Those Who Went Remain There Still by Cherie Priest
Those Who Went Remain There Still by Cherie Priest (Subterranean Press, 2008) follows in the noble tradition of the “thing” in the woods or cave that predates (in both senses, i.e. it’s been there since before time began — storywise if not prehistory — and it eats unsuspecting passers-by or spelunkers — a snack on a rope for those waiting on the bottom of the cleft. These stories have a mythological base, but first began to emerge into the modern light of day through the work of Algernon Blackwood and other early horror writers. The idea is a simple one. When you can only catch glimpses of the “thing” through the trees or just outside the light cast by your torch or lamp, the vagueness allows the reader’s mind to fill in the gaps with the features we find the most disturbing. Sometimes, this morphs into the variations on the idea of the Hollow Earth which has entire ecosystems underground, usually populated with hostile hominids waiting to engage in a little cross-species cannibalism. A good modern example of this phenomenon is The Descent by Jeff Long. Others go into Cosmic Horror in the Lovecraftian Mythos mode with a classic Weird West example being “The Valley of the Lost” by Robert E Howard where a demonic serpent sleeping in a Texan cave awakes and gives away a few secrets of the universe and, more recently, The Croning by Laird Barron in which the caves themselves are supernaturally linked to each other both on Earth and elsewhere.
Like Robert E Howard, Cherie Priest stays more on the supernatural than science fiction side of the line with her “thing” which first shows up when Daniel Boone leads a crew of men to blaze the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains. As its inspiration, the story incorporates the inscription supposedly carved into a tree by the heroic Boone and now preserved for posterity in Washington County, Tennessee. Except, of course, this fictional version of Boone does not meet a bear. In fact, it’s rather more in the spirit of Ithaqua as a nocturnal Wind-Walker, i.e. it flies. This makes it difficult to see in a night sky and difficult to fight because, once you fire off an old musket, the “thing” can swoop down and literally pick up the marksman in its claws before he can reload. Anyway, Boone and a young sidekick called Little Heaster finally manage to damage the “thing” sufficiently to get it on the ground and, when all the remaining men rally round, they think they have killed it and throw the body in a cave. Ah, little do they know, it takes a lot to kill “things” of this ilk and it later turns out this was a pregnant “thing” whose offspring adapt well to life in the cave system.
We now come forward from 1775 to 1899 and find two feuding clans living in the same area of Tennessee. They are all interrelated — cousins, for the most part — and, as is always the way in stories of this type, they prefer to shoot first and ask questions later. Out of self-preservation, they keep out of each other’s way as much as possible. So when circumstances beyond their control dictate six men descend into the cave, three from each side of the feud are selected. That way, there will be no unfair advantage to either faction. They have an equal chance of finding the “treasure” and making it back to the surface. Needless to say, there’s a considerable lack of credibility to all this. I suppose the “thing” as a Mummy needs to eat such a lot to keep her uterine flock in full health and vigor. But after being thrown into the cave, there are no local stories suggesting a predator is at work. Although our heroes find a big pile of bones, it’s not at all clear where the food has come from. Except, of course, local people seem to have an odd habit of wandering off. Unfortunately, it’s clear not all these folk end up dead in the cave. So it’s baffling how these creatures survive for more than one-hundred years. You would think they would be flying out of the cave every night like bats and stripping the county of anything walking around with meat on the bones. That said, the actual delivery of the story manages the changing points of view well and there’s a good pace to the twin narrative tracks. Since all supernatural fiction requires a suspension of disbelief, Those Who Went Remain There Still is one of the better examples of a “thing” story. It also covers both options by having sequences in the woods and in the cave. Finally, this is yet another particularly pleasing physical book from Subterranean with excellent internal illustrations from Mark Geyer. Overall, it’s a very enjoyable read.
For reviews of other books by Cherie Priest, see:
Bloodshot (The Cheshire Red Reports 1)
Hellbent (The Cheshire Red Reports 2)
Those Who Went Remain There Still