During the past 60 years, I have maintained a hearty appreciation for what is called “fantasy/horror” literature. I guess it began with the dark little fairy tales of Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen and yes, the Grimm Fairy Tales, and it extends to the current works of writers like Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker and Angela Carter. My favorite fantasy/horror stories were created by Ray Bradbury, Jonathan Carroll and Stephen King, and if I can qualify my preferences still further, I have a special love for stories with a carnival/circus setting.
One of the oldest traditional folktales, ‘Godfather Death,’ exists in all cultures; however, the tone of the stories may vary from bleak and grim invocations of death’s certainty to humorous tales of tricksters who scheme to avoid death’s coming. Death becomes personified as a shadowy figure who comes to collect “his due.”
Along the way, Godfather Death has inspired memorable creative works: film (“The Seventh Seal,” “On Borrowed Time”) and even Appalachian folk tales (“Soldier Jack, the Man Who Caught Death in a Sack”). However, one of the most provocative variations is “The Fool Killler.” In these tales, Death has been transformed into a terrifying agent of divine justice.
Serendipity: an aptitude for making significant discoveries by accident.
I have always loved that word, and I have had numerous serendipity moments. I would like to tell you about the one that happened today. I have been bemoaning the fact that I am not “a Christmas person.” Without children or family, and having the restraints of living on social security, I have come to feel left out of “the season to be jolly.” Of course, I have found that there are others who seem to be condemned to spend the holidays alone or at the Huddle House.
One of the things that I admire about the New York Review of Books is a special honor that they reserve for what they call the “lost masterpieces of American fiction.” In effect, they acknowledge that occasionally, a major literary work goes unacknowledged. Sometimes, a decade or more goes by and then a noted American critic or author asks, “How did you miss this one?” It seems to have flown in under the radar, undetected and then passed into oblivion.
About three years ago, I reviewed a bloody little horror tale filled with black humor called Breed. It was a page-turning shocker, allegedly written by Chase Novak but actually spawned by a remarkably gifted novelist, Scott Spenser who became famous for Endless Love in 1979, a poignant love story that sold two million copies and is still selling. A remake is currently running on Cinemax, but it’s a dismal thing.
Gone Girl is currently the most popular novel in America and it has been around since 2012; it is also now a major motion picture starring Ben Affleck. Gillian Flynn’s “thriller” (and it is definitely that!) is a favorite topic on talk shows with America’s favorite critics discussing why this wicked little crime novel has captured this country’s imagination. Well, I am among the enthralled, and I think it all began with O. J. Simpson. As soon as we, the audience, joined that helicopter that followed O.J. down the interstate on the day he was arrested, we became members of a new kind of “instant journalism.”
I am intimidated by this book. In fact, this is one of the most challenging reviews that I have ever undertaken.
Admittedly, I have known about David Mitchell, the English “wanderkind” for several years now, but I have carefully avoided any of his five previous novels because they were invariably described as “recklessly ambitious” and filled with sudden shifts (from fantasy to distopian novel to a kind of ecological thriller).
When the novel, The Leftovers came out several years ago, it was an immediate success. (Oprah gave it a significant boost in sales and the fact that America was in the midst of a kind of apocalyptic fervor at the time certainly helped.) The heart of this novel concerns a mysterious “rapture” that has snatched thousands of people from their “earthly existence.” Not only are those who are left behind bewildered; they are also puzzled since there seems to be no logic ... no “common denominator. “ Christians, Buddhists, atheists, Russians, Chinese, children (even a fetus), the elderly, alcoholics, nuns and convicted murders — all simply vanish in an instant. Where did they go?
A little over one year ago, Mark Powell published The Dark Corner, a novel that was set in the northwest part of Georgia and dealt with the intrigue and corruption attending the current development of “the river culture” that has sprung up along the Chattooga River. It is a remarkable novel (that reads like a sequel to James Dickey’s Deliverance) and prompted author Ron Rash to call Powell “the best Appalachian novelist of his generation.”
In case you haven’t noticed, let me call your attention to a disturbing fact regarding current Appalachian literature: some critics have been describing the new crop of Appalachian writers as latter-day Jeremiads who are predicting the coming of a kind of literary apocalypse in Appalachia. Lately, I have been running into references to “Appalachian noir,” a classification that is certainly valid given the current trend toward dark humor and the absence of traditional themes.