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I've been a house painter, dishwasher, broiler cook, private detective, military intelligence analyst, and I spent nearly 40 years as a reporter covering crime, 26 of them for the San Francisco Chronicle. These days I write science fiction, fantasy, horror and crime fiction, and I blog about books, films and crimes that don't receive sufficient attention from the mainstream media. I would like to be Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett or George V. Higgins, but all of them are dead so I'll just stick with what I am already doing. . .

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Appalachian Darkness with a Heartbreaking Noir Twist

Route 12 
By Marietta Miles 
178 pages 
(All Due Respect books; February 15, 2016)
 Ebook distribution by Amazon for Kindle
 ISBN-10: 1523847921
 ISBN-13: 978-1523847921

If you like the grisly grand guignol of Vicki Hendricks’ Southern Gothic or the lurid aimlessness of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Midwestern nihilism, you are going to love Route 12, a pair of dark novellas by Marietta Miles.

Miles first came to my attention through her short stories in publications like Out of the Gutter Online (“Alice,” June 17, 2013; “You Never Know,” August 16, 2015), Thrills Kills and Chaos (“Virginia,” August 13, 2013) and in anthologies like Dangerous Dreams (“Firefly Eyes,” Thirteen Press, March 29, 2014). Her shorter pieces are riveting, but when she has the space to open up a tale – as she does here – she makes her words sing.

Route 12, the lead-off novella, is a beautifully crafted story about three disparate lives coming together fatally under a hunter's moon and an awning of damp holly trees and forsythia. The primary character is Theresa White, a grammar school student who is sent to live with her aunt in a trailer in the woods after her mother commits suicide.

A subsidiary character is Cheryl Prejean, a girl crippled by a bad polio vaccination. Cheryl’s mother was left destitute by a boyfriend who ran off with all her money and now is forced to take in boarders and do laundry and ironing to make ends meet.

The two girls, both kindly by nature, become fast friends when they are thrown together by fate.

The third main figure is Percy Caito, whose mother is arrested by county authorities and institutionalized as unfit. Caito, is placed in a reform school where he faces a universe of cruelty and sadism and comes to manhood raised as a criminal. On his release, Percy “is eighteen, a full-grown man, neither healed nor happy,” Miles writes. The young man begins to extract his revenge on the world, acquiring a handgun, killing an elderly man for his pitiable possessions and adopting his victim’s last name.

He moves into the spare room Cheryl’s mother is renting in Belle Gap, a town Miles describes as “a deep dark hole. An iron bridge to the east side, a deadly, rapid river to the west, the black mountains with sheer, severe cliffs of shale above and below. The Gap, as locals call it, rests in the womb of the mountains.”

Miles describes the sights and sounds of the tiny community masterfully: its oily smell, empty storefronts, and deteriorating homes. When Theresa spots a bird in distress on the ground during a walk around her new home, an act of feline sadism foreshadows the grim events to come and points the way toward the novella’s denouement:

A huge, matted tom darts from a nearby drainpipe. The cat growls viciously, hissing and spitting. In a violent, gruesome instant, the neighborhood predator is crashing over the bird. He paws the chick to the ground, clamping slick teeth around the fragile, hollow neck, and runs back to the pipe. Theresa releases a small, alarmed cry. She stands still as a statue, dazed. The sound of the bird screeching rings in her ears. The terrible growl of the cat is in her head.

The die has been cast. Given their sad past histories, a happy ending is simply not possible for these three young people.

Miles choses her words carefully and doesn’t waste a single sentence in sketching the story’s plot and characters. Even minor actors – such as Percy’s first victim or the art instructor under which the two girls study – are given sufficiently complex treatments to lift them up off the page.

In a dark twisted story like this, it is tempting to write so tersely that the story seems monochromatic. That is not Miles’s style; consider the note of melancholy Miles conjures in describing the home of the sickly man Percy murders: 

He steals into the tidy house while the woman is busy. It feels worn and soft inside, a place well lived in, with tired furniture and threadbare rugs. On nearly every surface rest small, senseless statues: Cupid carrying a giant red heart, a porcelain bride and her groom smiling at each other with red, embarrassed cheeks, and still another figurine with a teddy bear holding a sign, “Love Bear.” Small framed pictures of children and old people span the faded gray walls. On a desk is a black and white 8x10 of a handsome young marine in his dress uniform.

This is perfect. Anyone who has ever intruded where they don’t belong will recognize the eerie sensations that drive burglars even more than the loot available: the broken furniture tucked against the wall, worn rugs, threadbare upholstery. They will recall the peculiar taint of mildew, fading perfume or cologne, cooking odors in the kitchen, the slight rot of untended garbage, and the stale tang of urine around the toilet in the bathroom.

And Miles is not only masterful at recreating a scene with a few deft strokes. She also knows making her characters into real human beings can increase her readers’ interest and keep them turning pages better than the cleverest plot twists.

It was this complexity of character that I found most compelling about this novella: despite the purity and kind-heartedness of the two victims and the sadistic depravity of their tormentor, it is possible to feel a degree of sympathy for all three. Theresa is the victim of a family tragedy that leaves her feeling guilty and shameful; Cheryl is crippled through no fault of her own, but is treated like a freak by her classmates.

Even Percy is the victim of institutional indifference, surrounded by thugs and subjected to regular beatings and psycho-sexual torture by authority figures. Nobody can stop the brutal acts that bring the story to a close. It is the inevitability of the ending that gives it its noirish twist.

Miles’ second novella, “Blood and Sin,” is just as well put together and equally sad. In it, Sherry, a rather dim woman in a small town in North Carolina, finds herself pregnant. She wants to keep the child, but doing so isi out of the question in the South of the 1970s: Sherry is white; the baby inside her is black.  Seeking assistance, she goes to her clergyman, the Pastor Friendly. Unbeknownst to her, however, Friend, however, is a homicidal sadist running a baby mill that sells  unwanted newborns to the highest bidder. 
To tell more would spoil the story. Suffice to say that Naomi, another deeply disturbed young woman who, like Sherry, is the victim of an abusive upbringing, plays a major role in balancing the scale, Meanwhile, the sanctimonious Friend meets a sort of cosmic justice – one that doesn’t involve policemen, prosecutors or courts.

These are two really fine novellas. They offer a pair of stories that another author might take hundreds upon hundreds of pages to unwind, and they do it economically and efficiently, leaving the reader with a feeling of deep satisfaction.

If you are looking for a read as grim and dark as midnight in an Appalachian coal mine, this pair of short novels is for you!

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