In many horror novels or movies, the landscape becomes a malevolent force. Maybe it’s because of the casual harm inflicted by humans, maybe it’s some long suppressed psychic energy, but people suffer from disturbing or arousing the spirit.
In Matthew Neill Null’s debut novel, Honey from the Lion, set in West Virginia at the beginning of the 20th century, it’s the land that suffers from human commerce—horrors that are as atrocious as any visited on human communities in film or war. Great lumber companies are busy cutting every tree in the state, “enough timber,” as one character tells the timber wolves (those men cutting down, for a couple bucks a day, the pines and spruces and firs), “to reach the moon and back thrice over.” This landscape is disappearing, and, though mute in the novel, is, as Null claims, “like a Greek Chorus, giving an implied judgment on the human actors.” The landscape is not only an important character in the novel, but Null, a native of West Virginia, writes about the landscape’s very psychology with as much nuance and attention as he gives to the novel’s humans.
And those human characters—judges and statesmen, working poor and revolutionaries, peddlers and preachers—are rendered whole, complete, with as much detail and scope as provided by a traditional 19th century narrative master. Null’s novel makes use of an omniscient narrator so as “to encompass an entire world in the way that Garcia Marquez, Shirley Hazzard, and Faulkner manage in their fiction,” as he explains. Honey from the Lion’s narrative voice travels back and forth in time, so that, even with the secondary characters, the reader has a sense of the scope of each human life.
These lives include both the historical gods of traditional patriotic narratives—the politicians and entrepreneurs, those Robber Barons who Null imagines, in part, as he says, as akin to the “Old Testament Fathers”—whose names grace towns and monuments, but also the unsung characters of so many epics, those who toil in service to feed the money coffers of others, named and given their place at the narrative table in Null’s novel, extending the novel’s scope and canvas. For example, in this world of largely male enterprise and labor, an immigrant woman helps those timber wolves who hope to unionize while she pines for her husband who left her and who has aroused her sympathy for radical causes. But Zala is no stereotype or cipher; Null develops her into a fully formed character, psychologically complex and fully human. This immigrant story is a compelling narrative line in Null’s novel: those working in the timber camps and those serving the workers’ needs, commercial and personal (for a price). Honey from the Lion depicts this corner of America, West Virginia, as a grand melting pot, with all the striving and suspicion that has informed our political landscape for centuries.
Honey from the Lion employs a wide cast of engaging characters, but the primary focus narrows to one of the owners of the Cheat River Paper & Pulp Company; an embittered judge, Randolph, who feels he has never had his public due; one of the timber wolves, whose nickname, Cur, in part acknowledges his drifting quality; and a preacher, Seldomridge, a man of genuine faith (that is, he wants to believe so strongly that he is compelled into doubt, even, as Null explains, “to the point of disbelief”) and with a gift to see, Cassandra-like, the truth (and to have his truth ignored or unacknowledged or threatened by the public powers).
Although the novel’s events largely take place in the early 1900s, Null is writing just as much about West Virginia today. “I wanted to create an emotional bridge between those characters in 1904 and our own experience today,” Null says. “The novel goes back to a 19th century sensibility and industry, in the harvesting of timber, but since then, we’ve extracted coal and oil, and now it’s gas from Marcellus shale. We have a consistent pattern of exploiting resources without an end goal in mind.”
Null brings narrative strengths to this account of resource depletion, to this depiction of the eradication of natural beauty, where trees are a rarity, trout die in muddy trickles, and the magnificent predators—lions, foxes—are driven from their habitat (though not before propelling the novel toward its tragic conclusions, as in Greek epics). Null’s novel distills the bitterness of the human condition but he also demonstrates a comic sense of tragedy (witness the characters of Blue Ruin or Constable Green). Null’s technique compels the reader’s admiration: the orchestrated movements of the novel (the prelude, the vast scale of the middle sections, and then the exacting closure with a few lessons of the world finally understood and mean egotism dropped for some form of service to others), the use of motifs as in a musical score, and the protein-rich and muscular prose of the work, each sentence stripped of fat and verbal flimsy. It’s a novel to chew on, masticate over—form and style, themes and characters.
This long narrative journey, of characters and readers alike, circles toward a truth about West Virginia—and the larger world today. “Some more sustainable way of living with our resources should be found,” Null says. “We’ve lived in a boom and bust cycle too long.” Null extends this edict beyond the timber, coal, and shale cycles of West Virginia to those global territories temporarily blessed with their coveted monoculture resources—to Nigeria, the Middle East, Mongolia. Otherwise, Null prophesizes, “Once the resources are totally exhausted, there will be no work there, no way to sustain human life in these places. We’ll have in some future time a pristine landscape empty of people.” So, no one to read such a deserving novel.J. W. Bonner teaches in the Humanities Department at Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina.