Two runaway teenagers go on a crime spree and get lost in a backwoods region of the southern Appalachian Mountains in Thornhorn’s (I Be the Christis, the Kid Beheaded, 2014, etc.) novel.
Thirteen-year-old Tizzy Polk’s father is a tyrannical preacher who’s repeatedly warned her about boys like Matthew “Rebel Yell” Birdnell. The son of a pig farmer, Birdnell sees no future for himself in the mountains and wants out of Cayuga Ridge in the worst way—and when he steals his father’s ’49 Studebaker pickup, Tizzy, searching for some kind of freedom, joins him with a little persuasion. With a stolen gun, the two runaways commit a series of crimes, culminating in a murder, and attempt to evade the law by driving up some backwoods roads that lead to Riddle Top, a “great black crag with bristle hairs” that “gave up sunlight like a jagged miser then quickly stole it back.” When they meet its creepy inhabitants, they quickly realize that the scary stories about the dark mountain are true. A blend of Southern gothic and hillbilly noir, this story is utterly readable, in large part because of Thornhorn’s masterful use of dialect, rich description, and immersive use of atmospherics. The power of this story undeniably comes from the author’s darkly lyrical voice, and his sinister reimagining of Appalachia virtually comes alive on the page: “One tiny shack gave way to the next, each shack with its small barren field, desolate dead cornrows littered by blackbirds and autumn leaf.” Even minor plot inconsistencies and a relatively weak ending can’t detract from the overall power of this story. Like the lovechild of William Faulkner and H.P. Lovecraft, Thornhorn, with his unique narrative style and twisted insight into Southern life, makes this novel unforgettable.
An unnerving literary experience, like finding a fiddleback spider on one’s shoe or a copperhead snake coiled and ready to strike under one’s bed.