The Abyss: Welcome to Hell, Tennessee Coal Miner’s Association!

It’s time for Freaky Friday, that day when we hop in the cage and take the express elevator right down the M-19 shaft…straight to Hell!

Jere Cunningham was a novelist with two books under his belt when he took up his pen and wrote The Abyss in 1981. After Simon & Schuster reneged on the size of the print run and the promised promotion budget he said “Screw this” and moved from his home of Memphis Tennessee to Hollywood, California where he made a living working on screenplays for film and TV. He became one of those jobbing screenwriters who makes a good living selling projects and working on optioned scripts that make money but often never get made, which is how most screenwriters earn a living. However, he also worked on the Emilio Estevez-Cuba Gooding Jr. project Judgment Night (’93), the Brian Dennehy crime thriller The Last of the Finest (’90), as well as some TV movies for Chazz Palminteri, Donald Sutherland, and Mike Ditka.

But what of The Abyss? Basically The Coal Miner’s Daughter meets Event Horizon, it features a completely qualified cover blurb from Stephen King (“I loved this book. The Abyss is very close to being great.”) and an army of Amazon reviews apparently written by our Pilgrim forefathers (“I am not a prude by any means, but when I finished this book I threw it in the trash.” and “The protagonists drink to excess, are promiscuous, curse, and constantly demean each other,”) so it sounded like it could be a blast. And it is. If I was pitching the movie, I’d say it’s John Sayles’s Matewan meets Dante’s Inferno, with Bruce Springsteen doing the soundtrack. I mean, how else can you pitch a book about a Tennessee coal mine so deep that it accidentally drills into Hell?

Seth Stacey was the high school football hero in Bethel, Tennessee, a company town where everyone works in the coal mine. He escaped from a life of black lung when he got a football scholarship, but a knee injury benched his career and he wound up banging around the world in the Merchant Marines before he was drummed out for passing bogus paperwork. Now word comes back that the M-19 shaft of the Bethel coal mine is being re-opened and he decides it’s time to take up his adult responsibilities. Going back home, he moves into his dead brother’s mobile home, assuming the care and feeding of his brother’s widow and children, and he takes back up again with his high school sweetheart, Crystal Billington, the nurse who passes for the town doctor in Bethel, a woman worn out by her tireless advocacy for the miners.

Full of people cruising the night streets in their trucks, miners blowing their paychecks on Budweiser and porn, sweaty back-seat sex, church picnics, broken dreams, and thwarted ambitions, Cunningham delivers a slow burn book that feels like a Springsteen song, all denim vests and dirty bandanas, and at one point during a party in a mobile home someone actually plays “Darkness on the Edge of Town” at which point the book basically eats its own tail. Cunningham is a self-described “redneck from Tennessee” and he’s been in a mine and knows how it works. He knows what it’s like to be Crystal, who wakes up exhausted every morning as she struggles to keep her patients from slipping lower down the socio-economic food chain, and he knows what it’s like to be Seth who has to reconcile himself to punching the clock at the coal mine he swore he’d never enter because he’s not getting any younger and he needs to step up and shoulder his responsibilities. It’s a book that speaks Appalachia, where someone dies and folks from church drop off “casseroles and a pie and two cakes and a baked squirrel.”

Much as Predator II took everything that made Predator so great and turned it up to “11”—delivering a movie that wasn’t better than the original but that’s definitely a hell of a lot of trashy fun—The Abyss takes Stephen King’s style of writing and does the same. Early into the book, after we’ve had a few God’s Eye View setpieces of Bethel partying and bedding down for the night and waking up in the morning and met a sexually frustrated 300 pound Kwik Stop attendant who steals blocks of cream cheese and is addicted to porn, it’s obvious we’re in King country, specifically the general neighborhood of ‘Salem’s Lot. But Cunningham actually writes kids better than King, especially nine-year-old Angie who spouts non-sequiturs all the way up until the fiery climax (“Get me some Hubba Bubba! she screams during the Apocalypse as two characters leave to look for help in town) and he takes what makes King work and doubles down: his coal miners drink 10 beers to every King character’s one.

Things get freaky once the M-19 is reopened and drills past a rockfall that caused it to close a decade before. First all the water in town is transformed into hot and cold running blood. Then people disappear into the mine and re-emerge as zombie miners, working diligently and relentlessly for the boss, watched over by black dogs, bursting into tears as they robotically dig deeper and deeper and deeper, wishing they could quit. Everyone in the mine knows something bad is going on, but they drown their misgivings in beer and pills, tormented by nightmares every time they go to sleep. Fights are breaking out, the town is polluted, its infrastructure is breaking down, but no one says anything, they just keep showing up for work because, honestly, what else are they going to do? It’s the only job around.

Finally, after a few attempts to stop the mining, a big old drill is brought in and it breaches the wall into Hell itself, and things go full psychedelic in a maelstrom of torments that hit the miners like a CGI tsunami of Clive-Barkery pain porn:

“Budreaux crawled in slime, a snail crossing a busy sidewalk; in intolerable heat, a huge acidic hand lifted him to ivy leaves…Timpton was an aphid seized by scouting ants; he was countless aphids dragged underground into lightless chambers, dismembered in darkness by chains of hairy mandibles acid with saliva, by beings as compassionate as tools.”

Satan himself rises up, cackling and enormous over the Appalachian Mountains, and the town quite literally goes to Hell. The few survivors try to escape but they’re hindered by dimly described creatures, re-animated dogs, fast-growing, skin-gouging thorns, avalanches, firestorms, and full auto gunfire from their fellow citizens, whose minds have snapped. In the end, there’s nowhere for this book to go but up, and the final pages end with the world consumed by fire as the characters experience the Complete Rapture Experience, right out of the Book of Revelations. It takes a while to get there, but I’m always happy to spend time in the company of a writer whose characters are this rooted in their environment, who, when confronted with all the bizarre goings-on in town, dismiss it with, “Hoss, I never claimed to know what was normal in this world.” So crank up the Springsteen, crack open a six-pack of something domestic, and read a book that feels like the early-80’s horror movie that Hollywood was too yellow-bellied to produce.

Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.

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