When I heard that Kristi DeMeester’s first novel Beneath had Southern Gothic leanings and a damnation of religion, I knew I had to read it. In the book, reporter Cora Mayburn is handed a brow-raising assignment: coverage of a fundamentalist religious cult that employs speaking in tongues and snake handling in rural Appalachia. Reluctant to deal with anything pious due to some serious abuse in her past, Cora is persuaded against her instincts to cover the group by her editor.
Of course, she arrives eagle-eyed, looking for signs of anything even remotely “off” about the little town. And boy, does she find it. What Cora experiences goes way beyond the inappropriate glances between Michael, the local pastor, and a teenage girl, Leah, recently bitten in one of the church’s snake ceremonies. This rite of passage sets off Leah’s destiny, which began with her mother, Ruth. While the uber-religious Ruth (a zealot, really) had thoughts of abandoning or killing Leah as a baby because of visions and the red “devil’s mark” in Leah’s eye, ultimately, she did not. Instead, Ruth raised her daughter to follow in her pious footsteps.
Because of its multiple viewpoints and initial emphasis on Leah, I expected the book to follow this very thin and awkward girl ala Carrie. However, DeMeester surpised me by steering the story far more toward John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkeness territory — a gory, apocalyptic vision of an ancient Hell bubbling up from creatures below that possess humans. Children become hungry, snake-like things that devour and mutilate their parents. The theme of famished children eating flesh and bone is a common one in DeMeester’s unnerving short story collection Everything That’s Underneath, as well.
Leah and Ruth go from being harbingers to the actual tools of the “Great Worm” and an unnamed female entity. These beings emerge from the dirt (and go back to sleep in it as they gain more power) to take over society in a cataclysm that we only see on a smaller scale from Cora’s point of view. It’s reminiscent of another John Carpenter film In the Mouth of Madness, especially those nighttime driving scenes where Cora and Michael try to escape the rapidly developing snake monsters. We do become aware that there are far-reaching consequences of death via ravenous, monstrous children in other Southern states, but that’s where our knowledge ends. This is neither good nor bad, simply a choice, but there’s so much going on in Beneath that it makes sense to limit the world contained within the book for easier digestion.
As you might imagine, there could be a very real chance that neither Cora nor Michael make it out of this story alive, but I’m not going to spoil the ending. You can look forward to lots of moral ambiguity; no one is simply good or bad, just as in the world beyond the pages of Beneath. Things are confusing, people are both not to be trusted or are kind — or at the very least, “normal” and congenial personalities that want to help others in their own ways.
In the end, DeMeester writes about monstrous things in unsettling, primal ways — and she’s not shy to include the most unsavory parts of humanity. If you want to feel disturbed, Beneath, a throwback to the type of place that time forgot, is just a click away.
Want to know more? Check out the book on Amazon here.