Centralia in the Arts
The Centralia mine fire has inspired an astonishing number of novels, plays, films, poems and photography exhibits in the past 20 years. Here are the ones I know about:
The Planets, Poseidon Press, 1991, and The Constellations, Random House, 1994, both by James Finney Boylan. Both are about people who live in Centralia during the time of the mine fire. The author, who was born trans-gendered, is now a woman and has changed her name to Jennifer Finney Boylan. More about her and her Centralia themed novels here.
Strange Highways, Dean Koontz, Warner Books. A failed author returns to his hometown after many years to attend his father’s funeral, only to find himself suddenly and inexplicably thrust back through time to relive a traumatic event from his past. Koontz says in the introduction that Centralia was the inspiration for the story, which is a novella that opens a collection of his short fiction. 1995.
Those Who Favor Fire, by Lauren Wolk. Uses a town like Centralia and elements of the Centralia story as backdrop for a love story. Random House, 1999.
The Revolutionary’s Confession, by George Grayson. Lost Chinese treasure and the mines beneath Centralia. The fate of the world is at stake. Poseidon Press, 2000.
Coal Run,by Tawni O’Dell. “A poignant tale of a once-proud Pennsylvania coal town destroyed by a mining disaster, Tawni O’Dell’s second novel, Coal Run, follows its wounded inhabitants as they try to come to terms with what is gone and what remains.”–Michael Ferch review on Amazon.com. 2004.
Dirty Blonde, by Lisa Scottoline. U.S. District Judge Cate Fante, the main character in this crime novel, grew up in Centralia before going away to college and becoming a Federal judge in Philadelphia. In one part of the book, she returns to Centralia to visit her mother’s grave in St. Ignatius Cemetery and to view what little is left of her ruined hometown. Lisa hired me to check her manuscript for accuracy, which was pretty good even before the minor changes I suggested. Harper. 2006.
The Hollow Ground, by Natalie S. Harnett. This novel is a fictional account of an 11-year-old girl, Brigid Howley, dealing with the terror of both the Centralia and Carbondale (the towns are given different names) mine fires in Pennsylvania in the 1960s. The Howley family is descended from one of the Mollie Maguires cursed by the Centralia priest, Father Daniel Ignatius McDermott, after they beat him around 1871-2 for denouncing their murder in 1868 of Alexander Rea, the founder of Centralia. The priest, according to legend, also cursed Centralia itself for harboring the murderers, and predicted the day would come when only the church remained standing. As many of you know, that is pretty much what happened in real life, although it was St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, not St. Ignatius, that remained. Published in 2014 by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press.
The Root of Chaos, by Douglas Soderberg. First performed by Actor’s Theatre of Louisville, Nov. 10, 1984. Performed Off-Off Broadway, 1987. Summerworks, Toronto, 1992.
Centralia, by Deryl B. Johnson. Performed at Kutztown University, 1998.
Centralia, a comedy troupe loosely inspired by the town with the mine fire. WestBeth Theater, New York City. I know they performed on June 10, 2001.
Inferno, Squonk Opera, Pittsburgh. As if Fellini or Ken Russell did the Centralia story. A rock opera. Very good. 2003.
Centralia: A Nice Place to Live. About the nine remaining Centralia residents. Ugly Rhino Productions. Performed on Friday nights during March 2012 at the Brooklyn Lyceum in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Centralia Fire, directed by Tony Mussari. Documentary, part of PBS Matters of Life and Death series. 1984. Narrated by Martin Sheen. Bob Achs, uncle of Jake and Maggie Gylenhaal, was the director of photography. Dariusz Wolski, much later the director of photography on Pirates of the Caribbean 1 & 2, Sweeney Todd, and other fine films, was an assistant camera. Stan Leven, who had a fine career at WGBH in Boston, was the sound recorder. I was the consultant.
Made in USA, a feature film starring the late Christopher Penn (brother of Sean), Adrian Pasdar and Lori Singer. Filmed in Mount Carmel, Centralia, and Harrisburg, Pa. Released direct-to-video in 1988. Re-released on video, 1999. About two dudes who get fed up with life in a town with a mine fire and head out across country.
Nothing But Trouble, 1991, starring Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, Demi Moore and John Candy. One of the worst films ever made, but an underground mine fire is an important plot element. See it if you must.
Silent Hill, 2006, is about an abandoned town above a mine fire. The town in the original Japanese video game was a seaside village. Screenwriter Roger Avary, who had heard stories about the Centralia mine fire from his mining engineer father, decided a town like Centralia worked better for the story. The road into Silent Hill is closed off, as the old Route 61 into Centralia is, and the underground fire forced most residents to leave. Of course, the real Centralia didn’t have demons living beneath it as far as anybody knows. Thanks to Nathan Bachamp for adding some of these details.
The Town That Was, 2007, directed by Chris Perkel and Georgie Roland. Produced by Melinka Thompson-Godoy. I was the consultant. A feature-length documentary about Centralia and the handful of residents who refused to leave the town with the mine fire. Central character in the story is John Lokitis, Jr., then in his mid-thirties and the youngest of the remaining residents. Lokitis denies the mine fire is a problem and tries to preserve a semblance of what Centralia used to be. He mows lawns and hangs the municipal Christmas decorations. Lokitis was forced to leaveCentralia in the summer of 2009 as part of a final state effort to remove the remaining residents. His house was demolished in December 2009, by which time he had moved to nearby Ashland.
The Centralia Mine Fire, by Leonard Kress. Flume Press, 1987. A collection of poetry, but only the title poem is about Centralia.
Centralia, by Stephen Perloff, editor then and now of Photo Review magazine, Philadelphia, Ten gallery exhibitions, the first major one in 1984.
Slow Burn: A Photodocument of Centralia, Pennsylvania is a photography book by Renee Jacobs that included interviews with Centralia residents. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1986. New edition from Penn State Press, 2010. Jacobs’ Centralia photographs were exhibited in the Book Trader Gallery, Philadelphia, in December 1986.
Carbon Knight, by Chris Ring, 1998. Centralia fire chief Kyle McKnight fights corrupt forces who want to let the mine fire continue burning. They throw him into a burning pit and leave him for dead. Thirty years later, he rises from the fire as a half-man, half rock creature with super powers.
The Real Disaster Is Above Ground: A Mine Fire and Social Conflict, by J. Stephen Kroll-Smith and Stephen Robert Couch. It really wasn’t. This book is why academic writing is so often such a turn-off to the general reader. It takes a fascinating topic, wrings out everything remotely interesting, and then attacks the press for not doing the same. I really hate this book. University of Kentucky Press, 1990.
A Walk in the Woods, 1998, by Bill Bryson. Bryson ambles off the Appalachian Trail, the main topic of his book, to explore Centralia, even stopping at the Mount Carmel Public Library to look at their famous clip file on the Centralia mine fire.
Centralia, by Deryl Johnson of Kutztown University, Arcadia Publishing. Johnson also wrote the play Centralia mentioned elsewhere on this page. His new, 128-page softcover book is a tribute to the borough of Centralia and its people and contains historic photos contributed by Tom Dempsey and others. 2004.
Pennsylvania Disasters: True Stories of Tragedy and Survival, by Karen Ivory. Chapters on many of the various disasters to have befallen the Keystone State, including the Centralia Mine Fire. Insider’s Guide, an imprint of Globe Pequot Press. 2007.
The Day the Earth Caved In, by Joan Quigley. She gets the origin of the mine fire very wrong, but digs up some interesting personal stuff about some of the key characters in the 1980s. Her narrative suffers, though, from the absence of Joan Girolami, the leading citizen activist, who declined to speak with her. Joan is retired in Florida with husband Lou and tries to keep the mine fire in her past. Random House, 2007.
–Bluegrass musician Pete Smith has recorded ‘Nothing in Centralia,’ which tells the story of Centralia in the traditional bluegrass style. The link takes you to the page the song is on. In the first column, go down three songs and there it is.
“Centralia Mine Fire,” an unsigned rock band from Eureka, Illinois, that performs around the Midwest. I haven’t been able to determine why they picked the name. Here’s their Facebook page.