Sixteen separate stories in this edgy collection drag us off the beaten track and into the nasty reality of poverty-line life in rural Kentucky. A major storm batters the backwoods, providing a menacing backdrop to these interconnected episodes. The storm itself is a pivotal character; a catalyst to unleash a torrent of pent-up fear and frustration. It’s not just the wild weather which runs amok and pulls people apart: the storm energises the town’s tweakers and thieves, its brutes and abusers, the pimps and pushers – and author David Jaggers gives us a ground-level guided tour of the murderous consequences.
Collections like this can be unremittingly miserable, and DITDH certainly bristles with enough grit and pity to threaten any middle-class comforts. But Jaggers doesn’t present straightforward prurient pleasure at the misery of others: he’s telling a more complicated tale. Amid the misery and moral poverty, there are glimmers of honesty and compassion. Survivors buck the trend to stand up for themselves, for their futures and their families. The human spirit can be corrupt and cruel, but even whores, hookers and trailer trash can have their moments of redemption. And revenge…
There are also moments of bitterly black humour when it’s hard not to laugh out loud, although you kinda know you shouldn’t be enjoying this so much. And Jaggers sneaks the odd instance of zen philosophy into the mix, emerging intact from the dust and debris after the squall has blown by. Unusually, each story is accompanied by an image to establish the scene – some of them truly unsettling. That’s a sophisticated touch, which sets DITDH apart from the usual short story anthology.
Inevitably, not all of the chapters will strike the right chord – and it can be hard to distinguish between some of the no-hope, three-time losers who appear only briefly; cannon-fodder for the narrative. Yet just as you start to feel slightly overwhelmed by the relentless despair, so a hero rides into town for all the world as if this were an old-fashioned western. If you survive the visceral violence and the emotional trauma of the first two acts then you’ll enjoy an admirable payoff in Peckerwood at the end.
Overall, DITDH is an atmospheric collection of backwoods noir: short and sometimes very sharp fragments of shattered lives, with a killer conclusion.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Down In The Devil Hole by David Jagger is available at Amazon
If you enjoy hardboiled noir…
Seek out THE STONER STORIES at Amazon