern Kentucky mountain known as Boar Mountain, 10-year-old Lydia and her father make a remarkable discovery, uncovering the grave of an indigenous woman mummified in a bog. She was buried with a stone ax that she probably used herself. Lydia and her father leave the body and artifacts undisturbed, but later the mother worries they may have unearthed a curse on their community:

“Now, did you touch the body, Preston? Were you careful when you placed the earth
on top?” It was concern for her family that drove her to ask. She worried about what
her husband and daughter may have unleashed. There was danger in defilement,
she said. 

We get short flashbacks to “Long, Long Ago,” when the nameless indigenous woman and her husband roamed these same woods. Lydia unknowingly follows in her archetypal ancestor’s footsteps as she hunts for hares with her trusty bow and arrow and an innate instinct, reminiscent of the hunter-goddess Artemis from Greek myth.

In 1901, Lydia’s bucolic life is shattered when news reaches the remote mountain that convicts working on the new Railroad have escaped and may be headed their way. Here we meet the villain and driving engine of this fatalistic narrative – Burr Hollis, a sadistic killer with a seemingly insatiable bloodlust. Lydia’s life is forever changed when Burr and his two cronies attack her family’s remote cabin. 

Some readers may shy away from the graphic violence and sexual assault here, but McGinley ratchets up the tension as this book quickly becomes a page turner. Lydia is transformed from an innocent mountain girl into a kind of mythic avenging angel. Willing to mutilate herself to slip her shackles, she dispatches one of her assailants with her unerring arrow. But Burr and the other man melt away into the woods as the inept manhunt mounted by the sheriff in the town of Queen’s Tooth dwindles away. 

But Black Boar will never be the same. The violence that Burr visits on the community is replicated in the industrialized rape of the landscape that the Railroad brings with timber companies. Lydia flinches from the carnage when she hikes a few years later to the top of the mountain with her beau, Cole, and looks down on the clearcutting devastation. Trees are mown down, slash piled away, the waters polluted. 

McGinley offers an environmental eulogy for the devastation of a virgin wilderness. And like Cole, we witness that mythic beauty of the blossoming Lydia as she dips naked into the river:

Rivulets fell from her hair and breasts and shiny droplets clung to the hair between her
legs. Far in the distance were the hills in their browns, yellows, and reds. It was as if she
had come from them, Cole thought, like some figure from a story, some Greek myth.
He saw it all at once, this one complete image of her, a beautiful creature born of the hills.

Yet, like the buried bog woman, there may be deeper forces of darkness at work on the mountain. Lydia herself encounters the mythic animal that gives Black Boar Mountain its original name. She is charged out in the woods by the beast, which somehow relents in goring the girl to death, but marks her for life.  

The story becomes one of Lydia’s growing up in the aftermath of violence and grief. With her mother, Inez, traumatized by her rape, they find refuge with their closest neighbors, Clytie and Cornelius.

Again, the women take center stage as better hunters and stronger characters than their menfolk. Clytie becomes a surrogate mother to Lydia as she grows up, grows more proficient as a hunter putting food on the table. 

McGinley has a prose style as clean as a bone, but authentic to the
speech and ways of mountain folk. Here we get wonderful details,
from how to field-dress and cook a bear into a community burgoo
to the proper way to heal the poisonous bite of a rattlesnake.

But she needs more advice when it comes to marriage and having babies. Lydia treks up to find a new character, Black Mary, a kind of granny woman who knows spells to improve a woman’s chances at conception. And the book takes a more supernatural turn in Lydia’s lovemaking with her husband. Has she brought to her marriage bed a white-haired wraith who supposedly haunts the high ridges? 

McGinley has a prose style as clean as a bone, but authentic to the speech and ways of mountain folk. Here we get wonderful details, from how to field-dress and cook a bear into a community burgoo to the proper way to heal the poisonous bite of a rattlesnake.

We also see how this way of life is fading as the Railroad and clearcutting chases away wild game for the hunter-gathers of Black Boar. More resign themselves to factory work at the huge sawmill down in Queen’s Tooth where Lydia and her family may have to go. 

But the town offers new terrors. Lydia shudders at the industrial teeth of the sawmill in much the same way she was afraid of the wild beasts of the woods:

The whole enterprise was unstoppable – not merely the mill, but the clearcutting, the hauling of the timber, and the spread of the rail line that made it all possible. There was a frightening momentum in every phase of the work. . . .There was a force behind it all, she sensed, something ungovernable once set into motion, and it scared her.
And we will see her fears justified as that machinery takes its tragic toll. 

There’s more inevitability than surprise when Burr reappears in the tale. It takes some plot twists and the late arrival of a nameless Pinkerton detective, but the cold case is reopened after eight years. The detective tracks down Burr who’s been leaving bodies in his wake down in a timbering camp in Western North Carolina and later slaughtering livestock in Chicago. 

With his silver bicuspid flashing in his sinister grin, Burr Hollis is the kind of villain we’ve met in gothic fiction from Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” to Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. Anytime Burr shows up, the graphic violence he brings is always shocking, but not surprising. Like the black boar on the mountain or the railroad engine or the ever-spinning sawmill blade, Burr seems superhuman, almost a force of nature. But as we’ve witnessed throughout the book, Lydia has her own powers and proves more than a match for Burr’s bloodlust. 

It’s not so much a choice made by any character, but Fate straight out of Greek tragedy that drives the stories of Lydia, Burr and even the ancient bog woman to an inevitable conclusion. McGinley deftly ties all his plot lines together in a final and bloody reckoning on the mountain. 

In his first novel, McGinley delivers a well-crafted, carefully plotted page-turner that will satisfy die-hard noir fans, but he also brings an eye and ear for authentic Appalachian detail and speech. That talent promises that this author can delve even deeper into the human mysteries that haunt these storied mountains in his next books. 

Dale Neal is the author of the novel Kings of Coweetsee, coming in summer, 2024, and The Woman with the Stone Knife in fall, 2024. His other novels include Appalachian Book of the Dead, shortlisted for the Thomas Wolfe Literary Award; Cow Across America, winner of the Novello Literary Award; and The Half-Life of Home. His short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Our State, Smoky Mountain Living, North Carolina Literary Review, Appalachian Journal, Carolina Quarterly and elsewhere. He earned an MFA in creative writing at Warren Wilson College. A retired journalist, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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