When reporter Cora Mayburn is assigned to cover a story about a snake-handling cult in rural Appalachia, she is dismayed, for the world of cruel fundamentalist stricture, repression, glossolalia, and abuse is something she has long since put behind her in favor of a more tolerant urban existence. But she accepts the assignment, dredging up long-buried memories as she seeks the truth.
As Cora begins to uncover the secrets concealed by a veneer of faith and tradition, something ancient and long concealed begins to awaken. What secrets do the townsfolk know? What might the handsome young pastor be hiding? What will happen when occulted horrors writhe to the surface, when pallid and forgotten things rise to reclaim the Earth?
Will Cora–and the earth–survive? The answers–and pure terror–can only be found in one place: Beneath.
Beneath is an unflinching exploration of religious fanaticism and sin. "Cora is a protagonist readers will find easy to identify with and root for as she confronts horrors both human and unfathomable. Plus, it's got a Judas Priest soundtrack," says Ross Lockhart.
"…a brilliant Cthonic horror fantasia full of creepy religion, grief, pain, sorrow and snakes."– Gemma Files, author of Experimental Film
"Shocking violence and visceral terror punctuate a tale that uncoils a nest of deadly fundamentalism, feminist fury, and a sensitive empathy for abuse survivors.Beneathwinds towards an ending that is as disturbing and tragic as it is strangely empowering. It's one of my favorite novels so far this year."– Theresa DeLucci, editor of Come Join Us By the Fire
Cora dressed slowly the next morning. Her limbs felt heavy, as if the arms and legs she pushed through her navy blouse and black jeans were not her own. Twice, she had thought she would be sick and hovered over the toilet with her hair braided through her fingers and her eyes squeezed shut.
Today, she planned to go back to the church. With luck, she would be able to talk with the girl and her mother. If Pastor Wayne would speak with her, she wanted to talk to that pedophiliac fucker, too.There was something odd going on with the girl, some element to this story that went beyond uncovering the truths behind the mystery of snake handling.
Even if no one would talk to her—surely word had spread of her presence—she could at least play the quiet observer. After yesterday's events, she imagined that the little gas station and store at the base of the mountain would be a goldmine for gossip, and sometimes a silent presence was forgotten. Most of her stories were results of doing nothing more than fading into the background. A bland smudge against an even blander setting.
Her face was pale, a ghostly reflection of what it should be, and she brought her hand to the mirror to be sure it was really her, that she had not vanished during the night. For a small moment, the glass felt spongy beneath her fingers, and she jerked her hand away, her breath catching in her throat.
But the glass, of course, was only glass, and her face was her own, however sleep deprived, and she could hear Jimmy's voice telling her to stop being such an insufferable coward and pull her shit together before her story was swept out from underneath her.
"Idiot," she muttered and pinched her cheeks, raked a brush through her hair, and gathered her notebook and keys. Breakfast was two aspirin. Coffee she could get later. The drive would do her good, would clear her head.
Before she left, she went to the phone on the table next to the bed and called the front desk. "Good morning. I'm calling to see if there have been any messages left for me? Room 138."
"Just a moment."
She tapped her fingernails against the table as she waited. If she went to the church first, that would give her time later in the afternoon to make her way through anyone else who might be willing to talk with her.
"Miss? Only one message. From Jimmy Townsend. Reads 'Hope the hotel doesn't give you bed bugs. Or V.D. And try not to let those fuckers convert you.'" The receptionist cleared her throat, and Cora couldn't help but smile. Of course Jimmy wouldn't have listened to her request for no contact, but at least he wasn't pumping her for information.
"Sorry about that. His sense of humor can be rather…intense," Cora said.
The receptionist's voice remained clipped. "Have a good day, Miss."
She thought of calling Jimmy back, but he would be in the Furlitz meeting and weasling his way into a story about a local plastic surgeon turned organic farmer. Real heavy hitting shit.
She checked her reflection one last time before hurrying out the door.
Once she was inside her car, she punched on the radio, turned the volume up so that the bass pounded her ears. Judas Priest's "Devil's Child" pumped through the speakers, and she laughed at the DJs obscure choice, notched up the dial just a bit more, and sang along.
Despite the sunless, grayed morning, the drive was lovely. Trees dripped a vermilion carpet of leaves on the blacktop, and sugar maples blazed out in the final throes of glory before winter's temporary death. Cora cracked her window, breathed in air laced with ice and the late autumn smells of smoke and earth.
In twenty minutes she was pulling into the gravel lot outside of the tiny store at the bottom of the mountain. Two cars, an old Ford and an even older Dodge, were parked in the lot, but otherwise, it was deserted. Cora hesitated. She had been sure that the entire town would be out today. After all, wagging tongues would need to find other wagging tongues to divulge rumor and idle chatter, but the town was quiet. Dead.
Stepping from her car, she adjusted her blouse and tucked a loose curl behind her ear. Options were limited. She could go into the store and try her hand with the people who had ventured out, or she could drive over to the church and see if Pastor Wayne was more amenable to her presence. Or she could climb into the car and drive back to the hotel, maybe find a liquor store on the way there, pour herself four fingers of bourbon and wait for the alcohol to settle over her like a coat.
But then the door popped open, and a tall boy with a rakish grin bounded onto the porch, descended the stairs, and took a sharp left onto a worn path that led up the mountain.
"Of course," Cora mumbled. She had forgotten that the town itself, while housing the store, the school, and the church, had very few actual residences at the foot of the mountain. One house with a massive front porch stood to the right of the church, but other than that, Pastor Wayne's congregation and Sister Maguire's customers would live on the mountain and walk to town. No reason for a car. She locked her doors and walked quickly to the store.
The porch stairs creaked beneath her weight, but no one noticed when she entered the store. She slipped behind an aisle of flour and sugar, the bins open and waiting, only no one was buying today. The store, while obviously old, was scrubbed clean, and smelled of burned coffee and yeast. The counter top held a cash register and a variety of baked goods, golden crusts leaking sugared bits of golden apple or bloodied stains of cherry.
All around her, conversations fluttered, voices cresting and falling to whispers, and she settled herself, closed her eyes and tried to focus on a single voice, to follow that bright thread out of the dark.
A woman's voice, high and quavering, rose out of the din, and sliced through the air with the harshness of condemnation. A voice of accusation. A voice of quiet violence.
"Never could trust Ruth. Living up there all alone on the mountain with her girl. Acting all high and mighty. She always was queer, but after her husband died, wasn't nobody who didn't think she was all right in the head.
Her daddy, you know, was a fruit. I heard tell from Mable—she's got cousins in Beaufort—that her daddy found himself in a heap of trouble with some boys in town, but money does all the talking that sin doesn't want to admit."
"But her girl," another voice chimed in but was immediately drowned out by a crowd of others shouts and protestations.
"She ain't grown. Can't blame her," a tinny male voice said, but the arguments resumed without paying him mind.
"Mary Pharr saw the whole thing, poor lamb. Said that Leah was panting like a dog in heat and dribbling spit all over herself. And then she just started digging in her arm. Ripped her bandages off and used her teeth to tear those holes wide open. And what's worse," the speaker dropped her voice now, whispered the rest.
"What's worse is that Mary said she saw somethingmovingunder there. Something black and liquid."
The crowd fell silent and exhaled a collective breath. Death and despair had crept among them, and their words were miniscule and pointless in the face of such creatures. These were the people of the snakes; the people who waited for the cold flicker of a forked tongue, for the smooth whisper of snakeskin against flesh, but this girl and her mother led them to fear, and they sucked it down, imbibed on it like desperate men.
"Abomination," another male's voice echoed in the silence.
"Brother Manley, she's merely a child. And Mary Pharr has always been given to stretching the truth. I once saw that girl wink—actually wink—in church."
Cora waited, concealed in her aisle. If she made her presence known now, the people who crowded the store would see her as nothing more than a gossip or a sneak, and their words would be forever lost. She wanted to talk with the woman who mentioned what Mary Pharr had seen, and perhaps even more urgent was the need to talk with Mary herself. Even if the girl was a liar, Cora could work her until the truth came tumbling out of her. Ask enough questions and any liar was bound to trip up. The confessions always came quickly after. Almost some sort of penance or desperation for Cora to know they weren't all bad.
"I've watched that woman pray, Sister Robinson. Ain't nobody who prays like that. Her head shaking back and forth and muttering to herself. Can't even make out what it is she's saying. Sounds like another language to me," the man—Brother Manley—spoke again.
"Speaking in tongues is all. It's the foundation of what we believe," the woman replied.
"Mable said that Ruth's Momma was a whore, too. The men paid her, she said. The whole town thought she was a witch. That she'd worked blood magic on all of the ladies' husbands, and that at night, they couldn't control themselves and would go hunting for her like animals. That whole family is marked by the devil himself," the first woman spoke again.
"Jesus Christ," Cora whispered. For such an isolated town, the congregation knew a thing or two about the goings on of the outside world. Dumb bunnies they were not.
"I'm telling you. That woman—and her girl—ain't right. You mark my words, there's something rotten inside the both of them, and it won't take long for it all to come leaking out," Brother Manley said. The door opening and the stomping of boots signaled a new gossiper under the guise of a customer, and Cora took advantage and slipped out.
The air had gone colder, and it bit against her bare skin. The town dangled on the edge of mass hysteria. Cora could sense it, an abyss opening, darkness reaching to grab at the ankles of minds already given to fanaticism.
There was a story here, but Cora couldn't be sure of her angle. Certainly Jimmy had sent her here to cover the religious aspect only, but this had the makings of something much larger—a Salem witch-hunt repeated. At the center, a young girl accused of possession and a lustful preacher. Jimmy would love it. The readers would love it. And even better, Cora wanted to write it, wanted to peel back the layers of these townspeople and rebuild them word by word until the bare truth lay exposed. More than anything, she wanted Pastor Wayne flayed to the bone, and his shame presented for the world to see.
In the parking lot, she hesitated. Her feet pointed toward the church, but she turned away from the large building and toward the worn path that led up the mountain. She wasn't sure where to find Leah or Ruth, wasn't sure which of the houses belonged to them. She was bound to find someone along the dirt road, and she figured they could point her in the right direction. Of course, that's if they didn't look at her as an outsider and tell her to pound sand, but she figured she would try her luck and see if anything landed right side up.
Had she looked into the woods though, searched through the dark trees, she would have seen a blurred form, a girl in a bloodied blue dress, hurrying up the mountain.