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A collection of Appalachian horror stories from a trio of talented writers, “The Devil’s Backbone” is uneven but far from uninteresting.

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The Devil’s Backbone is a mysterious place that snakes through the Appalachian Mountains. Portals to other dimensions and otherworldly beings live along its spine. Sometimes, locals cross paths with these beings; others can commune with them and decipher their wants and needs. Some dismiss these beings as devils and certain sites along the Devil’s Backbone as portals to hell.

The Devil’s Backbone is part of Crystal Lake Publishing’s Dark Tide series, a series of anthologies containing three novellas revolving around a central theme.

As a collective, it speaks to a primitive part of human nature. The characters populating these novellas live closer to the land than most of us. Some of them are more in tune with the Devil’s Backbone than others.

“A Foot in the Netherwild” by Ronald Kelly takes place in a small town called Morgan’s Mill, Tennessee, in 1880. The Ayres children disappear while fetching water from the creek. When their father, Bowden, goes looking for them, he crosses paths with Uriah Coldcreek, an enigmatic figure familiar with folk magic and other worlds.

Uriah tells Bowden that a being called “The Coveter” led his children into a mysterious place or dimension called the Netherwild. Uriah offers Bowden his help in finding his children.

Kelly breathes life into his characters by writing dialogue in dialect, presenting a new mythology with the Netherwild and the Coveter.

An entertaining read, Kelly’s tale includes familiar tropes such as the mysterious and mystical hermit and the elderly wise woman who guides them on their journey. However, the main conflict was resolved too simply, leaving little explanation. The resolution leads to an action-packed scene and a predictable ending.

Laurel Hightower’s “Spirit Coven” is set in Arnett, Kentucky, in 1925. When the locals of the small mining town begin disappearing and dying mysteriously, a local coven of witches falls under suspicion.

Jude is part of a coven that’s lived in the mountains outside of Arnett for generations, which provides the locals with remedies and bourbon. The coven has a tenuous alliance with the locals. Some accept the witch’s remedies and drink their bourbon but with a sense of unease.

Hightower paces her story slowly, taking her time to develop the characters, peeling away layers one at a time.

“Spirit Coven” is a compelling folk/eco-horror tale with lots of twists and turns. While suspenseful, the story was too long and drawn out, with odd details and twists.

Red Lagoe’s “The Gatherer” takes place in 1971 in Blackmoor, Virginia. Martin Forsyth is a young man who grew up under the shadow of a local legend called The Gatherer, a creature who lives in the forest. Martin believes he may or may not have seen this elusive creature when he was a child.

Currently, Martin is stressed. His father disappeared many years ago, plus his older brother, Gary, went off to Vietnam. Martin lives with his mother, who is obsessed with The Gatherer and warns people to stay away from the woods, including the Devil’s Backbone and a region of the Backbone called the Devil’s Bathtub.

Lagoe sets a dark tone through her descriptions of people and places; an atmosphere of decay has settled over his rural town.

Martin’s mother “let herself go,” feeding chickens in her bathrobe, her hair unwashed, tumbling to greasy tangles and split ends. She describes the houses, once vibrant in color but now dull like the morning fog enveloping Blackmoor.

There are subtle clues throughout the narrative that culminate in an ending that is a surprise but doesn’t come out of nowhere. A reference to the anthology’s two previous stories ties the entire book together.

The Devil’s Backbone has its ups and downs, and I admit, it’s not something that I would normally read.

However, if you love folk or eco-horror with odd twists and turns, I recommend giving this anthology a read.

The Devil’s Backbone (Dark Tide Book 13) is set for release from Crystal Lake Publishing on February 23, 2024.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 3.5


Ronald Kelly has published 15 novels and short stories in 12 collections. His published work includes Fear, Undertaker’s Moon, Blood Kin, and Midnight Grinding. Kelly won the 2021 Splatterpunk Award for Best Collection for The Essential Sick Stuff. Kelly also has a Grammy-nominated audio collection to his credit.

Bram Stoker-nominated author Laurel Hightower’s previous works include Whispers in the Dark, Crossroads, Below, Silent Key, and the short story collection Every Woman Knows This. She received an Independent Audiobook Award in 2020 for Crossroads in the Best Horror category. Hightower won the 2020 This is Horror Best Novella Award. Besides writing, she served as editor of three anthologies, including two charity anthologies: We Are Wolves and Shattered and Splintered and The Dead Inside, an identity horror anthology.

Author Red Lagoe’s previously published work includes three horror collections: Impulses of a Necrotic Heart, Lucid Screams, and Dismal Dreams. She served as editor of the anthology Nightmare Sky: Stories of Astronomical Horror and worked as a staff writer for Crystal Lake Publishing’s Still Water Bay series. Lagoe’s novella In Excess Off and novel Bloodstains are both set for release in 2024.

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