NOTICE: I received a free reviewer’s copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way influences my opinions of the story. As part of Nightscape Press’ Charitable Chapbooks series, one-third of the proceeds go to the Southern Poverty Law Center. You can purchase a copy of the book here on their website.
Summary: Bea Holcombe loves her life in Fontaine Falls, a perfect little town tucked away in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. She has never thought to question that love until her next-door neighbor opens fire on a crowd of black demonstrators gathered in the city park to protest the town’s Confederate statue. Lester Neal has torn open an invisible wound in Fontaine Falls, and what festers inside of it will change Bea, her family, and the dimming mind of her mother forever.
As the national media descends and violence spreads, the town endures a conflict it is no longer insulated from. Bea is given a special sight so that she may witness how deep the rot has burrowed inside the postcard charm of Fontaine Falls. And she will be asked to turn the light of scrutiny and complicity upon herself as she is visited by horrors that won’t rest quietly. “This is a ghost story,” she tells us repeatedly. This unflinching, poetic novella is an examination of that claim—its layers of truth, of untruth, and the uneasy specters that inhabit modern America.
Content Warnings: Racism, Slurs, Body Horror
Review: Whenever a white author wants to talk about racism in their story, I get a little anxious. Not because I believe a white author shouldn’t write a story about racism. It’s because, when they do, the story rings hollow. Too often, stories about racism from white authors offer too many platitudes that simply are not true.
Like the idea that racists are simply ignorant people too stuffed up with hate, uneducated country boys and girls that need to be educated. Or maybe, the story will feature a well-meaning white savior who needs the help of an incredibly capable sidekick of color to get to the bottom of things in a small town. Worse yet, they’ll make the racist in the story so divorced from reality and believability that the white readers that need the story the most will never believe that they could be anything like them.
Michael Wehunt’s novella, thankfully, doesn’t really have these problems.
Our main character, Bea, really does remind me of some of the most passive white women I have ever met. She even reminds me of some of the days I’ve spoken with my own white-passing Mom. Bea so wants to believe in the sanctity and safety of her family, her town, and the perfect slice of apple pie she managed to carve out of the Appalachian Mountains. Wehunt’s characterization is so realistic that I found myself getting frustrated.
Wehunt’s portrait of our villain(s) also manages to get a lot right. These are no simple country boys. They’re in educated families. The shooter’s wife is a well-paid nurse on maternity leave. Bea’s children might even head to Ivy League universities like Duke’s. Wehunt also manages to stick in a few scenes that show he did his research on the mentality of America’s most common terrorists.
Thanks to that kind of dedication, I don’t think I have ever read a story where I related the most to the ghosts in the story.
Because, in America, the culture shrouds you in lies. It’s so easy to get swept up in them even when you’re marginalized. But then you wake up, cataracts clear, and your very existence depends on making sure that the Beas of America realize what is thriving in their own homes.
Your cries get louder every time a spike of violence, like the fictional event in the novella, happens. So loud. You want to cry every time.
Ninety percent of the time, no one listens. Once again, you are the ghost in the attic being relegated to the naughty pipes that just won’t get fixed in this bloodstained house of a nation.
Much like in his debut collection, Wehunt’s prose is stellar. The reader imagines the autumnal town like the postcards Bea so admires. I see it, too, but in my head, it’s not my imagination but my memories.
Memories of a nice trip through North Carolina where we stayed at a wonderful cabin for Christmas. How we got lost and took a wondrous trip through Christmas tree farms until we ended up in even smaller towns and I spotted it: the first of many Confederate flags as we figured out how to get back to our destination.
Memories of a sea of white Southern faces, self-conscious of my Spanish when I reply to one of my Mom’s jokes.
Memories of a trip to Northern Florida to represent my uber-conservative private school in a band competition only to find signs warning us, “No Spanish Allowed.”
I think of all these memories and of beautiful Fontaine Falls. I remember how much luckier I am than the majority of my friends, especially my Black friends. I have to wonder, “How on Earth did these ghosts manage to only drag Bea from her bed and nothing else? How did they only sigh and not scream?”
The moment I started reading the novella, with my frustrations and all, I read to the very end. When I finished the ending, truth be told, I felt beyond happy that Wehunt didn’t end this with a pretty little bow like the vast majority of other authors. This story didn’t deserve a happy bow. Bea doesn’t deserve a happy bow.
America doesn’t deserve a happy bow.
So, for those of you who expect one here, you’re not gonna find it. You’re only going to find Wehunt following the right example, grabbing you by the head, and shoving your eye through the peephole as the skeletons are finally brought out of the closet.
Rating: ★★★★ of 5 stars.