Under the Dome by Stephen King. Scribner, 2009. 1,074 pages

Before I had read 20 pages of Stephen King’s new opus, I found myself thinking about Thornton Wilder’s Our Town — not because the small town, Chester’s Mill in Under the Dome resembles Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, but because ... it doesn’t. Although Chester’s Mill is small (less than 3,000 people), provincial and — like Wilder’s classic small town — it has a generous number of eccentrics, misfits and delightful young people; however, appearances are deceptive. There is an underlying darkness and a raw, cynical attitude that never surfaced in Wilder’s Our Town. It is as though Chester’s Mill represents Grover’s Corner’s 50 years later.

Chester’s Mill has become a tarnished, corrupt little town in which the superficial veneer of civilized behavior strains to hold the town together. All that is needed is a catalyst — an unforeseen crisis that will test the town’s moral and spiritual resources (or reveal their absence). That catalyst is the Dome.

The Dome appears on a beautiful summer day when the inhabitants of “the Mill” are pursuing the innocent pleasures of any all-American town. Kids are fishing in the Prehistle Stream; a Seneca V drones over the town and an old woodchuck scampers along the shoulder of Highway 119 checking out the tidbits of fast food. Then, in an instant, an invisible barrier crashes down, causing a number of instant fatalities (including the old woodchuck).

The Dome encapsulates Chester’s Mill like an inverted bowl. Nothing can penetrate it, including birds, planes, cars and ballistic missiles. In a short time, the town’s boundaries are marked by a litter of corpses (human and animal) as well as the wreckage of crashed planes, cars and trucks. All attempts by the “outside world” (military and scientific) to breach the Dome fail. Eventually, the town is faced with life-threatening issues: lawlessness and the depletion of food, water and clean air.

In a sense, the plot of Under the Dome resembles the description of an inhuman laboratory experiment. As the inhabitants of Chester’s Mill struggle to survive, they begin to resemble a microscopic life forms in a petri dish. Within a week, the town government undergoes some radical changes: incompetent, mildly corrupt officials become increasingly oppressive. The police force begins to “beef up” by employing young men with a penchant for blue uniforms and approval of political leaders who readily endorse brutality. As a pleasant village morphs into a fascist nightmare, the violent and unethical changes are orchestrated by Jim Rennie, a scripture-spouting used car dealer (“You’ll be Wheeling, if Big Jim is dealing!”). Rennie is also one of the three Selectman (the New England equivalent of a governing board), and he is in total control. He also perceives the Dome as an opportunity for a personal kingdom.

If King’s message were not obvious enough, he makes numerous references to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, an English novel noted for its depiction of a group of English schoolboys who revert to savagery when they are marooned on a desert island. In addition, King occasionally paraphrases writers noted for their grim appraisal of mankind’s inherently brutal and godless nature. (T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, for example). Under the Dome also resembles Albert Camus’ The Plague, a novel, in which the inhabitants of a beleaguered town discover the similarities between a plague-ridden city and a civilization that is afflicted with an inner decay.

King presents Chester’s Mill as a microcosm of America. Although he acknowledges the courage and nobility of a small number of characters who struggle against the tides of lawless, it becomes increasingly obvious that their little town is doomed — primarily because their essential goodness makes them incapable of understanding the nature of their enemy or the crimes they are willing to commit to accomplish their ends. In a sense, Chester’s Mill’s week-long ordeal is a holocaust in miniature. All of the evils of the Third Reich, including the bigotry, the lust for power and the willingness to crush all resistance, blossoms and flourishes under the Dome.

Since Under the Dome contains more than 60 characters (and three memorable dogs), any discussion of personalities and their interaction becomes a daunting challenge. In addition, there are at least a dozen sub-plots that wind their way through this dark tale. A few of the most intense include: a serial murderer with a brain tumor; a newspaper editor who finds herself reduced to distributing photocopies when her office is burned; a minister who addresses her prayers to a deity she calls “Not There;” a veteran of the war in Iraq who finds his worst nightmares resurrected in Chester’s Mill; a Jesus-haunted fundamentalist minister who struggles to reconcile his conflicted roles in crack mill industry with his fervent religious beliefs; a town Selectman who becomes increasingly inept due to an Oxycontin addiction; a lecherous academic who finds a kind of redemption in the Chester’s Mill hospital, and a brutalized rape victim who decides to seek her own justice.

Under the Dome is vintage King. The novel’s tension builds slowly like a train that chugs out of the station and then gradually accelerates until it reaches a dizzying speed. Although this novel’s awesome number of characters makes it hard to keep track, King has provided his readers with a complete cast (along with a map of Chester’s Mill) in the book’s preface. The dialogue is brisk and colored with an assortment of dialects (including a misplaced New Orleans denizen) and a whole gaggle of teenage skateboarders who speak a delightful but bewildering jargon. This is a hell of a book.

What’s not to like? Well, yeah, there is one thing. The weakest link in the whole novel is ... the Dome. King’s final revelation ... it came from outer space! The somewhat whimsical departure of the Dome at the end of the book lacks credibility. Frankly, I don’t think this is a significant flaw. King’s raw and gritty tale of a small town going to hell needs a catalyst so that all of his bells, whistles and sirens could be launched. Any King reader knows that he is expected to “willingly suspend his disbelief.” In this case, that includes the acceptance of the Dome as being created by juvenile delinquents from outer space. Sounds reasonable to me!

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. His most recent writings can be found on his blog, hollernotes.blogspot.com.)

Judgment day arrives

The Cleansing by Ben Eller. Fireside Publications, 2009. 292 pages

 

In Ben Eller’s science fiction novel, The Cleansing, (2020), progress in the next decade is a mixed blessing. Although significant advances have been made in areas such as astronomy, weapons design and computer science, mankind appears to have regressed in terms of moral and ethical development. Statistics indicate that crimes against children, drug addiction and poverty are increasing at an alarming rate; pollution and the unchecked abuse of the environment continue while a half-dozen wars smolder in the Middle East. International diplomacy founders in a pervasive atmosphere of cynicism, duplicity and covert activity. Worst of all, the general public languishes in a quagmire of callous indifference, pursuing shallow entertainment (karaoke, binge drinking and sitcoms) and instant gratification — intent on “amusing themselves to death.” Then, the “blue lights” arrive.

Initial sightings, reported by astronomers, describe the phenomenon as a kind of luminous mist that encircles the Earth, and it appears to have originated in “outer space. Although puzzled by this event, the public perceives the lights as non-threatening. Then, ‘THE SCRIPT” appears inexplicably (and instantly) on the governmental communications monitors in every country on Earth. The tersely worded message states, “Preservation of earth’s habitat and species requires the following:

• Cessation of wars and violence among Homo sapiens.

• Disabling the weapons of Homo sapiens conflict.

• Discontinuance of planet destruction and extinction of species.

• Cessation of the reproduction of Homo sapiens.

In the United States, an alarmed president convenes an emergency session of his cabinet and launches an investigation. Is this an ill-conceived prank, launched by college students or hackers? Eventually, two conclusions are readily apparent: (l) The four edicts in THE SCRIPT are not suggestions; they are “directives.” (2) THE SCRIPT did not originate in any country on our planet.

These conclusions are verified when hundreds of bronze spaceships arrive and land in the most remote and barren regions on the planet. The president establishes Homeland Security measures and struggles to control a divided cabinet that includes a morally corrupt, ambitious vice president and a growing number of hawkish military experts who cannot accept the fact that they are no longer in control of this country’s defense system.

Eller establishes and promotes a suspenseful atmosphere by rapid shifts in the novel’s points of view: From the “war room” in Washington to bleak battlefields in Kosovo or Iran where bewildered soldiers discover that their weapons refuse to fire; a saloon in Ten Sleep, Wyoming where customers are divided between following the unfolding events on CNN or joining the fun in the Karaoke Room; random reports of the instant disappearance of thousands of serial murderers, child molesters and psychotics — all gone in a flash of blue light.

Although we have had this fanciful confrontation before in numerous movies (“The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Encounters of the Third Kind”), this fact does not lessen the potential for dramatic tension in The Cleansing. One of mankind’s most dreaded (and most anticipated) encounters is imminent: emissaries of an “otherworldly power” have arrived and the innate merits and frailties of all of the Earth’s civilizations have been weighed — judgment is at hand.

Eller orchestrates the suspense with considerable skill as he moves toward an encounter between the invaders and Earth’s emissaries (who were selected by the aliens): a Tibetan monk, a blind 5-year-old boy from India and a 14-year-old girl from Detroit — all gifted with the ability to communicate by telepathy. Have the aliens come to stay? Will humanity by weighed and found wanting? Has the vice president succeeded in his search for a weapon that can be used against the invaders? And what about Zolef, the fanatic in Iraq who has developed a cunning weapon that will destroy the United States — one that is immune to the “blue light?” And finally, what are “Truens?”

The Cleansing suffers from two minor flaws. First, due to the author’s painstaking and exhaustive research, his narrative sometimes suffers from an excessive use of arcane jargon — especially acronyms. Occasionally, the novel’s suspense and tension falters, buried beneath HS, NIH, THADD, GPS, NEST, KH12, UAVS, SARA, ABS, SNN, SOG, MASH and etc. Finally, there is Josh Jones, the protagonist of The Cleansing. Josh is handsome, gifted and experienced in a diversity of fields, including hand-to-hand combat. He speaks four languages, is a former SEAL, excels in mathematics, computer programming and lovemaking. He is accustomed to keeping company with the privileged elite that includes the powerful, wealthy, the intelligent, and in terms of women, he tends to favor the well-endowed (mentally and physically). He is equally at home in graduate courses at Chapel Hill or in a slum hospital with Mother Theresa. His most memorable moment comes during the historic (and televised) encounter between the aliens and Earth’s emissaries in a remote desert in southern Arabia: Josh makes the mile-long walk to the site naked, thereby exposing his flawless physique to an adoring TV audience and demonstrating the fact that he “is not armed.” (I’m surprised that he didn’t levitate.) I found Josh’s exploits to be an irritating distraction. The Cleansing would have benefited from either his absence or a severe reduction in his gifts and accomplishments.

However, in spite of the acronyms and Josh’s posturing, the basic premise of The Cleansing still contains a thought-provoking dilemma. If some divine intermediary every brings our planet to the bar of justice, would we be found worthy of survival?

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. Read reviews and other postings at his blog, hollernotes.blogspot.com.)

Eli the Good by Silas House. Candlewick Press, 2009. 295 pages

Eli Book, the 10-year-old narrator/protagonist of Silas House’s new novel, Eli the Good, dreams of being a writer. As he secretly records the pains and joys of living in a small town called Refuge during the Bicentennial summer (1976), he quickly learns that both his family and the world are plagued by uncertainty and trouble.

“There was the atom bomb, the Rapture, the possibility that I might be possessed by the Devil, the threat that my parents might one day not love each other, or me.”

So, when Eli hears the word “cancer” for the first time, he ponders the way people look when they say it and he intuitively understands that cancer “must be a very bad thing.” He also learns that his beloved Aunt Nell has it.

It soon becomes obvious that Eli “overhears” a lot. He has learned the craft of lurking and moves like a ghost through the Book household taking notes, (he even lies under the porch) listening to his parents’ conversations, eavesdropping on his sister and her boyfriend and spying on Edie, his “best friend” (a girl). In his determination to understand his father’s nightmares, he even steals a collection of letters that his father had written to his mother from Vietnam — letters that were hidden in his parents’ bedroom.

As a result, he gradually unearths a tangled knot of family secrets, disappointments and resentments including: the reason for his father’s nightmares; his mother’s secrets regarding her own life; and the revelation that his sister Jodie is really his “half-sister.” There are also the consequences of the increasingly bitter family disputes provoked by the Vietnam War and his father’s role in it.

At times, even the weather seems to reflect the changeable emotional climate in the Book household. As languid summer nights are replaced by a series of violent thunderstorms, tempers flare. The simmering conflict between mother and daughter explodes; Eli’s father becomes a “walking time bomb,” as he broods on a day in Boston when two anti-war demonstrators called him a “baby killer” — a condemnation he hears echoed in the opinions voiced by his own family. Even Eli begins to taunts Edie, whose parents are divorcing. But the storms pass, temperate weather returns and Eli continues to record the mounting evidence that his family has the strength to endure all things.

It would be an oversimplification to characterize Eli the Good as simply a “rite of passage” novel since it contains a number of other significant themes. Not only does Eli change from a callow, self-centered youth; he also develops a growing sense of the intricate web that binds him to both his family and the physical world. There is something of a paradox here since the violent and emotional encounters that threaten to tear Eli’s world apart are also responsible for revealing (and affirming) the family members’ love for each other.

In addition, Eli the Good is a celebration of a time and place — America’s Bicentennial year in a small Southern town. Eli and his family are wrapped in the warmth and security of a decade that is still full of hope and promise. As Eli consumes Zagnuts, drinks Pepsi Cola, and watches “Happy Days” and “The Waltons,” listens to Nina Simone and the Beatles on Aunt Nell’s phonograph, he is increasingly aware that he is living in a magical world where even the trees are sentient spirits (especially willow and beech).

As he rides his bike to a communal swimming hole, dances with his mother in the kitchen and reads The Diary of Anne Frank, he becomes the embodiment of a nostalgic dream; he is also the best of what America once was, and hopefully, can be again.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. Readers can contact him through his blog at hollernotes.blogspot.com.)

Typical Zombie fare

If you are a fan of the apocalypse movies that are currently common fare in American theaters, you will immediately recognize the landscape of Season of Rot. From Cormac McCarthy’s classic, The Road to the endless clones of the “Mad Max” and George Romero’s “Day of the Dead,” this is a world of rusted wreckage, starvation and the smell of decay. There are still pockets of life — terrified colonies of beleaguered humans who spend each day in a desperate search for food and shelter. The prevailing atmosphere in these “latter days” epics is a kind of sustained despair plus paranoia. Eric Brown’s message, like the signs held aloft by the crazed prophets in cartoons is, “The End is Near.”

In Season of Rot, humanity is defenseless against the legions of “the undead” — millions of mindless, rotting corpses that suddenly, inexplicably crawled from their graves as though responding to a mysterious summons. Now, they shuffle through abandoned buildings, deserted homes and the barren countryside searching for food: living flesh. Earth’s survivors are dwindling while the ranks of the undead are growing. Eric Brown, the author of Season of Rot and a Haywood County resident, frequently notes (with ill-concealed glee) that humanity doesn’t stand a chance.

Much of the action in Season of Rot resembles the plot of a graphic novel without the graphics (In fact, according to this book’s gutsy self-promotion, one of Brown’s novellas, “Dead West” is destined to become a graphic novel — It would make a good one). In most of the stories, the action has a “computer-game” quality with each plot presenting a series of predictable and interchangeable episodes and characters: (1) Beleaguered survivors flee; (2) find a temporary safe haven; (3) plan an escape to permanent safety (another country or an island), (4) are invariably attacked (hopelessly outnumbered), (5) die heroically, usually firing AK-47s as their intestines, hearts or heads are ripped away.

The majority of Brown’s characters suffer from minimal development since in “zombie world,” the emphasis is on action, not introspection. Male characters are limited to: handsome and muscular or “scientific and eccentric” or military and short-tempered. Women are well-developed, manipulative, sensual or nurturing. Everyone is well-armed. The weapons of choice are AK-47s, shotguns and flamethrowers. Slaughter reaches epic proportions with the majority of characters in Season of Rot barely having time to acquire names and a presence on stage before they are swept away in a flood of gore.

Readers are rarely given the opportunity to learn anything about the background of the people who inhabit Brown’s five novellas. It may be that in this grim world where all humanity is as ephemeral as mayflies, their personal dreams, hopes and aspirations are irrelevant. Sooner or later, everyone is “grist for the mill.”

Brown’s five novellas consist of the following: The title piece, “Season of Rot,” which is set in a besieged hospital (with the obligatory snipers on the roof) “The Queen” which is the name of a ship — the crew of survivors are in search of an uncontaminated island; “The Wave” provides an original explanation for the “rising of the dead” — a wave of energy originating in outer space, that creates and manipulates the dead; “Dead West” which is set in the Midwest following the Civil War and presents “an alternate version of history;” and “Rats” in which infected rodents, in conjunction with “the dead,” have taken over the world, except for a secret military installation ....

Two of these novellas, “The Wave” and “Dead West” actually contain viable characters, and in both stories, the plot unfolds with an imagination and a sense of suspense that is largely missing in the other tales. However, all of the stories suffer from stilted, awkward dialogue that is invariably delivered by characters that sound like posturing teenagers, ill at ease in the role of adults. Sexual activity seems more functional than erotic, and the occasional introduction of gay and/or lesbian characters lacks credibility, depth or warmth. Possibly, they were added in an unabashed attempt to suggest sophistication and maturity.

What then, is the appeal of Season of Rot? Why are impressive numbers of teenagers addicted to “zombie land” novels and film? Well, to quote one of R. Crumb’s characters, “It was ever so.” The excesses of violence and horror found in Brown’s novellas (disembowelments, beheadings, and an abundance of gore — geysers of blood, savage rapes, raining body parts and bone fragments and numerous intestinal tracts that are continually springing from ruptured bodies like Jacks-in-the-boxes — all of these shocking images have a famous precedent: The Grand Guignol Theater in Paris in 1897 which became notorious for enacting scenes of graphic, amoral horror on stage. Due to the graphic realism of the action, members of the audience frequently fainted and/or vomited. Since that time, any work of horror (film, paintings, novels) that stresses excessive bloodshed over plotting, good writing and character development is called “Grand Guignol.” Season of Rot definitely qualifies.

Season of Rot (Five Zombie Novellas) by Eric S. Brown. Permuted Press, 2009. 240 pages.

Willful Creatures Stories by Aimee Bender. Doubleday & Company, 2005. 208 pages

 

Recently, Garrison Keilor mentioned a new writer, Aimee Bender on his daily post, “The Writer’s Almanac.” Garrison noted that Bender’s quirky and enigmatic books were causing quite a stir on the West coast – short stories about families with pumpkin heads and little boys who are born with fingers shaped like keys.

An Internet search informed me that Aimee’s books contained strange parables that often left the reader both puzzled and fascinated. I immediately ordered The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own and Willful Creatures Stories.

An Invisible Sign of My Own opens with this paragraph:

“There was this kingdom once where everyone lived forever. They discovered the secret of eternal life, and because of that, there were no cemeteries, no hospitals, no funeral parlors, no books in the bookstore about death and grieving.

Instead, the bookstore was full of pamphlets about how to be a righteous citizen without fear of an afterlife.”

I was hooked. For the past two weeks, I have been reading odd fables that often resemble perverse variations of Grimm fairy tales.

In “Off” from Willful Creatures Stories, a determined young woman goes to a party intending to kiss three men: a black-haired one, a redhead and a blond. Her plan has disastrous consequences. Then, there is “Debbieland” where a shy teenager is attacked and humiliated because she wears a skirt that offends some fellow students. In “Fruit Without Words,” a customer at a roadside fruit stand discovers that it is possible to buy words that are composed of the items that they represent.

“Ironhead” is a disturbing tale of a child born with the head of an iron frying pan — born into a family of pumpkin-heads. In “Dearth,” a lonely woman finds seven potatoes in her kitchen; despite all of her efforts to rid herself of them, they return and gradually develop arms, legs and facial features. Willful Creatures also contains “The Leading Man” and the story about the boy with fingers that resemble keys — keys that are destined to open locks that appear throughout the boy’s life.

What is going on here? At present, a great many people are attempting to analyze these stories. I am struck by how many of Bender’s perverse tales appear to be parables that embody the problems that beset all of us. Bender’s protagonists are often victims of alienation and rejection. They are filled with yearnings and a desperate need to “belong” and often, they overcome daunting obstacles only to be disillusioned with their success.

My favorite in the Willful Creatures Stories collection, “Job’s Jobs,” is a marvelous variation of the travails of the biblical Job. Bender’s modern-day Job is pursued by a vengeful and unrelenting God. Each time that Job acquires success (as a writer, a painter, an actor, etc.) God appears and demands that Job relinquish his new career. In addition, God refuses to justify his actions. Finally, Job’s world becomes so small, he is left no alternative but to retreat to the infinite world of his inner thoughts.

Although I found some of Bender’s stories inexplicable, I am so pleased with the ones that provide a shrewd insight into life’s uncertainties, problems and mysteries (death, alienation, guilt, etc.) I wholeheartedly recommend these books. If you like Angela Carter, Ambrose Bierce and the poetry of Stephen Crane, you will treasure Aimee Bender.

Among the varied “revelations” brought to light during the celebrations attending the 75th Anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this year was the verification of the existence of an unpublished novel by Hoarace Kephart. Until this discovery, Kephart’s reputation rested on two singular achievements: he is the author of Our Southern Highlanders, a definitive work on the culture and traditions of Southern Appalachia; and he proved to be the primary impetus for the creation of the park by speaking, writing and soliciting financial support from government agencies and foundations. Now, some 80 years later, Kephart’s descendants have announced the existence of Smoky Mountain Magic, a “lost novel of mystery, intrigue and romance.”

According to the preface to the novel, written by Kephart’s granddaughter, Libby Kephart Hargrave, the manuscript has survived intact due to the efforts of Kephart’s heirs. On May 1, 2009, The Great Smoky Mountains Association acquired the manuscript with the understanding that they would publish it. Smoky Mountain Magic was officially released in mid-September.

So, what is Smoky Mountain Magic? What was Kephart’s motivation in writing it? Does it have merit? One critic (Daniel Pierce of the UNC Asheville History Department) has compared it to digging up a “time capsule from the 1920s,” and that seems an apt comparison. Also, it quickly becomes evident that Kephart had a shrewd eye for the popular novels and films of his time; he was well acquainted with writers such as Emma Bell Miles (Spirit of the Mountains) and James Fox (Trail of the Lonesome Pine.) These authors provided him with an excellent template for a tale of “mystery, intrigue, and romance.”

Kephart’s protagonist, John Cabarrus, a.k.a. “Little Jack Dale,” is a man of mystery. When he appears in Kittuwa (Bryson City), he attracts the interest of the entire community, including Tom Burbank, the local sheriff; William Matlock, a corrupt land speculator; Youlus Lumbo, a member of a degenerate mountain family; and Marian Wentworth, a beautiful, intelligent (and highly independent) young woman who is visiting relatives for the summer. We soon learn that Cabarrus has returned to Kittuwa and Deep Creek to right old wrongs, find a missing deed and conduct a geological survey that may lead to a hidden mineral deposit worth a fortune. After a few meetings and a good bit of witty repartee, John and Marian find that they are attracted to each other. The promise of a passionate consummation hangs in the air like the scent of honeysuckle.

Now, let’s add a venerable old chief of the Cherokees named Dagataga and an old friend of John Cabarrus, who is well-versed in the ancient legends of his people. A nighttime visit by John and Mirian to Dagataga’s home during a thunderstorm provides a proper setting for suspense, magic and the supernatural. As the old chief relates the frightful myth of a vengeful serpent called the Uktena, startling his audience by producing the Ulunsuti, the magic jewel that was plucked from the Uktena’s skull, Kephart’s tale moves into a new theme: the true meaning of myth and the struggle between science (or reason) and the world’s ancient superstitions and myths.

To Kephart’s credit, he manages to weave these colorful strands together into a unique pattern. In time, Cabarrus’ search for mineral deposits leads him to a wilderness labyrinth, Nick’s Nest, an “otherworldly place” that is shunned by both the white settlers and the Cherokees. Cabarrus’ descent into this dark hollow will bring him face to face with the contraries represented by myth and science.

Smoky Mountain Magic reflects a time when heroes like John Cabarrus dominated novels and film. Cabarrus is handsome, courageous, physically fit and the master of a dozen diverse fields, including mythology, geology, botany, poetry and psychology. (He will quote Disraeli, Robert Burns or The Iliad at the drop of a hat.) Whereas Mirian is frequently puzzled and uncertain about the world’s unknown aspects, she can simply turn to John who will gently “inform” her. In fact, her primary purpose seems to be to provide John with the opportunity to demonstrate his encyclopedic knowledge. It doesn’t matter if the subject is the subtleties of the Cherokee language, the diversity of plant life, astronomy, the composition of radium or the theory of “thought transference,” John always speaks with total authority. In 1929, it is possible that audiences and readers adored men of this caliber; in 2009, they would consider Cabarrus a pompous and pretentious ass.

Is Kephart’s novel entertaining? Yes, it is. Even at this late date, Smoky Mountain Magic has significant entertainment value. Some of the scenes move with an infectious vitality and excitement. Kephart is at his best in dealing with atmosphere. The visit to Chief Dagataga is masterfully done and the graphic descriptions of numerous solitary wilderness scenes are memorable.

Although many of the minor characters remained woefully undeveloped, the author has a gift for creating “local color” through masterful miniature portraits of minor “characters.” Especially noteworthy is “Sang Johnny,” who survives by digging herbs; Old Hex, Sang Johnny’s mother, who is known as a witch and practitioner of dark magic; Myra Swimming Deer, John’s childhood nurse; and the Cherokee tracker named Runner, who could follow his prey through the forests with a kind of supernatural certainty.

Smoky Mountain Magic would make an excellent movie since the journey into the unknown (“Nick’s Nest”) is still a viable theme. The characters are uncomplicated (like the cast of a Hardy Boys Adventure), violence is minimal and actual murder is restricted to the murder of creatures: a rattlesnake and a “fice” (Kephart’s spelling) dog. Despite the fact that the villains are dedicated to killing our hero, they are all thwarted without significant bloodshed. (Even black-hearted Matlock get off with a mere brain concussion); and sexual content, despite a lot of heavy breathing and a passionate kiss or two, is definitely G-rated.

Kephart’s motivation is writing Smoky Mountain Magic is obvious. He hoped to tap the rich market for tales of adventure — both in fiction and in cinema. What better topic than a journey into a forbidden realm, complete with witches, robber barons, noble savages and a winsome lady, all wrapped in a cloak of mystery and myth. Doubtless, Kephart’s notorious inability to handle his finances prompted him to write the novel. He probably dreamed of paying his debts and acquiring solvency. It should have worked, but as John Cabarrus notes, quoting Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men/ gang aft agley.” If Kephart’s spirit still haunts Kittuwa, he should be immensely pleased to know that even after 80 years, he has made another significant contribution to the Great Smokies National Park.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. Visit his blog at hollernotes.blogspot.com.)

“The Spirit of Asheville” (video) by Arthur Hancock and Katie Brugger. Time Capsule Video: Highlands. Running Time: 73 minutes.

 

The Spirit of Asheville” is an unabashed siren call to the rest of the world: “Come to Asheville! This is the land of your heart’s desire.” In terms of photography, it is truly a visual feast. “Spirit” unrolls like a tapestry of fluid and vibrant images — each capturing a unique aspect of this “city with a small-town atmosphere.”

Even native-born denizens of this region will find themselves enthralled by a diversity of culture and entertainment currently flourishing in and around Asheville. Quite honestly, I had no idea all of these wonderful treasures existed. From the hypnotic, sustained thrum of a golden cymbal in the Skinny Beats Drum Shop to the raucous cacophony of Jack of the Woods string band at midnight, this video provides a kind of symphony of Asheville’s sounds, sights and attitudes. Motorcycle enthusiasts streak down the Blue Ridge Parkway and joyful multitudes gather for the drumming sessions in Prichard Park. The animated atmosphere of Bele Chere blends with dozens of sidewalk performers, jugglers and musicians — all contrasting with other, peaceful images: the serenity of yoga classes, falling snow and the placid flow of mountain streams.

“The Spirit of Asheville” contains numerous interviews with both visitors and local entrepreneurs; a multitude of residents (mostly transplants) provide enthusiastic endorsements for everything from hiking and camping to the quality of the region’s beer (breweries are flourishing in this region). Owners of innovative industries speak with pride about their efforts to create alternative fuels, ecology-oriented housing and “cutting edge” media technology.

In short, Asheville has become a mecca for a middle-class that seeks an environment that combines “quality of life” experience with maximum cultural enrichment. It is all here: a region rich in history, tradition and natural beauty. In “Spirit,” artists, musicians and writers repeatedly speak of Asheville’s casual, “liberal” or open-minded atmosphere. One enraptured transplant describes the region as “Southern, mountain and progressive” combined with “hospitality.” At one point, a number of self-proclaimed independent “free spirits” interviewed on Lexington Avenue noted that they had migrated from the west coast to Asheville (one noted that she came for Asheville’s “hippie feel with a modern twist.”

Indeed, in “Spirit” this mountain city emerges as the “American dream” for a large segment of this country’s middle-class. Wonderful food, musical entertainment, funky blue grass saloons, a fantastic climate, folk festivals, independent bookstores, coffee houses, beer parlors, quality theater productions and, if we are to believe the energetic chorus of interviewees, all of that wrapped in an atmosphere of laid-back casualness and friendliness that is uniquely southern. Wow!

However, the greatest appeal of “Spirit” is the lush richness of the photography. Indeed, there are numerous scenes that are captured so perfectly, they would serve as vibrant paintings: a frisky bobcat in a tree, a yawning bear, deer in Cades Cove, snow-laden hemlocks, a nest of wild bees, spring flowers at the Asheville Arboretum, a weaver at the Folk Art Center, basket-making artisans and an endless collection of wonder-struck children, playful dogs and a final shot of Asheville’s nighttime skyline that is painfully beautiful. This is the point, I think. Although the obvious purpose of this film is to provoke a migration of well-heeled hedonists to “The Land of Sky,” this visual paean has an additional value. It is a work of art.

Are there flaws in “The Spirit of Asheville?” A few, I think, and this is purely a personal quibble, but I’ll go ahead and give it.

It is too long. It could stand to lose 15 minutes.

Finally, there is a neglected target group out there who yearn to come to our beautiful mountains, but their concerns were not addressed in this film. They are the retired people who love the region’s scenery, art, culture and music, but invariably want information about more personal issues ... things like the quality of medical care, the presence of retirement communities and support services for the elderly. I know because at this point in my life, that is what I want to know about. Oh, I will be an enthusiastic participant in all of the wondrous diversions treated in this film, or at least in the ones that I am capable of enjoying.

If Asheville has truly become the modern Byzantium — a place which, according to William Butler Yeats, is teeming with the young “in one another’s arms.” Yeats further notes that it is “no country for old men.” I hope that isn’t so of the “Mountain mecca.” I think I saw a few of my peers in this film, sitting quietly in the background or moving along the sidewalk (with canes and metal walkers) near Malaprops. In “Spirit II,” let us send a heartfelt invitations to them, as well.

The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein by Dorothy and Thomas Hobbler. Little, Brown and Company. 374 pages.

 

Back in the 1950’s, when I was an English major, I frequently found myself moribund with boredom as I suffered through classroom lectures on the meaning of sonnets, epics and allegories. I slogged through the quagmires of literature, not because Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope and Milton were boring, but because I was in thrall to teachers who seemed incapable of making literature “walk, talk and sing.” There were exceptions, of course, but the majority of my guides merely succeeded in convincing me that I was either immune or insensitive to “great literature.”

However, when we got to the Romantic poets, not even the best/worst efforts of my instructors could deaden that music. I heard it; we all heard it: the seductive music of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats. Suddenly, here was a world that was populated by misfits, rebels and (with the exception of Wordsworth) drug addicts. They thumbed their nose at religion and social convention, behaved outrageously and often died young. Even if we didn’t approve of them, they got our attention.

Those of us who loved (or were fascinated by) the Romantics have probably heard some version of that magic night when five young people gathered inside the Villa Diodati, a luxurious summerhouse on Lake Geneva in Switzerland to tell ghost stories. It was June 17, 1818, and violent thunderstorms and lightning swept across the lake that night. Illuminated by lightning and flickering candles, the guests attempted to frighten each other with lurid tales of vampires, the resurrected dead and vengeful spirits.

All of those present were either gifted, famous and/or notorious: George Gordon Lord Byron, “the most famous man in the world,” whose literary works and sexual exploits had shocked (or fascinated) Europe; Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had abandoned his pregnant wife, Harriet, and eloped with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon to be Mrs. Shelley); Dr. John Polidori, Bryon’s personal physician and aspiring poet, who was about to lose his lucrative position; and Claire Clarmont, Mary’s step-sister and Byron’s current mistress (she is pregnant with his child). Finally, there is Mary W. Godwin, daughter of London’s renowned, radical and scandalous William and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, both of whom considered conventional marriage to be “a form of prostitution.”

Of all the lurid images and tales evoked that night, only two are destined to survive: Mary’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and Dr. Polidori’s Vampyre — both destined to become world famous (Polidori’s novel will eventually become Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The gothic tales created by Byron, Shelley and Claire Clarmont did not survive long enough to be published.

Dorothy and Thomas Hobbler have undertaken a provocative thesis: to demonstrate that Mary Shelley’s novel is a thinly veiled autobiography. The Hobbler’s contend that the “monster” created by Dr. Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s alter ego! It is a persuasive argument. Both the author and Dr. Frankenstein’s creation are unloved and outcast. Further, both Mary’s father, William Godwin and her perverse husband, Percy Shelley have much in common with the cruel, remote Dr. Frankenstein who rejected his own creation and sought to destroy it.

In addition, the Hobbler’s perceive other parallels between the novel and the lives of all of the original guests at Villa Diadoti. Not only are all of the characters fated to either die prematurely or, like Claire Clarmont, live tragic, obscure lives; they often suffer the loss of their loved ones. In effect, all seem to be victims of a curse that was engendered on the night that Mary Shelley outlined the basic plot of Frankenstein – the tale of a monster that vows to destroy all that his creator holds dear — children, lovers and relatives.

The first to die are children. Mary and Percy’s children fall victims to sickness (cholera and or related epidemics). Then, Harriet Westbrook, Shelley’s abandoned wife and Fanny Godwin, William’s oldest daughter, commit suicide. Byron and Claire’s daughter, Allegra, dies in a convent. Dr. Polidori, having lost control of Vampyre and living as a social outcast, commits suicide; Shelley drowns in a boating mishap; Byron joins a Greek struggle for independence, becomes ill and dies tragically — a victim of incompetent doctors.

The sole survivor, Mary Shelley, devotes the remainder of her life attempting to reconstruct (or resurrect) her brilliant husband’s life and work. She painstakingly gathers his poems, diaries and letters — all of which she edits and transcribes. There is considerable evidence that Mary destroy ed or altered any materials which did not support her vision of Shelley as a brilliant, revolutionary genius. In effect, she “recreated” him.

The Monsters is a brilliant, exhaustively researched work. However, I was distressed to find that some of my most cherished images of the Romantics were groundless myths (Edward Trelawney did not snatch Shelley’s heart from his burning body at the seaside cremation service, nor did Leigh Hunt have it shaped into an amulet that he wore around his neck.). For me, the most distressing evidence in this book is that which dealt with the personal flaws of Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Hobblers’ research reveals him to be an arrogant, thoughtless hedonist whose self-serving behavior led to the deaths of his children (acknowledged and unacknowledged), and the suffering of countless others.

In conclusion, the Hobblers provide significant insights into the period that produced the Romantics. It was a period that was preoccupied with the French Revolution and the thrilling ideas of individuality and personal freedom. In addition, Shelley, Byron and Mary Godwin were all fascinated by recent scientific advances — especially experiments with electricity and magnetism — experiments that held an aura of magic about them. These discoveries found their way into Frankenstein. In many ways, they saw themselves as a vanguard — disciples and torch-bearers of a new era of enlightenment in which women would be treated as equals and war would become obsolete. Perhaps they were flawed prophets since that era has not yet arrived.

Tender Graces by Kathryn Magendie. Bell Bridge Books, 2009. 315 pages

 

Some of the most poignant passages in literature are uttered by children: Tom Sawyer, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter Bone — all are juvenile protagonists who relate the events of their lives with candor. Perhaps Kathryn Magendie gave her child protagonist a narrator’s “voice” because when a children address us, they usually speak with unabashed honesty, relating without guile, the anguish of growing up in a families shattered by either alcoholism, mental illness or divorce. In Kathryn Magendie’s Tender Graces, spunky, little Virginia Kate Carey must cope with all three.

Much of Virginia Kate’s childhood is spent in “By God West Virginia” where she and her brothers, Andy and Micah are the hapless pawns of their parents, Fredrick and Kate Ivene Carey — two ill-matched alcoholics. Like most children in an unstable home, the Carey kids survive by clinging together. They are also adept at drawing on inner resources. Micah, the oldest, paints, and as he grows older, his childish scrawls turn into provocative depictions of the world around him. The youngest, Andy, turns to sports. However, it is “Bug” (Virginia Kate) who keeps a diary; as she struggles to make sense of her mother’s violent rages and her father’s repeated absences, she sometimes withdraws into a fantasy world filled with nurturing spirits (including her beloved grandmother, who perished in a suspicious fire) and a mythical horse, Fionadala.

At the heart of Tender Graces resides Kate Carey, who is a deeply troubled and enigmatic woman with a perverse need to injure and reject those who are closest to her. Eventually, she drives Frederick away, and when he ends up in Louisiana with a divorce and a new wife, Kate’s destructive nature grows as she lashes out at her bewildered children and all of the attending relatives. Gradually, she banishes them, first Micah, then “Bug” and finally Andy, sending them to Louisiana to live with the Shakespeare-quoting, womanizer, Fredrick.

The traumatic impact of this dislocation is extensive, and all the Carey children will carry the subsequent scars for the rest of their lives. At this point, Tender Graces becomes a study in contrasts. West Virginia’s lofty mountains, cooling breezes and colorful relatives are replaced with heat, mimosa and alligators. Instead of Kate Carey’s dark beauty, her chaotic house and the ever-present smell of bourbon and Shalamar, Micah, Bug and Andy find pale, blond Rebekha and a neat house filled with color-coordinated rugs, drapes and towels. However, Rebekha is not the traditional Grimm Brothers fairytale stepmother, nor is the Louisiana household crawling with vicious relatives (Aunt Ruby in West Virginia is especially memorable) and carnal uncles. Gradually, the shame of being unloved is replaced with security, nurturing and kindness.

Tender Graces contains a paradox. As the Carey children grow into teenagers, evolving into talented and capable adults, Virginia Kate continues to yearn for the approval and love of her unstable mother. Despite repeated rejections she harbors an irrational need to return to this selfish and drunken woman who has abdicated all of her maternal responsibilities. Eventually, it is clear that Virginia Kate’s bond with her mother will only be resolved by her mother’s death.

Kathryn Magendie has a marvelous talent for capturing the world of children. Andy, Bug and Micah emerge with distinct personalities, each with their own set of interests. Their daily lives are depicted with vibrant details. However, these children bear no resemblance to the usual characters in juvenile fiction. Magendie’s children talk with their mouths full of food, engage in endless (affectionate) taunting and often curse like longshoremen, and they all have the marvelous gift of exaggeration, especially Bug! (“I couldn’t talk because I had 40 frogs in my throat.”) Their speech is filled with references to period TV programs (Rawhide, Lassie, Elvis, The Wizard of Oz) and food (Zero candy bars, Orange Crush, etc.) It is a fully realized juvenile world filled with color, sound and smells.

There are also some tantalizing mysteries. What happened at the cabin on the hill where Virginia Kate sometimes sees her father? What dark secret does Micah conceal about the death of his Uncle Arvelle? Who is the mysterious “adopted child,” Anin?

Is there anything wrong with Tender Graces? Well, yes, although the flaws are minor compared with the numerous merits. These people eat too much! It is New Orleans food, of course, but I got heartburn. The latter part of the book gets dangerously close to a cloying sweetness and needed some brutal editing. There are too many characters — some of which vanish for such prolonged periods, I forgot who they were.

I suspect that there will be more books from Kathryn Megendie. In fact, Tender Graces probably needs a sequel. A book with this much vitality deserves a child/grandchild.

There aren’t many things that cause my weary heart to quicken. The local bookstore, Netflix, rain crows and, yes, the Oxford American which is “proudly published by the University of Central Arkansas.” I’ve stuck with them through bankruptcy, inept leadership, and a series of in-house disputes because, regardless of the management, this quarterly is one of the best publications dedicated to promoting, explicating and celebrating what it means to be “Southern” (that includes “Appalachian”).

One of the writers for this issue, a young man named Matthew Vollmer from Andrews, N. C., made me salivate when he describes how a misguided attempt to create a huge sensory deprivation tank morphs into a reincarnated soda fountain from the ‘50’s. This drug store specializes in egg creams, grilled cheese sandwiches (ten different cheeses), buttered popcorn and grilled peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, bisque soups and milkshakes (everything has lots of sugar!) When customers over-indulge, they sometimes get silly and irrational. The manager of the soda fountain, armed with squirt-gun water bottles to keep everybody in line.

I remember thatI was skeptical when I got my first subscription to Oxford American. I expected something academic, Faulknerian and obscure. But, then, they published a recipe for possum stew, did a wonderful article on Jerry Lee “The Killer” Lewis, published humor by Roy Blunt, book reviews by Hal Crowther (Lee Smith’s husband) and essays by Barry Hannah. In the early years they sent me a free record with their “music” issue; now they send a DVD! They publish remarkable short stories (Ron Rash, William Gay) and poetry that I cut out of the magazine and paste on my bathroom mirror.

I save every issue and they are stored and cared for as if they were illuminated manuscripts. I’ve been thinking about having them bound, and I often go prowling through them looking for that memorable article written by James Dickey’s daughter or that essay on “The South in Cinema.” It is all here: art, fiction, food, theater, film, essays, poetry, “personalities,” etc.) Probably what is most important is, it makes my gears spin and engage, makes me think ...and makes me want to write.

This issue is devoted to “Odes to the Best” and is filled with memorable quotes. George Singleton, who just won a Guggenheim, said that the hardest part of writing is “not being distracted by email and other forms of techno-procrastination.” (I have some friends who should mull that one over.) There is a wonderful ode to “Mandingo,” the best “bad” movie about slavery in the South; a recipe for pimento cheese which should be “spread on a gridded hamburger;”a poem by Billy Collins, and a marvelous article on lawn-mover racing in Ellebee, N. C. where an old NASCAR track has been given a second life. This “working man’s racetrack” complete with “souped up lawnmowers” caters to “stock” and “modified” mowers with the blades removed. The races create screaming fans, boiling dust (winning purses up to $200), and a growing number of “drivers” who are becoming local heroes. Not surprisingly, lawnmower races are spreading to other North Carolina towns.

A disturbing “Ode to Southern Highways: recalls scenes of night-time terror and violence throughout the Southeast. (For example, there was a night in 1947 near Greenville, S. C. when a convoy of 37 taxes escorted Willy Earle who had allegedly stabbed a taxi driver up highway 124 to his lynching. The writer, Alan Grant, visits bridges, wooded tracts and riverbanks that are “haunted” with tragic memories.

Daisy Dodge’s “Ode to Coming Home,” made me get all misty-eyed:

“It will be very happy to see you, son.

It will look how much you’ve grown

It will look how far you’ve come.

It will always, eternally, love you.

...It will make sure you’ve eaten.

It will make sure you’ve slept.

It will make sure you’ve passed a good time.

It will not let you go.

It will not let you go back out into the cold.”

There is also a poignant ode to a BBQ funeral (the deceased had prepared the meal before his death and stored it in a freezer). Hal Crother’s essay “Home From the Hills,” explans the current mountaintop removal crisis. There is a much-deserved tribute to James Harold, a North Carolina outsider artist, who killed himself in 1999; David Taylor’s visit with James Harold echoes another interview conducted by Jonathan Williams some fifteen years ago when this gifted folk artist was vibrantly alive.

Even the advertisements are entertaining: recording artists from Appalachia, new novelists and poets with provocative titles. The promotion blurb for one old Delta blues musician says: “He’s never lip-synched, trashed a hotel or demanded a larger dressing room. Let’s give him a hand.”

Check this magazine out!

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