I really didn't know what to expect when I sat down to read Drema Ferrell's new novel, "Betaken." Odds are, I told myself, it's a fond look back at life in Appalachia.
By the time I had read the opening chapter I realized that expectation couldn't have been more wrong.
Yes, there are passages here and there that evoke the bucolic mountain life of yesteryear. But be warned. "Betaken" is no light feel-good book. It's a dark book that keeps getting darker and darker.
If you like Stephen King's thrillers, this is a book for you.
In that tell-tale first chapter, a young woman is abducted from her home by a mysterious intruder. She tries to fight back, even stabbing him, but he's too strong for her. He says nothing but only grunts, animal like, as he carries her out the door and into the night.
Fifty pages later, we see the young woman again as she gives birth in a filthy shack. Her baby is alive but hideously deformed, and the strange woman who attends the birth quietly smothers it.
Ferrell tells us that the old woman and the others in the backwoods clan she's part of "had hoped for this one," that it would not be afflicted like the others born in Bald Eagle, an all-but-abandoned and strangely forgotten coal town. Still later, we learn that the dead mother and her baby have been secretly buried in a mine ravine.
When Ferrell introduces us to Allen and Estelle, recently married and deeply in love, they've returned home to visit with family and friends before he begins his senior year in college. After spending several days with Estelle's parents, they drive up Holt Creek for an extended visit with Allen's Aunt Nell, who had lived in nearby Bald Eagle during its heyday.
Shortly after their arrival, they learn that a young woman has disappeared, a fact that left the community puzzled and somewhat alarmed. Of course, the young couple doesn't know that. two mountains away, the woman and her baby have been secretly buried in a strange nighttime funeral.
Neither do they know that Aunt Nell's simple desire to visit Bald Eagle to pick a bushel of apples will lead them into a series of events so terrifying as to defy the imagination.
Aunt Nell fondly remembers the apple tree from when she lived in Bald Eagle. What she, Allen and Estelle don't know is that the family that now makes its squalid home at Bald Eagle is so in-bred that all their children are enormously deformed. They had hoped the kidnapped women would produce a healthy baby. Once they spy Estelle, they want her as breeding stock - and will do anything to have her in their clutches.
The final pages of "Betaken," which spell out the fate of Estelle, Allen and his Aunt Nell, are truly terrifying.
Born and raised in the West Virginia coalfields, Drema Ferrell graduated from Marshall University and taught school before she and her husband moved to Germany, where he served in the U.S. Army, and she taught adult education. Returning to southern West Virginia, she managed her husband's CPA firm for nearly 30 years.
"Beholden" is Ferrell's first novel. It's available from amazon.com as a paperback ($9.99) or in a Kindle edition ($2.99).
James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch and the author of a number of books on local and regional history.