And the Hills Opened Up
By David Oppegaard
Published 2014 by Burnt Bridge | New Orleans | San Francisco
$11.99 paperback ISBN 9780988672710
And the Hills Opened up is a horror novel set in the small mining town of Red Earth, Wyoming in 1890. From the first scene, David Oppegaard propels the reader into a quiet tension. The story opens on a hot July day with Hank Chambers—a foreman sweating through a summer fever—giving a headcount of his men before they set fire to the dynamite that would blast open the hills, unearthing much more than copper ore. There is something very unsettling about this opening scene: the sweat in Chambers’s eyes (a cringe-worthy, recurring detail), his uncertainty over the headcount of his filthy crew, the crow that flies overhead, the way the earth shakes once the mine is blown, and the way the black smoke curls upwards from the depths, darker and thicker than usual. And it’s in these tiny details that Oppegaard builds this sense of dread, and he does it without revealing anything too soon. He only hints at something being awakened, something so unexpected and so terrifying that Chambers “felt a heaviness resting on his shoulders, like the hills themselves were pushing down on him”—a delicate foreshadowing of the hell that is to come.
Oppegaard paints a simple yet vivid backdrop for his tale: the town of Red Earth survives on salaries paid by the Dennison Mining Company, a monopolistic entity owned by the absent character of Mr. Dennison—a man who wants things done his way, a rich man’s way. Despite his elusiveness, Dennison’s presence is felt, particularly in the people working for him, like the villainous overseer of the town’s payroll, Revis Cooke, a pompous creep who lives in a limestone-walled mansion that stands out from the small church, hotel, scattered shacks and cabins in town. The miners are overworked and paid poorly, spending most of their money and off-time drinking and sleeping with the prostitutes at the Runoff Saloon. These are the inner workings of the town and Oppegaard, patiently, makes it real for us. He takes what could be a clichéd western with one-dimensional characters—a sickly foreman, a young and inexperienced sheriff, a widowed whore, a gang of outlaws, a priest with impure thoughts—and amplifies all of it with a unique perspective, a completely twisted one.
There are a lot of characters in this novel, but the prominent ones are developed thoroughly. The main characters are given individual storylines, which eventually connect together, seamlessly, contributing to the larger story arc. Through light brush strokes of physical description and back story, Oppegaard gives his characters the attention they deserve. He brings them to life. He humanizes them, makes us believe in their story. It’s all necessary given the world Oppegaard has created, and the absolute devastation he eventually hurls us into. Impressively, Oppegaard is able to establish that feeling/connection readers have with characters without dragging out the main story. It’s that connection that heightens the destruction of the events that follow.
The events that follow are nothing short of epic and horrific; the violence escalates as we are introduced to the larger villain of the story: “The Charred Man.” He’s a skeletal figure with claw-like fingers and blackened skin, like he had been burned and buried alive, deep in the mountains. Within the dark tunneled mine, The Charred Man is first discovered by one unsuspecting mineworker. Equipped with no more than a single lit candle, the miner has only enough time to notice the lack of light in the burned man’s eyes before his throat is ripped out. But there are several monsters in this story: The Dennison Mining Co. and Cooke are symbols of moral decay and greed, while the Charred Man appears as a kind of “demon” or evil unlike anything living, a form of punishment for a small town living in sin (or perhaps he was just looking to harvest some new skin.)
What makes this western/horror successful is Oppegaard’s prose. It’s minimal, but written such precision of language and detail. The dialogue is on point. And who knew gore could be written so beautifully:
“It defied physics and good sense, but the tunnel packed with the bodies of the dead and maimed did not collapse as Hank Chambers climbed across its sloppy floor, which was actually less a surface and more a constantly shifting mass of knees, elbows, and anguished faces he did not want to look upon…He did not know if it was the smell, the wetness, or his fever, but he felt his mind loosening as he slipped forward, its grinding cogs reverting to some ancient form of thought, his body an eel among eels. His only focus was the light in his hand, which must not go out, which must not go out, which must not go out no matter what else might happen. Chambers had spent much of his life edging darkness and he would not submit to it now, even if this was his final hour.”
Oppegaard doesn’t tie a neat bow on this ending; there is an uneasy sense of relief, as if some great question is left unanswered. Who or what is the Charred Man and why is he here? Is the Dennison Mining Co. to blame for blasting too deep, or is it more complex than that? I feel like Oppegaard doesn’t need to explain anything, it would only take away from the experience. And the Hills Opened Up gives the reader exactly what they came for: a thrilling, real-time experience. This novel is so visually stunning, so utterly gruesome, and so perfectly paced, that it truly feels as if you are just another resident of Red Earth. And after closing the book, it will feel as if you were the only one who made it out alive.