Book Review: Some Glow Brightly, by John Palmer Gregg

Back at the beginning of December, our editor John Palmer Gregg introduced the world to his first novel, Some Glow Brightly, from Thistle Bound Press. It’s a young adult narrative surrounding the misadventures of Red Snyder, a fourteen-year-old baseball lover from fictional Laurel Hollows, Tennessee. Red finds himself, along with his father, at the painful end of a dangerous car accident, as a result of which he discovers that he is among a number of people who can separate consciousness from body, shifting into the spirit world. While exploring his new-found talents, he not only meets others like himself, but slowly uncovers an evil plot to open rifts between the worlds and unleash a reign of terror.

For those familiar with the landscape of forgotten Appalachian towns, Laurel Hollows is as much a character as any person, playing host to a magical Hermit and other secrets that haunt the deep darkness of the southern highlands. When a rather macabre circus surprises Red and his friends by its appearance in their tiny hamlet, a supernatural chain of events begins to unravel, leading Red on his unexpected, unasked-for quest to discover the true, powerful nature of his identity. Along the way, he meets a number of malcontents and do-gooders who come together to form a ragtag band of vigilantes intent on preventing the opening of the rifts.

Palmer captures the vagaries of adolescence and the teen years in well-constructed character studies. The varied specters of young romance rise up at points, and the players in the drama undergo the shaky construction of a small society, spanning multiple races and ages. The search for identity dominates the characters’ thinking. In this, like all good children’s literature, Some Glow Brightly is not merely for young adults. As Madeleine L’Engle said of George MacDonald’s works, this kind of speculative fiction is for all “who struggle to come to terms with the truth through fantasy.”

The juxtaposition of the spirit world and southern Appalachia might seem like a natural idea, what with superstitions and cobbled-together folk religions that have long pervaded mountain communities and families. Palmer’s interplay of normalcy and banality with djinn and other unseen powers is fresh and new, however. Baseball and hospitals and four-wheelers come alongside preternatural abilities in the fight against evil. The massive world-building projects common to fantasy are not needed in order to unearth hidden realities. In this, Some Glow Brightly maintains a setting and tone similar to Spielberg’s eighties films. The dirt and concrete of Laurel Hollows are palpable but no less subject to the movement of things beyond the characters’ ken. The names especially emphasize the everyday bent of the story—Red, Michael, Sara, Wendy, and Donal. It is these people, those likely to be one’s next-door neighbors, who both interact with and become the fantastical.

With Palmer being a longtime fan of Oxford Inklings member Charles Williams, this kind of physical-metaphysical story makes sense. T. S. Eliot wrote of Williams that, “for him, there was no frontier between the material and the spiritual world…To him the supernatural was natural, and the natural was also supernatural.” This is the kind of world we find in Laurel Hollows: one where your next door neighbors could be powerful beings battling invisible wickedness, and the circus in town is more than what it seems. It is especially good to have stories which remind us that real life is never ordinary, and if this story is any indication, the Laurel Hollows crew are just getting started.

You can order a copy of Some Glow Brightly on Amazon.

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