Review: Everything is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here
Michael Wehunt explores racism, blindness and violence in a small town
EVERYTHING IS BEAUTIFUL AND NOTHING BAD CAN EVER HAPPEN HERE
By Michael Wehunt
2019, Nightscape Press
(This is the first formal instalment of the F*cked Up Books blog. Before the inaugural review, a brief note on the name: from me, this descriptor is a compliment. It denotes adventure, a sense of questioning, a good kind of uneasiness and an imaginative courage that allows us to will new worlds into being. It hinges on the notion that those who write on the edges or in the haunted shadows write a particular kind of truth, with a particular power.)
It’s perhaps an obvious statement that all horror, no matter how strange or supernatural its contents, springs from human imagination and experience. Nothing is more fucked-up than the human mind, because the human mind is the locus of every abomination, blasphemy and curse that we know. How better, then, to kick off a blog about nightmares than with a tense, unsettling story about an evil that haunts our time — a present ghost that some deny, even as it festers in their neighbours’ yards: racism and white supremacy, particularly as manifested in the American South.
Michael Wehunt’s Everything is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here is part of Nightscape Press’ Charitable Chapbooks series. One-third of all proceeds go to a charity of the author’s choice. Wehunt has chosen the Southern Poverty Law Center, “due to their significant thematic overlap with the story as well as their reputation.” The author makes no bones about the story’s intent; the dedication reads, For the families changed forever by the violence of hate in America. On the cover, spookily rendered by the artist Don Noble, ghostly hooded figures in white make an explicit link between the familiar image of the bedsheet ghost and the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan.
The novella is only about 70 pages long, and its title is a tell. Still, Wehunt, whose 2016 collection Greener Pastures was filled with unsettling stories that picked at the seams of horror, manages to pack a range of creepy devices and surprises into his story of a North Carolina woman who looks through a hole in the fence and finds herself confronted with ghosts that come both from outside, and within.
Bea Holcombe is our narrator, a woman who loves her husband, Dennis, her two kids, and her life in the bucolic town of Fontaine Falls. Wehunt is masterful at rendering the Appalachian landscape, and he begins with a monologue that employs a Biblical lyricism to weave between paragraphs of rich pastoralism and Bea’s uneasy admissions of how sheltered a place Fontaine Falls really is: “It gets to wear the majestic coat, dream its slow American dreams, with any darkness buttoned up underneath. But it is still a place of its time, you see, and its time has the same bad blood in the soil. There are a few trees still that have felt the tug of rope.”
Violence, we find out, has erupted in Fontaine Falls. A gunman has attacked people protesting beside a monument of the Confederate senator, Zebulon Baird Vance. He’s shot only black people, while wearing a hand-lettered sign reading ALL LIVES MATTER. A six-year-old girl is among the wounded. Bea soon discovers the attacker is her neighbour, Lester Neal.
Bea is already rattled by how her own mother’s Alzheimer’s disease has brought her latent racism to the surface. As she reckons with Neal’s act, horror and curiosity — “the compulsion of a commuter craning her neck to watch an accident” — compel her to a pluck a knot in the wood from her fence, to see what demons are buried in the backyard of a man who, as the cliché goes, “seemed so normal.” Through her peephole, she watches Lester’s pregnant wife sip tea, an intimate moment that makes her ashamed for spying.
At first, neither Bea nor the reader understand what her seemingly benign snooping has set in motion. Soon, however, a series of creepy figures begin showing up on Bea’s lawn at night, scratching at her window. Increasingly, they appear in costume, their white hoods pointing to secrets Bea doesn’t want to face. Early in the story, she laments a general, ambient feeling of unraveling: “Fissures were breaking open in so many places now.” Returning again and again to the knothole, she comes to realize just how deep they go.
The reader experiences the story from Bea’s (white) perspective, and so the book’s monsters are revealed to us as they are to her. This makes it worse, and more powerful, when Wehunt gives us a brief moment with the family of one of the shooting victims, emphasizing that the same monsters Bea is just beginning to see are ever-present for black families, suffusing the soil of the town. The problem with speaking of “structural racism” or “systemic oppression” is that structures and systems are too easy to imagine oneself existing outside of; as Bea discovers, the truth is closer to something like immersion — an ambient, barely conscious condition: a pollutant or toxic haze. Her little town in the mountains, where nothing bad can ever happen, is, in fact, harboring and germinating the most brutal and murderous ideologies. There is a sense of admission at play. The monsters are among us — they are us — and pretending otherwise only goes to uphold those structures and systems that give hatred easy excuses.
In this sense, Wehunt’s narrative works as a ghost story, but also as a kind of argument for horror as a necessary form of social criticism. Horror revels in calling out the spectres that would-be realism wants to pretend are only there when it’s convenient. In fact, things are pretty ugly and bad stuff happens all the time. Not to accuse Wehunt of nihilism; there is room for hope. But monsters exist: look around. Look closer. The question, for Bea and for us, is how one chooses to continue — how to reckon with and bring to light the ghosts living inside people we know, even those we have loved.
Heavy and haunting, Everything is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here is still full of writing that’s a pleasure to read. In Wehunt’s prose, “aspirin only paints over a toothache.” A lawn is “drooping weeds and splotches of clover.” The creatures haunting Bea are gross, with segmented fingers and melty grey faces; they make you squirm in all the right spots.
It’s worth mentioning the contributions of Luke Spooner, who did the fantastic illustrations that introduce each chapter. Not having seen a physical copy of the original, limited-edition chapbook, I can only imagine how great they’d look in print. But even in digital versions, Spooner’s images add texture, dread and colour to the story, reddening along with the foliage and the blood seeping up through the dirt.
Everything is Beautiful and Nothing Bad Can Ever Happen Here is available here through Nightscape Press. The original run of 250 chapbooks is down to 100. The e-book will be available in Spring 2020, but you can pre-order it now.