Fire Underground is a speculative fantasy which reimagines and reinterprets the history of coal mining in the eastern United States. It is set in a fantastical version of Appalachia, and is inspired in part by the West Virginia Mine Wars, the Homestead Steel Strike, the Whiskey Rebellion, the early history of paleontology, and Appalachian folk music and culture.
An early inspiration for the project was a short story written by Robert Horne and published by Charles Dickens called “The True Story of a Coal Fire”. In the style of other Dickensian fiction, a ghostly “elfin” creature made of burning coals emerges from a fireplace and takes a young man on a journey through time, from the carboniferous swamps of the past, to the coal mines where miners die regularly from asphyxiation, cave-ins, and pit explosions, to the factories where the coal is converted into motive power. Through witnessing the geological and biopolitical transformations of coal, the hero is himself transformed, from a petulant child into an upright citizen who respects his own place within this history. The story appropriates all of natural history into a kind of foundation myth for industrial, extractive capitalism, and naturalizes the destruction and appropriation of life as a kind of noble sacrifice ordained by God.
If we were to actually undergo the kind of journey described in “The True Story Of A Coal Fire,” we would come to very di!erent conclusions than its hero. The coal fire in the hearth would become a sort of prism, which reveals not only the now obvious connections between resource extraction, white supremacy, capitalism, and anthropogenic climate change, but also important lessons about how we make and regard history itself.
At the center of the recent fascination with coal were stories and images about industry and labor in the past, stripped of political content. These stories were offered as a cynical counter narrative to the struggles of black, brown, and indigenous peoples, meant to disclaim even the possibility of white privilege, an attempt to re-center white men as the proper subjects of American history. These narratives were also an attempt to bury the rich legacy of resistance and solidarity in American history, and replace it with a narrative about individual grit, sacrifice, and heroic entrepreneurship.
The film features a carboniferous forest deep underground, magically returned to life. The forest is a kind of purgatory, but also a palimpsest of the stories and dreams of the people living above. Many of the characters arrive here when they die, and must survive in the depths. In stories like the Heart of Darkness, or the film Deliverance, a quest into a dark forest reveals a predilection to violence that is supposedly inherent in nature and thus in man. Instead, Fire Underground renders the “lost woods” of the past as a place for imagining new possibilities, for transformation, and for solidarity.