Valerie Nieman

Valerie Nieman

Darrick McBrehon, a federal government auditor, leaves more than just the interstate when he takes an unfamiliar exit in West Virginia in search of gas for his car. He leaves life as he has known it.

Darrick awakens in a scene that could be from a horror movie: He is in a dark pit, surrounded by human bones, rot and a horrible stench despite the wintry cold. By an extreme effort of will, he manages to climb out of the mine crack and stagger down the narrow road until he finds a sweepstakes parlor.

Against her better judgment, the parlor’s operator, Lourana Taylor, takes Darrick in. She has been searching for her missing daughter, Dreama, and she wants to know more about this pit full of human bones he’s describing. But there’s no point in calling the local authorities, she tells him bluntly The Kavanagh family not only owns the coal mines, it owns the town of Redbird and everything in it, including every official, and every person who matters. Plus, it’s not unusual for people to disappear there.

“You have a serial killer or something?” Darrick asks, and Lourana replies, “Maybe something ...”

Thus begins “To the Bones,” the evocative, suspenseful new novel by Valerie Nieman, who is also a poet and a professor of English at N.C. A&T.

Before Nieman came to Greensboro, she spent years as a journalist and a farmer in West Virginia, and she obviously knows her setting and subject matter well.

Nieman is certainly not the first person to write about West Virginia, the devastation to landscape and health caused by mining and fracking, and the desperate lives of many residents as mining jobs vanish, leaving only ruin and hopeless poverty.

But in “To the Bones,” she writes about all this in an unusual way. Her prose reflects her background as both a working journalist, trained to investigate, notice details and write dispassionately, and as a poet, who encounters the world in a different way.

And her story is a creative mix of several genres, including elements of horror, the supernatural, Old Western showdowns, contemporary Southern (complete with a mass outdoor prayer vigil to prepare people for the rapture), suspense and romance. There’s more than a little humor, as local residents become convinced that a zombie is in their midst, and even satire: If the Kavanaghs are working to hard to control everything and destroy lives and the environment, why not make them the monsters they seem to be?

The zombie scare gets its start when local people catch a glimpse of Darrick, who has ataxia, a condition that makes him lose physical coordination when he is stressed.

The panic spreads rapidly because Darrick, an orphan who has spent much of his life being bullied and pitied, seems to have emerged from the pit of bones with new powers — powers that frighten even himself, and that he must struggle to control. Eventually, he must decide whether he even wants to control those powers.

Darrick and Lourana, with help from Marco, a disgraced former sheriff’s deputy, and Zadie, a local newspaper reporter, are determined to find out what’s really going on in Redbird. Lourana is driven by her determination to know what happened to her daughter, and Darrick is bent on figuring out what has happened to him and how he can deal with the profound changes as he moves forward in life.

Nieman packs a lot into this slim novel, and most of it works well together.

The ending seems a bit rushed, perhaps because so much preceded it, and the Celtic lore woven in is a little confusing.

But all in all, once Nieman’s story draws you in, you will be as determined as Darrick and Lourana to know what happens. In the end, there’s much in the story about good and evil, the responsible use of power, love and relationships, and the beautiful , tragic part of Appalachia called West Virginia.

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Linda Carter Brinson writes a blog about books, Briar Patch Books, at lindabrinson.com. She lives in Stokes County near Madison.

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