Almost Hell: Part one, Introduction

In publishing, a story set in West Virginia is usually the kiss of death.  The state is a pariah, the butt of endless jokes, and stereotyped beyond reason.  Though Deliverance was set in the Ozarks, it is forever the first thing that comes to mind when West Virginia is mentioned.

It’s a state born out of conflict.  The Civil War’s first land battles were fought over the vital B&O line, and it was the wealthy northern residents who orchestrated the creation of the state from the northwestern counties of Virginia.  One of the true brother against brother states, with almost a 50% divide between the South and the Union when the citizens took up arms. After the war, it became a playground for robber barons.  Timber, King Coal, and oil.  The state has been stripped, capped, mined, and abused since it was created by those absentee landowners and Yankee sympathizers, all feeding off of the railroad wealth.

Fighting back was not an option, as the mine workers were taught by paramilitary troops at Paint Creek, Cabin Creek, the Battle of Matewan, and the Battle of Blair Mountain, where the “Mine Wars” sparked by strikebreakers came to a head and 15,000 workers marched on a mixed force of Baldwin-Felts, police, and the US military, suffering hundreds of casualties.

Later on in FDR’s America, the United Mine Workers union finally mobilized, and the grim despair faded… But that hardscrabble legacy lived on.  Poverty and illiteracy continue to rein.  It’s a state of small skies and big mountains, of dirt-floor living in the isolated hollers, and ramshackle shacks at the foot of hills adorned with McMansions.  The trains dried up, and the towns died, becoming nothing more than wide spots in the road where the only natives are men, women, and children who have no hope of escape.  Born poor and die poor, trapped at the side of some forlorn bypass that curves through forest and badlands.  Coal is still king, ripped out of the mountains today by machines and workers who still find themselves in more danger than their counterparts around the world.  The oil boom is long gone, the northern counties now dotted with miniature rusty derricks.

In recent decades, West Virginia has boldly pushed towards a life as “Washington’s playground.”  Selling itself to, essentially, become part of the ever-widening commuter circle around DC and her out of control suburban development.  The queer mix of hick suburbanism that belts DC has been lured to the parks, the mountains, and the rivers of West Virginia.  Tourism is now becoming king, and the locals, forever suffering, get to sit by the roadside watching the city folk pull in.  Poverty meets consumerism, the simple mountain Baptist ways meets heathenism, and city folk go where they don’t quite belong.

So, where a book set in West Virginia may die, a movie will succeed.  Banjo playing monsters stalk our dreams, haunt the waking fears of city folk, and rip us to pieces for no good reason.

West Virginia horror, in the 21st Century, has given in to that motif.  Pretty people out for a daytrip in the woods will be slaughtered by the hideous inbred simpletons hailing from small town America, or the isolated trailers of despair in the woods.  The fear of the dark, of the unknown, of the endless, unmapped forests, play out as Eliza Dushku fights for her life, Mulder and Scully unravel mysteries, and weekend warriors get hunted down and brutally murdered.  This is Washington’s Playground.

But, before that, there was a brooding face of West Virginia horror.  The stranglers and the rapists were there, but they were elements of the land.  Those trapped in the dying small towns, the forgotten train towns, the hopeless valleys… A product of their environment.  Jilted lovers poisoning rivals amidst a typhoid epidemic, Chief Cornstalk’s curse living on through the Mothman, Clarksburg child-killer Harry Powers, desperate mill workers caught in murder plots, ex-cons footloose and fancy free in Moundsville… Villains and heroes steeped in the misty mountains and the dark passages of the state.  Those who will never escape given a voice.  Not retards or inbred mutants, but killers who look just like us.  Jimmy Stewart, Peter Weller, Robert Mitchum…

It begins in 1947, with the unwatchable entry from the “crime doctor” serials, The Millerson Case.  And it continues on through to the present day with a murderous women’s academy, and the stalking menace of a small-town legend.  West Virginia horror.  From thriller, to drama, to slashers, to art house fantasy, and back again.

Over the next few months, I’m going to torture myself with horror films set in West Virginia.  I won’t promise regular updates, but I’ll pound them out as fast as I can.

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