Mike Mehalek's Reviews > Hellbender

Hellbender by Jason Jack Miller
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's review
Jul 26, 2014

it was amazing


Whew, now while the devil is preoccupied with figuring out what the heck that first line's all about, let me introduce you to Jason Jack Miller's killer novel Hellbender, and why if you only have time to read one book this year, it should be from the Murder Ballads and Whiskey series, specifically Hellbender which hints at what Miller and his writing is all about.

The reason for such a bold opening statement rises from the fact that are so many things worth saying about Hellbender that finding where to begin. . . well the beginning, let's start there.

A funeral.

Specifically the funeral for a loved one. Miller introduces us to the protagonist Henry acting as a pall bearer for his dead sister, luring us in with a subtle familiarity that we all know in some way at a sobering time where past transgressions are forgiven and where characters find it hard to lie, even to themselves. This particular funeral also feels half a bubble off plumb--it's not quite what a person would expect when attending a funeral, a simple pine box, bare feet, burial grounds on a family's plot of land. For Henry and his family, this is status quo. This is what you do when someone dies. This "just enough away from reality" feeling is important because it cues us in very early that reality as these characters experience it is a little more unusual than it is for the rest of us. Our eyes in this story are the eyes of the characters who do not live in the mountains. They live in our reality and because they do, we are able to imagine that the unreality of the Collin's clan actually can exist in our reality--if only we'd open our eyes to see it. So this is going to be a story where there is a world all around me that exists and I don't know about? You betcha. Personally, I love those kinds of stories.

If you've ever visited this part of the country, you'll realize that natives there really do live in this unreality. I'm not about to say that they know enchantments and hexes or that they can milk the handle of an axe--but to them these things are commonplace. What's amazing is that Miller is able to draw upon this lore and these local legends making them his own and elevating them to a level of pure terror while remaining respectful to these traditions and superstitions. For this reader, Miller's love for his home is reminiscent of Frost's, and Hellbender's driving force reminds me of "Out, Out." Both speak of home and what home feels like and what fantastical horrors transpire within every family; and the meaning of the novel and the poem can be summed up by the closing lines of the poem "And they, since they/Were not the ones dead, turned to their affairs."

The key to Hellbender's success lies in Miller's carefully chosen word choice and poetic style. He flawlessly segues between lyrical and staccato, using both power chords and nuance, matching style with the requirements of each scene. Even when the plot is its grittiest, the words glimmer. This type of literary prowess continues to grow within the horror field. Novels like Hellbender and serials like Murder Ballads and Whiskey will bring a new heyday to the genre.

I look forward to Miller's next.

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