Family feuds are a huge part of the history and folklore of this country. The Hatfield and McCoy families alone have accounted for endless books, television shows and punch lines. People outside the feuds may see them as pointless and silly, but to those deeply entangled in them, they are a matter of life and death. They often start over matters like a piece of land or a broken relationship; important things, yes, but usually not worth the violence, heartbreak and bloodshed that stains their names for years and generations to follow.
Henry Collins is more than happy to stay out of the flap that's tied his family to the Lewis clan for longer than he can remember. He's fuzzy on the details - somebody in his family ended up with something that a Lewis wanted once upon a time - but he's not sure that waiting around for the feud to catch up with him is the right choice for his future. And once his sister, Jane, turns up dead under mysterious circumstances, he's sure it's not.
Unfortunately, as Henry is about to learn, running out on family - whether it's yours or the one that wants you dead - is easier said than done.
Jason Jack Miller's Hellbender is an engrossing, engaging novel about the power of family, and the way the person you are is informed deeply by the people who brought you up. It's also about a classic family feud, a bloody struggle played out deep in the Appalachian mountains where the law doesn't quite reach and where the weapons are fists, bullets, and a handful of ancient magic.
Henry understands the bullets and the fists, even though he wants no part of them. He's less sure about the magic, the rites and spells that are deeply ingrained in the area's culture, kept alive mostly by the women who hand them down from generation to generation. He dismisses it all as superstition, even as unexplainable events begin to pile up around him.
These events, along with a handful of more traditional intimidation tactics, are the Lewis bunch’s way of slowly tightening the noose around Henry Collins’s neck. The fact that he wants no part of their beef and played no part in the original grudge means nothing to them. He’s a Collins, and he must be dealt with.
Miller plunges us deep into the story with a slow but steady reveal of the history between the two families. He also plunges into the beautiful, mysterious region that is the book’s backdrop – the chops he honed co-writing an outdoor travel guide come into serious play here. The book is peppered with long passages describing the mountains, trails and valley where the events play out. In less skillful hands these passages would have brought the book to a screeching halt, but in Hellbender they serve as welcome, refreshing pauses in the action.
Appalachian magic is faithfully depicted as well. There are no Harry Potter-style standoffs with wands and broomsticks. Instead, it’s ancient words scratched in the dust, and songs carried forth on the mountain air, and hair in your pockets and thistles in your hand. It’s not flashy, but it is captivating and honest and it all feels very, very real.
Miller clearly has confidence in his voice and style, and in the story he came to tell. He cuts no corners and makes no compromises, resulting in a thoughtful book that requires – and rewards – your patience.
Order Hellbender from Raw Dog Screaming Press.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.