November Read of the Month: “The Curse of Crow Hollow,” by Billy Coffey

Billy Coffey

Billy Coffey

Reviewed by John Ryan Hrebik

“Would you know evil if you looked it in the eyes? Would you truly?”

Billy Coffey’s first-person narrator poses this question to an unknown traveler who’s passing through Crow Hollow. The speaker, “a tired old man” eager to introduce us to both his town and its occupants, does not reveal his identity until the last pages of The Curse of Crow Hollow. There’s also, besides the old man, a third-person narrator who balances the old man’s subjective insights with an unfiltered view of the characters. Coffey seamlessly transitions back and forth between the two narrators without disrupting the rhythm of the narrative. The resulting storyline is balanced and expertly detailed, and the portrayal of Crow Hollow and the people who inhabit it reflects Coffey’s profound imagination.

The community of Crow Hollow recalls the antiquated if grotesque charm that characterized the small town in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Coffey’s speaker depicts this curious place with folksy words and remarkable consistency, presenting the “Holler” and its happenings as anything but ordinary. Coffey painstakingly crafts his characters—perhaps with the exception of the narrator and the traveler—using both internal and external details, i.e., using both thoughts and feelings as well as physical traits.

Yet readers should be wary of this narrator: Although he proffers enough information to enable us to speculate about what happened one fateful night at Alvaretta Grave’s Cabin, there remain layers of doubt regarding other mysterious happenings in Crow Hollow.

At the outset our narrator invites a new acquaintance to join him on a nearby bench for some light banter and respite from the day’s scorching heat. The scene is set; the old man gently rests his cane against the weathered bench and begins to discuss how and why a curse blanketed Crow Hollow. This moment, seemingly innocent, is in many ways reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown”: The narrator possesses an allure like that of the old man (who is charismatic, omniscient, and equipped with an ornate cane) that Goodman Brown encounters during his late-night errand through the woods to find his “faith.” Although we never get a clear description of the Holler’s self-proclaimed “town greeter,” it’s difficult to ignore the significance of that cane leaning against the bench.

It’s at this point that readers begin to hear about the town’s dark past; specifically, the old man recounts how Alvaretta and the demon she summoned brought forth a reckoning that forever changed this place and, coincidently, the speaker. Alvaretta, allegedly the town witch, is a villainous woman with a penchant for dark arts and a mind set on avenging the untimely death of her husband, Stu.

Alvaretta places a curse on the local teenagers who mistakenly discovered her cabin deep in the mountains outside of town. What follows is a series of unexplained illnesses. Because the name Alvaretta means “of moral character,” a designation that contradicts this character’s sinister reputation, readers must wonder whether they should trust Alvaretta or the town’s residents.

Coffey pulls readers through twists and turns without letting go. He portrays a sleepy town and its seemingly common folk with vivid sensory detail and resonant language. There is an unmistakable lyrical quality to his prose and a clear command of metaphor and symbolism.

The Curse of Crow Hollow summons the odious imagery of Flannery O’Conner and the poetic sensibility of Edgar Allan Poe. Coffey proves himself to be a thoughtful, meticulous writer with a knack for surprise and suspense. You may disdain his complex characters one minute and then sympathize with them in the next. It is this level of writing, this facility with plot, which will cause readers to doubt their own perceptions and assumptions, propelling them forward from page to page and chapter to chapter.

Much of the mystery surrounding Crow Hollow is eventually revealed, but at the end of this novel we’re left pondering the same question that greeted the unknown traveler: “Would you know evil if you looked it in the eyes? Would you truly?”

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