Hell Hollow / Ronald Kelly Cemetery Dance / October 2009 Reviewed by: Blu Gilliand for Dark Scribe
Ronald Kelly's Hell Hollow is the bastard son of Robert
McCammon's Boy's Life and Wes Craven's original A Nightmare on
Elm Street, a quick-moving mashup of the classic coming-of-age,
fish-out-of-water story and old-fashioned supernatural terror tale.
Keith Bishop is a spoiled boy living in Atlanta, a latch-key kid whose
parents can't tear their eyes away from the next rung of the corporate
ladder long enough to discipline their son. Events conspire to sentence
Keith to a month-long stay with his seldom-seen grandfather, Jasper
McLeod, in the tiny Tennessee town of Harmony. Harmony is the
quintessential small Southern town, populated with hard-working farm
families, deep woods, pastures, and, of course, a run-down general
store. In other words, it's the last place a city boy wants to be.
Keith reluctantly falls in with a group of friends that include his
cousin Rusty, crush-worth Maggie, and wheelchair-bound Chuck. When Keith
wins a bet that forces his new acquaintances to help him explore a
mysterious section of the woods known around Harmony as Hell Hollow, the
foursome find themselves face-to-face with the evil that has been hidden
there for nearly a hundred years - an evil that has begun to stir again.
Few can bring a Southern summer to life the way Ronald Kelly does in
Hell Hollow. He perfectly captures not only the essence of a hot
August day, but also what it's like to be young, free, and restless on
such days. Endless bicycle rides, swimming in a cold creek, sneaking a
juicy watermelon from a neighbor's field—it's all vividly
portrayed. Kelly also perfectly captures the dark undercurrent that runs
through the town. Flashbacks tell the story of what's in the Hollow and
why it's been dormant for so long, as well as revealing its connection
to newcomer Keith.
Hell Hollow clocks in at nearly 500 pages, but it's no
slog—Kelly's prose is lean and precise, the mark of an author
steeped in the tradition of oral storytelling. He manages to paint vivid
pictures with spare strokes, something any writer will tell you is no
There are a couple of stumbling blocks along the way. A side plot
involving a hitchhiking serial killer named Slash and one of his
intended victims feels shoehorned in, which is problematic considering
how big a role the characters play in the overall story. Kelly loses his
footing a bit when he takes the story out of Harmony and into the
children's dreams—he just doesn't quite capture the landscapes
there the way he does those of Tennessee. And toward the end of the
book, the villain lapses into some unfortunate Scooby-Doo bad guy
dialogue of the "meddling kids" variety.
However, in the grand scheme of the story, these are minor distractions.
The first two-thirds of the book are marvelous, and the downshift in
quality of the last third is slight enough that it doesn't damage the
experience as a whole. If you're from the South, much of this book is
going to ring absolutely true for you. If you're not, then come along
and see what you missed.