Our male protagonist, Seth, returns home to Bethel, Tennessee in the Appalachians after 20 years to get a job in the coal mine that's been re-opened after six decades. Seth didn't return for this express purpose -- he just needed a job. And the coal mine, believed by children for decades to be haunted, supplied that job.
Do things start to go wrong? Yes. Yes, they do. And you know that if you read any of the paperback versions of The Abyss because the jacket copy reveals a pretty major plot point. Suffice to say that Hell is Real. And it's apparently located several thousand feet below Tennessee.
Cunningham's and-the-kitchen-sink tendency to throw stuff into the narrative doesn't increase whatever terror or dis-ease the novel seeks to generate. There are surprisingly few scenes down the mine, and these quickly shift away from claustrophobia and darkness to increasingly dire and goopy supernatural shenanigans. Cunningham does nice work in depicting life in a dead-end, one-industry town isolated from the mainstream, though. His evil characters tend to the banal, but the sympathetic characters really are finely drawn at points.
Plot-wise, Cunningham keeps a lot of pots boiling (and one of his minor characters keep a pot of water eternally boiling on her stove to throw at unwanted trespassers!). The female protagonist, Bethel's only medical practitioner, confronts various health-related issues that suddenly arise from the mine's re-opening. She also deals with nightmares about her childhood as the daughter of a stern, self-denying, violent, fundamentalist preacher.
And a traveling revival show appears in town under its own tent near the mine. And some people start looking and acting like zombies. And a science whiz from Boston shows up because some really sketchy scientific stuff seems to centre on Bethel. People get blowed up with dynamite. Giant thorns menace everybody. An old woman direly prophesies what's coming. A fat woman is mean and evil and eats a lot of junk food and takes three plates at the church picnic. Everyone with a beehive hairdo gets turned into a demon. Dogs and cats turn into monsters. The statue of the Madonna starts disintegrating, as does everything in town. We check in with a Soviet spy satellite.
Well, you get the idea. There's so much stuff here that it suggests a longer draft that's been hacked at by an editor trying to fit the novel into a too-low page count. At twice the length, this might actually be a great horror novel of dark Christianity. At its published length, it's still fun and jumpy and, as the end draws near, surprisingly true to its core principles: it goes all the way, and everyone has to get off the boat.
That the ending seems to riff on Tolkien's Sauron as much as any religious representation of evil isn't a bad thing at all, though some are also going to find strong echoes of a scene in King's The Stand. But boy, does it all end in a rush. Anyone want to fund a Director's Cut of this thing? Recommended.