Hellbender lives up to its billing and that’s no easy feat, considering how the last paragraph on the back cover reads: “Jason Jack Miller’s Murder Ballads and Whiskey series is a unique blend of dark fiction, urban fantasy and horror. It’s Appalachian Gothic, Alt.Magical.Realism, Hillbilly Horror. It’s American Gods meets Justified. True Blood with witches. It’s Johnny Cash with a fistful of copperheads singing the devil right back to hell.”
It all begins with a mysterious death and a feud.
The feud is pretty easy to define: Collins versus Lewis. Main character and narrator Henry Collins gives some background: “Growing up, I thought every family had an enemy who stole shit from their property, who burned barns down and raised the kind of hell that kept your parents up at night worrying.” The Lewises were, in short, “the only bogeymen I ever feared”.
The death is a little more complicated. Jane, Henry’s sister, is dead. But was it an accident or something more sinister? Henry doesn’t seem interested in finding out and walks away from his family and his home, wanting to escape the feud (and the magics) he doesn’t completely understand (or believe in). But, as Henry notes when he looks in his rearview mirror, “The mirror, as honest as it was, would never tell me if we were speeding away from trouble, or toward it.” In this case, trouble was all around.
Henry finds a somewhat unlikely alliance in Alex, a former (and now current) love interest who was also Jane’s roommate and is a Lewis relation. Together, they race through rural West Virginia in a quest for justice (or revenge). Along the way, a near-death rafting experience, several chase scenes, multiple beatings and shootings, a panicked creep through an abandoned coal mine, an allegedly stolen heirloom, and lots (and lots) of snakes and magic keep things energetic and interesting.
Miller doesn’t shy away from death and violence—Hillbilly or no—the book is definitely horror, but not stilted Hollywood horror. It’s well-written, character-driven horror. The setting is often beautifully described. The characters are complicated and capable of the unexpected. There’s even gender equality—both men and women kick a little butt—men usually with guns (or tree limbs, rocks, ax handles, etc.) and women primarily with magic.
But the magic isn’t hokey; it’s magical realism that is strangely more believable because Henry doesn’t always believe. When his family suggests that one of the Lewises may have stolen Alex’s hairbrush, he mocks “hair magic”, and he also thinks the victim of a drowning spell is suffering from food poisoning. Granted, sometimes the chase scenes could be just as smidgeon shorter, but all in all, this is simply a good book. And it gets bonus points because I can’t remember the last time I read something like it. Let’s face it—in the 21st century, originality isn’t always easy to find.
Another point worthy of note—how the book (and the series) came to be in the first place. The Devil and Preston Black, the first book in the series, was a self-published (or as Miller calls it, independently published) e-book. Hellbender was also first published as an independent e-book, then, because of its success, was picked up by Raw Dog Screaming Press.
I checked out Miller’s website and was pleased I could read 100 pages of The Devil and Preston Black there. Check it out, but if you are a writer, also spend some time looking at “eBooks and the Independent Spirit” and reading Miller’s five rules for independent publishing. Here’s an excerpt:
“ePublishing can’t be pursued as a last resort. I believed that before I could take the plunge, I had to make ePublishing my FIRST choice. I knew if I wasn’t going to treat my book the way a publisher—who’d spend all kinds of money to print, market and distribute the book—was going to treat it, then independent publishing probably wasn’t going to work for me. I had to believe to the depths of my soul that I knew what was best for my book. I was not doing it favors by letting it sit on a shelf, unread.”
Miller further notes, “I worried about what other writers—specifically my peers from Seton Hill—would say about my choice to jump ship. I had a huge list of Big Six-published books in my arsenal, books from people like Snooki, Nicole Richie, Lauren Conrad, that I could whip out whenever Big Six publication as a path to true legitimacy was mentioned.”
To put Miller’s thoughts to the test, I mentioned to a literary friend or two that I was reading a good book, then read them the summary on the book jacket. Many were putting it on their “to read” list. Then I told them that originally the book was self published. I can see why Miller needed an arsenal.
Perhaps I’m making too much of this, but Hellbender may not be just another good book. I wonder if this book (and its author) represents a changing tide, a new trend in the way books, good books, move from writer to reader. Certainly Miller isn’t the first writer to move from independent publishing to the more traditional. If fact, he’s probably not even the first good writer to make the switch (or the first good writer to publish independently). But his attitudes toward the publishing process and his willingness to state, rather loudly, that “No matter how you are published, or who publishes you, you ARE an independent writer” seem to make him just as original as the book itself.