Small towns carry with them idyllic scenes of easy living, tight-knit communities, and happy families. Most of the inhabitants are not new; instead, generations often run deeper than the town wells and reservoirs. But once a bit of the surface paint chips off, the ugliness underneath begins to show. What happens when a town with a secret so remarkable that even a strategic Alleghenies hiding spot in plain sight on a map can’t keep the mystery? Spaceboy Books’ reissue of The Pit, and No Other Stories, by Jordan A. Rothacker, gives us a fantastic possibility.
“This town has a secret”: a simple statement concerning a simple town in the mountains of West Virginia. Pitt’sville, to be exact. Nestled in seclusion, the rural inhabitants are custodians of a mysterious Pit that legend foretells will eventually devour the stars: “Everyone goes into the Pit. From the Pit to the stars to the Pit again.” According to a writer at the book’s end, “the Pit is addition by subtraction; its existence is a deep, deep irony. The Pit is the mouth of the Ouroboros and the world is its tail forever folding in.” Further, less magical descriptions: “… It really was a much of sludge, the worst sludge.” But the slop has potential that people and corporations would lie, steal, and kill to possess.
The arching story of the Pit spans a vast amount of time, from 180 BCE to somewhere “outside of time.” Within that gaping expanse of everything from hours to millennia, the ambiguities unravel to explain what the characters themselves come to understand. Rothacker performs the task of interweaving mostly disparate stories into a single narrative. A variety of styles, voices, and tropes are employed with great command and understanding of their pedigrees. Rothacker understands the nuance of genre and manages to mold them to fit the design and storyline of the book. Many plots come together to create a bridge across the Pit with terrifying recounting of how the view below appears. Hardboiled noir stories reference corporate entities whose transcripts we are briefly made privy to—a now shadowy corporation we learn from a historical relating of legend from the early 1800s had benign and even compassionate beginnings. The story unfolds as each individual chapter, themselves almost standalone, offers clues to overall motives and workings: “It’s often the legends told and retold that give hope to those in need.” But whose hopes take precedence and have authority?
The first story grants instant access to a portion of the Pit’s purpose and power. For the good folks of Pitt’sville, the hole has always been there. The narrator explains the various theories of how the town received its name and regales with an unusual sense of civic pride. The town inters their deceased into the Pit, accompanied by necessary rites. As the narrator goes on to explain, his grandfather is destined for the Pit, sooner rather than later. Just as his father and father’s father, ad nauseum. His story pics up later in the book and through his continued experience, more of the cavity gets revealed.
Extraterrestrial happenings and allusions abound to offer their own intrigue to the story. Further proof of just how magnetic the Pit’s energy must be. Throughout the book, various events begin to bring attention to the abyss and its location. This review takes great care to avoid spoilers so delving deep into the depths of each story is the reader’s job. The world presented between the covers shares the allure and pull of the Pit. Let this review serve as just another enigmatic finger pointing the way to the Pit. Each of the eighteen stories shines a different light on the chasm but offers a brief glimpse of the marvel. A whole can only be gleaned in that final flash and blinking out that happens when the last page is finished and the cover closed for good.
Without revealing much: the characters and situations not only reference the object of the book’s title, but also appear again either directly or as a mere mention. A nefarious corporation has already been cited, and through their attempts to understand and exploit, humanity stands to benefit with only a new, deadly virus as collateral damage. This corporation, wryly named Chrysalis Corp., has designs to harness the raw materials found in that West Virginian mountain town not only for the advancement of science with untold profits as a result. The American way. Their rise and place of importance in the novella are augmented by leaps across decades and geography; the Pit, however, never too far out of the picture. The natives of the area referred to the hole as “… Our Mother’s belly … Man, woman, and even stars in the sky are first born in the dark pool of Our Mother’s belly. When the stars fall, they fall back in here … In here we return to be born again.” Between that and the final story from the aforementioned “outside of time,” we meet in no particular order: a detective hired by powerful people to track down a femme fatale known as “the Speckled Hen” to “Podunk, West Virginia” in an attempt to find out exactly what she and her scientist father know and have to do with the town’s secrets. An actor from “Nowhere, West Virginia” who reluctantly accepts “an interview, a contract. An arraignment, a sentencing …” from a Hollywood agent then years later releases himself to the truth he fought in vain to escape. The characters and town of Pitt’sville are alluded to outside of stories not directly involved with either person or location, giving the exact sensation as proof to us that “Time will end, Space will end. The Pit is only as big as the world.”
The only challenge from this assortment of stories comes from figuring out what might happen next. Rothacker’s gift of language is always on display, which lends the work an effortless pace for reading. This exhilarating world wouldn’t be as attractive from a lesser writer’s pen—his admission that eighty percent of the work poured forth in a month makes the scope and impact of the work all the more remarkable.
This book, just like what appears to be a typical, small mountain town at first glance, must not be taken for granted … the proverbial “don’t judge a book …” bit extends to towns like Pitt’sville. Sure, the time spent passing through is brief, but it’s always possible to leave a different person once on the other side.
The Pit, and No Other Stories. Denver, Colorado: Spaceboy Books, April 2022. 155 pages. $15.00, paper.
Jarrod Campbell is a writer living in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC. His short stories, essays, and reviews appear online and in print. He is currently at work on a second collection of short fiction.