Back in November of last year, I reviewed an Apex Publications anthology called Appalachian Undead. It was one of my favorite books of 2012, but thanks to a strange set of circumstances the project was shelved, leaving me as one of the few who actually got to read it. Fortunately, Apex has refused to let the project disappear altogether. Like any self-respecting zombie, that collection will live again – in a couple of different ways.
The anthology itself will be resurrected more or less intact as a new release called Mountain Dead, and I hope to have a look at it when it’s ready to go. In the meantime, Elizabeth Massie has transformed her Appalachian Undead short story “When Granny Comes Marchin’ Home Again” into a full-fledged novel called Desper Hollow.
The DNA of Massie’s original story is mostly intact. There’s no widespread zombie apocalypse – the trouble is instead confined to the area around an unassuming mountain town called Beaver Dam. Said trouble didn’t begin in a government lab, and it didn’t initiate with a passing meteor or some strange mutated virus; it begins in the kitchen of a crotchety old moonshining witch named Granny Mustard. Granny is nearing the end of her natural life span, but she’s got too much meanness left to spread to quit now. She’s been experimenting for a while now, mixing her strange mountain magic with her locally-acclaimed moonshine, looking for the right combination of incantations, home-grown ingredients and distilled spirits to enable her to fight off death. After a run of minor successes with rats and chickens, she’s ready to give humans a go – with disastrous results.
The debacle that follows leaves a town burned flat and a handful of “hollows” roaming the mountainside. These poor souls are gathered up by Jenkie Mustard, who herds them into a trailer deep in the woods while she continues her grandmother’s experiments and tries to figure a way to capitalize on what she’s got. She hits on the idea of a reality TV show, and the idea actually attracts a couple of Hollywood wannabe-hitmakers out to investigate the possibility further.
What follows is a mix of familiar story elements: the fish-out-of-water tale, as the Hollywood types (one of whom is a Tennessee transplant with at least a passing familiarity of what they’re getting into) head into the hills; the local girl who escaped her small town only to be called back to deal with a family tragedy; the clash of old world vs. new world; and, of course, some classic gut-munching zombie action.
The first half of the book is a long, slow burn as we get to know the various people heading into Desper Hollow. Massie does a solid job of setting up these people and their stories, giving us time to get to know them and get invested in their fates. There are a couple that are easier to latch onto than the rest: Sam, the Tennessee native accompanying Jack Carroll on his fact-finding trip about Jenkie’s potential television show, is a solid guy with an unassuming nature. Kathy Shaw, back in town to deal with the loss of her mother, is another one you’ll be rooting for; in fact, Kathy’s strained relationship with her father may be a side story to the main attraction, but it’s arguably the most compelling piece of the puzzle. In addition there’s a “hollow” named Armistead who’s just a little different from the others, and that difference remains a compelling mystery all the way up to the story’s end.
Some of the characters, unfortunately, never get as fleshed out as those mentioned above. In particular, a couple of Granny’s backwoods relatives aren’t much more than cardboard cutouts, immoral hicks straight out of a casting session for Deliverance. There are also a handful of tired horror clichés that muddy up an otherwise breakneck, breathtaking ending – car keys get dropped at inopportune times, ankles are twisted during getaways, cars get stuck in the mud. Some of these happen more than once. And there’s the expected epilogue, that final stinger that lets you know things may appear to be over, but they’re really not.
These aren’t exactly minor quibbles, but they didn’t keep me from enjoying Desper Hollow. I love stories that tarnish the glossy coat that’s often applied to country living, showing the real shadows that exist under those wraparound porches and in the deepest parts of those peaceful woods. The kind of desperation that drives someone like Jenkie, who wants to get out of her dead-end existence and live the kind of glamorous life she reads about in People magazine, is very real and very sad. So is the suspicion that people in regions like Desper Hollow feel toward outsiders – suspicion which is more often than not reciprocated.
Desper Hollow isn’t perfect and doesn’t really break new ground, but neither of those things are absolutely necessary for a story to be good. It’s entertaining, sometimes chilling and occasionally funny, and if you can overlook a couple of stumbles along the way, you’re in for a fun ride.