Title: Coffin County
Author: Gary Braunbeck
Published: Leisure Books (June 2008); a division of Dorchester Publishing
ISBN 10: 0-8439-6050-7
ISBN 13: 978-0-8439-6050-1
My local library and the local used-book stores carry a healthy assortment of dark fiction, but there are some names--notable, award-winning authors--who are conspicuous by their absence when I search their titles out. Gary Braunbeck is one such author. After catching wind from other readers and writers that Braunbeck is a superlative horror author, I kept an eye out for his books, but eventually had to end up using an inter-library exchange with another provincial library to get what seems to be the sole Braunbeck novel in the province. Now that I've had the chance to sample his work, I'm not only surprised to have not been made aware of his novels sooner, but surprised that there aren't more of his titles out there sitting on shelves. I guess that's just a disadvantage to living in the boondocks.
Cedar Hill, Ohio is the place where this twisted tale of death and justice and redemption takes place. It's narrated by a character who refers to himself as "The Reverend," but also goes by other names. The Reverend recounts the story of Cedar Hill's latest round of tragedies, as it holds a history so disturbing and fabled locally that the area is nicknamed "Coffin County." The periodic leaps from one character's point-of-view to another through the story might seem disjointed at times, but the Reverend character is there to help lace it all together in a web that gradually turns into a cohesive tapestry of the town and everyone in it, both past and present.
As I mentioned, the town has a hefty history of disasters, including a devastating inferno known as the Great Fire, a glut of murders, and the notorious casket factory fire that took down the entire town in its day. Now, Cedar Hill is beset by another killer who starts his mysterious rampage in a small diner. The aftermath, however, proves to be even more bizarre than the crime itself.
Detective Ben Littlejohn is the guy who gets the case, even though the "power-suits" in town aren't convinced he's stable enough, as he's still getting over the death of his wife, and the murders have been committed on the anniversary of her death. But before the story gets to Ben, the Reverend gives readers a peak at the supernatural and the real cause of what caused Coffin County to earn that nickname. Two powerful and destructive forces are loosed upon the small town and each play their role in not only the murders at the diner, but more deaths, and the steady disintegration of the town and the sanity of Ben Littlejohn.
There's a blue-collar beauty to Braunbeck's writing, and I can see why readers and writers recommend him so highly, but I must admit that it took me a while to get sucked into this story. I felt I was out of rhythm with the Reverend for the first hundred pages or so, and I think it comes from the fact that the first fifty are dedicated to the the events at the coffin factory, and then it thrusts into the present with the murders at the diner. Plus, there are unattributed snippets of dialog between the supernatural entities of the story. Those hit me like speed bumps the first few times they appeared.
Overall, however, the story comes together and that tapestry I alluded to becomes a real work of art, as past and present meld and point to a future that doesn't promise much chance of a happy ending for anyone involved. And the ending is a doozy. Even though I pieced together some of it before it all came to light--the mystery elements of this novel will work for many, I'm sure--the real climax of the story threw me and I had to admit that I did not see it coming.
While I'm not the kind of guy who usually clambers for a sequel to a stand-alone novel, I think there is enough meat left on the bone at the end of the novel to warrant a follow-up of some kind, because I'd be interested to see how the characters in the final chapter carry on. At any rate, Coffin County was a darned good read, well deserving of the nomination and accolades it's received, and I think any book that reminds me of Clive Barker's The Great and Secret Show is worth recommending to others.