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HEAVEN’S CROOKED FINGER
An Earl Marcus Mystery
BY HANK EARLY
A 2017 Fall Okra Pick and one of Bookish’s Top Mystery Reads of the Fall
Eerie, intense, and masterfully-crafted, Hank Early’s gripping series debut Heaven’s Crooked Finger transports readers to a secretive community in the Georgia mountains.
Earl Marcus thought he had left the mountains of Georgia behind forever, and with them, the painful memories of a childhood spent under the fundamentalist rule of his father RJ’s church–a church built on fear, penance, and the twisting, writhing mass of snakes. But then an ominous photo of RJ is delivered to Earl’s home. The photograph is dated long after his father’s burial, and there’s no doubt that the man in the picture is very much alive.
As Earl returns to Church of the Holy Flame searching for the truth, faithful followers insist that his father has risen to a holy place high in the mountains. Nobody will talk about the teenage girls who go missing, only to return with strange tattoo-like marks on their skin. Rumors swirl about an old well that sits atop one of the mountains, a place of unimaginable power and secrets. Earl doesn’t know what to believe, but he has long been haunted by his father, forever lurking in the shadows of his life. Desperate to leave his sinful Holy Flame childhood in the past, Earl digs up deeply buried secrets to discover the truth before time runs out and he’s the one put underground in Heaven’s Crooked Finger, Hank Early’s thrilling series debut.
I was sweating when the door to the inner sanctuary swung open, and I saw the throng already swaying to the sporadic thunking of Aunt Mary Lee’s arthritic fingers on the tuneless piano. Daddy held two snakes, a large rattler he’d been using for years and a smaller cottonmouth found years ago in some brush down near Ghost Creek. Stepping into the sanctuary, I believed I felt it. The wind. Daddy said it was a breath, and when it took a hold of you, you might feel your feet lifted off the ground, your lungs expanding with the fresh air of heaven. I waited, closing my eyes, willing it to come in.
I had always wanted to believe in something. I still do.
I scanned the throng of congregants, looking for a kind face. I only saw two: my mother and Lester. Despite Lester’s newfound closeness with Daddy, he always had time for me. We were only a year apart and were close in a way I truly miss now. I knew he’d been counting on this moment for a long time, hoping all would go well, that I would join him and Daddy as a man of God at last.
My eyes also fell on Lester’s girlfriend, Maggie Shaw. Maggie was the only girl who really mattered in our little community. She was in my grade in school, but because of her long blonde hair, quick smile, and womanly gure, she drew the attention of boys—and men—much older than she was. Even then, she was considered a threat to the godliness of male congregants young and old alike, though she had not yet been vilified like she would be in the coming weeks. I spotted her in the congregation, sitting with her mother and father, both founding members of the church my father led. I knew they were deeply disappointed in her flirtatious ways and worked diligently to keep her away from the opposite sex, because nothing was more sacred for a young girl in the Holy Flame community than purity. They had no idea about Lester and Maggie’s clandestine meetings in the church cemetery after dark. As far as I knew, nobody did other than me.
It was just one more way in which I was deeply envious of my brother. Not only had he made the transition within the church, he was also spending time alone with Maggie. I didn’t even try to imagine what they might be doing during that time. That would have driven me crazy. I know now I didn’t love Maggie, but I wanted her with a power that can sometimes eclipse love. Often I dreamed of escaping this place with her. We’d go to Chattanooga and live in sin, an idea I found at once both reprehensible and deeply compelling. In the weeks before holding the snake, I’d crept away when Lester did, but instead of following him to the churchyard, I went to Ghost Creek and lay thinking of her until my urges overcame me and I felt better—at least temporarily.
Yet as much as I wanted Maggie, I realize now I wanted something else even more. That itch, the one that ran across the skin of my heart, would not stop tormenting me. I had to scratch it. I had to make it stop. I craved Maggie, but I craved my daddy’s love more.
Aunt Mary Lee slowed the tempo, and Daddy began to speak. At first, he only moaned, and I knew this was the spirit working its way through him like fingers kneading dough. Soon the moans took shape, and I heard words.
“Come and take us, God. Come and take us now. If your will, God, be for this serpent to strike, may he strike my son dead, just as Abraham presented his own to you, God, just as he raised the weapon and you stayed his hand, I commend this boy unto your will, Lord, unto your perfect mercy, but even more so to your absolute justice.”
Then he closed his eyes, and the other words came out. These were the words that made my head spin, made me feel useless and afraid, because Daddy was gone, and what remained was some other alien thing, ancient and trembling beneath the ages. We had prayed the prayer of salvation so many times, but Daddy said you just had to keep at it until it stuck, until your doubt went away and you felt the spirit of the Lord take up residence in your heart. When that happened, he said, your sin would y out of your mouth so fast, you’d nearly choke on it. Once in the middle of a tornado, he made Lester and me go outside and kneel, naked to the elements, and repeat words after him. Sometimes he did it that way, feeding the words to us, but other times he wanted to hear them come from us. Our own faith. That was what he always said—“It can’t be mine, boys. It has to be your own.”
Another time, when Mama had come home drunk, he’d slapped her and then pulled us into their room, where he made us kneel beside him and pray and pray. It was for our salvation and his forgiveness. Mother lay on the kitchen floor, blissfully unaware of it all. At the time, she’d been six months pregnant with my little sister, Aida, who would only live for a few hours.
Daddy went on for some time. I closed my eyes and let the sounds float over me, hoping to catch even one of them and tuck it inside, hold it, feel it, and be lled. When the tongues ceased, he beckoned me. Mary Lee’s pounding began again in earnest, and I wondered if she’d fall prone like she’d done before, legs wriggling insect-like as she landed on her back.
As I approached, Daddy took the cottonmouth and kissed it on its head. Its tongue flickered against my father’s chin, and for a moment, I believed I understood it all at last. The snake was a magnificent creature. To be so close to it, to feel its tongue against your flesh, must be a feeling of supernatural grace and power. I wanted that.
When he held out the snake for me, I did not hesitate. I took it in my hands, feeling its otherness in the slick of skin, the cold languor in which it lay nearly dead in my palm. I turned it around so it would face me. I so wanted to be like my father, to please him, to find him where he was, wrapped in something so transcendent, I would never want to leave.
The eyes of the snake were flat—so flat, I believed Daddy had given me a dead creature, and I almost dropped it. Later, I would realize the eyes reminded me of my own when I looked in the mirror, that in many ways, I was already dead inside when I touched that first snake.
The serpent twisted in my hands, and I gripped it more tightly. The slack eyes found mine, and when they did, they held me in such contempt that I knew everything was wrong, not just in me, but in all of us. The breath I was waiting for would not come, not like this, not now. Again I scanned the congregation, desperate for a friendly face. I found none. My mother had covered her eyes, and Lester looked at my feet, wincing.
The cottonmouth opened its jaws and showed me the gleaming, wet cotton inside its throat, and I began a journey past the fangs and into its belly. Years seemed to pass as I made my way through the cavern of its open mouth and into its hollow length.
Hank Early spent much of his youth in the mountains of North Georgia, but he never held a snake or got struck by lightning. Heaven’s Crooked Finger (Nov. 7, 2017; Crooked Lane Books) is his first novel.
Although the author did not begin writing until later in life, his fascination with storytelling was sparked early on when he discovered his father’s bookshelf.. “He had Elmore Leonard, Ed McBain, Peter Straub, Dean Koontz and Stephen King, among others.” says Early. “I like to think that everything I write now is something my dad would enjoy and put on that same bookshelf.”
Early holds a Masters in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and has been a middle school teacher in central Alabama for nearly 20 years. Early finds at least one hour each day during the school year for writing, and dedicates his summers and holidays to getting his stories on paper.
Hank Early is the pen name for horror author John Mantooth, whose novel The Year of the Storm was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. The author enjoys a good beer, strong coffee and wild storms. He’s married and has two kids who are constantly giving him ideas for his next novel.
Links to Hank’s website, blog, books, etc.
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The second title in the series (In the Valley of the Devil) can also be pre-ordered here: