Friday, July 20, 2012

“It’s a Helluva Place to Write About”: A Review of Rich Bottles Jr.’s Hellhole, West Virginia

 (2011, Burning Bulb Publishing, ISBN:9780615535791,
By Joey Madia
There are lots of West Virginias. To some it’s the redneck, backwards in-bred core of Appalachia. To others it is home to the powerhouse football and basketball teams of WVU (Go Mountaineers!), while, to legions of John Denver fans, it is “Almost Heaven,” an outdoor mecca of whitewater rafting, biking, and hiking.
In the five years I’ve been here I’ve seen a little bit of all of these pictures of West Virginia, and many more. The frontier spirit is alive and well, as are lots of examples of innovation and the ongoing controversy over coal, natural gas, and “fracking.” I’ve also noticed in my time here that West Virginia fascinates writers, whether natives or transplants like myself. Sooner or later, you just have to write about the place.
Rich Bottles Jr., a Pennsylvania native and “bizarro” author, is one of those whose fascination with all things West Virginia manifests prominently in his work. Like his novel Lumberjacked, Hellhole, West Virginia confluences fact and fiction, stereotype and the utterly unique in horrific and humorous ways.
His publisher, Burning Bulb, specializes in both Bizarro and West Virginia as a ripe setting for the horror and sex-filled tales their authors tell (I have previously reviewed the 50+ story collection called The Big Book of Bizarro that Bottles co-edited as well as Gary Lee Vincent’s Darkened vampire trilogy). Hellhole is the perfect storm of these foci. On the back cover the publisher gives a tongue in cheek but perhaps necessary warning to the reader about the “graphic sex and gratuitous violence” in Hellhole. I’m not going to dwell on either of these elements, as I frankly think they belong in this book and I’ve waded through worse in both content and execution in bizarro and other types of works and if that isn’t your cup of tea, well—you’ve been warned.
Hellhole is like Pulp Fiction, in the sense that it consists of several separate stories all tied together in a single thematic arc that wraps up neatly… and yet ugly… in the end. I’d like to comment on each separate story and then do a bit of wrap-up in order to parallel the structure Bottles employs.
The first story is titled “The Pussy Peddlers of Pendleton County” and tells the tale of an undercover cop fresh out of the WV Police Academy who is trying to find her predecessor, who has disappeared, while attempting to break the prostitution ring operating out of a seedy motel. This section is perhaps the most grotesque in terms of both violence and sex, because of the way they are so thoroughly inter-related in the Pendleton County Bottles presents to us.
The second story, called “At the Point of Unpleasantness,” takes as its raw material a subject near and dear to my heart and of which I am intimately acquainted, as I have spent the past 3 years researching for and writing a three-act play about the area—the Mothman sightings and Silver Bridge Collapse in Point Pleasant, WV in 1966 and 1967. Bottles takes the legends and the lore and intriguingly adapts them to the larger tale he is telling, both by filling in the gaps with his own crafting of events as well as twisting the facts to suit his purpose. It is clear that Bottles spent considerable time in the key locations where Mothman was seen, including the TNT area and its infamous “igloos,” and read all the requisite books concerning eyewitness accounts and the circumstances surrounding the collapse of the bridge. This story is a worthy addition to the growing catalog of Mothman tales.
The third story, “Zenra and the Art of Hummer Maintenance,” is perhaps the most complicated thematically and as far as source material is concerned. Beyond the title’s play on Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the chapter pulls pieces from the WV Environmental scene, mashing them up with the Manson Family murders (appropriate given Manson’s connection to West Virginia). It is also in this chapter that the author’s technical writing skills shine brightest as he explains the nuances of energy company expansion versus the protection of indigenous wildlife. Having friends who live near the headwaters of the Potomac in eastern West Virginia, I have seen the rape of the landscape perpetrated by the energy companies. It’s easy to understand how some people take their passion for the environment to extreme and ugly places.
The fourth chapter, “The Winter of Our Discombobulation,” boldly goes where most authors dare not tread—interdicting themselves, warts and farts and all, into their own story. This can be polarizing for audiences, as in the case of Stephen King and the final two books of the Dark Tower series, but, like in all things having to do with Art, it only matters if it works for the story or not and in this case (as in King’s) it certainly does. I give Bottles credit for taking a twisted trip to the kinds of places only the late, great Hunter S. Thompson could and leaving his ego in the background to maximize the laughs and the bizarreness of the tale he tells. Kudos must be given for the insights he gives into both the creative and business sides of the novelist’s life. And, for all you fans of zombies, he does not disappoint!
The fifth and final section, “At the Mountains of Mayhem,” takes us back to the characters of Pendleton County while introducing a Buffy-esque new one and tying all of the stories together in a mounting climax (a few actually) and ending that undoes typical conventions and expectations.
Further tying the separate stories together are some recurring themes and scenes that one can only truly appreciate when the book is finished.
Although it’s not for everyone (and no style of writing should be), Hellhole, West Virginia provides ample entertainment and new takes on tried and true legends of the region.
And should you want to burn it, perhaps the publisher’s back cover advice should get the final word: “wear fire-resistant clothing.”

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