Still captivated by the distinctive small Virginia town where he grew up, Billy Coffey returns to its proxy, Mattingly, a place he first took readers in When Mockingbirds Sing (Thomas Nelson, 2013). His latest novel, The Devil Walks in Mattingly (Nelson, Mar.), explores what happens when 20 years’ worth of guilt about a young man’s untimely death overtakes three high school classmates. Can those responsible for the events that led to his death now welcome the redemption they’ve sought all these years?
For Coffey, the choice to go back to Mattingly was only natural. “It’s a small place, and I’ve always liked the idea of talking about big things in small circumstances,” he says. As a teenager, Coffey recalls a classmate named Ed, whom he describes as “the kid with a target on his back.” On the receiving end of taunts, name-calling, and physical harassment, Ed wasn’t in a position to defend himself.
Although he didn’t participate in the tormenting, Coffey was never able to shake his guilt over staying silent and not intervening. “I’ve carried that regret for over 20 years now,” he says. “The pain of all those things I didn’t do is more than the pain of all the things I’ve done. And all that time, Ed’s been there, deep down, almost whispering.”
What emerged as Coffey wrote was the story of one young man, Phillip McBride, found dead along the riverbank in the woods, and three classmates who know deep down his death was murder, not the suicide the reports all claim. Twenty years later, their lives crumbling under the weight of guilt, they begin to be haunted by visions of Phillip in their dreams. When all three are drawn together for a final confrontation, they will finally choose between life and death, truth and lies.
“We all have these burdens we carry,” Coffey says. “After a while, we’re just so weighed down with them that we’re not even moving through life.” To leave fear behind and let grace take its place, Coffey says, “I think you have to hit rock bottom. I don’t know any other way—you have to nearly lose everything. Until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing, you won’t change. In the end, to get free of the kind of guilt you have over something like that requires confession.”
Coffey knew he couldn’t rewrite his past, but he could write a different ending to a similar story. “I wanted Ed to have his victory,” says Coffey, “but not in the way most would write it, through fear or revenge. I wanted Ed to save those who had bullied him, to free them through grace.”