Recently, when I was surfing through a depressing collection of nighttime TV programs — religious rants, psychics, cooking shows and weight loss commercials — I stopped on a “true crime” channel with a provocative title: “Dangerous Women.” Before I could punch the remote, a solemn voice announced: “Tonight, a horrifying story from a remote cove in Appalachia, we bring you the story of Frankie Silver, a woman who not only murdered her husband but burned his body in the fireplace.”
Ron Rash’s latest collection of short stories echos a theme that runs through all of his works: an awareness that Appalachia is in transition, that it is becoming something else. Of course, this is a quality that is shared by all things — what the poets call “mutability” — but in this instance, the author is mindful of what our world is becoming in contrast to what it once was. Like the drowned girl in his short story by the same title, Appalachia may be undergoing a “sea change” and will emerge as “something rich and strange.” The substance may be alien, repugnant and/or fascinating.
In recent years, I have become interested in an obscure incident that occurred in Jackson County in 1882 — the accidental drowning of 19 chain gang convicts who were working on Cowee Tunnel near Dillsboro. Who were they? Where did they come from? Where are they buried? The details are sketchy, and outside of a few basic facts, most of the stories have been passed down by oral tradition.
If you are literate and moderately aware of what passes for entertainment in film, popular novels and comics, then you are acquainted with of the strange “zombie” craze that is currently dominating much of the popular arts. In recent years, the popularity of “The Walking Dead” has grown to epic proportions.
“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”
— Cicero, 106 B.C.
Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer prize-winning historian and a guest editorialist for the New York Times, has written a fascinating historical biography of one of “the most alluring and elusive women in recorded history” — Cleopatra VII.
A couple of years ago, I blundered into something called “The Bottom Dog Appalachian Writers Series.” Published in Ohio, this series is dedicated to showcasing “new Appalachian writers.” When I looked at the list of writers and poets, I didn’t see a single name that I recognized, but since this is supposed to be works of “new blood,” I decided to start reading them. Well, a fellow named Charles Dodd White is at the top of the list with a prize-winning collection of short stories and a new novel, Lambs of Men. I read his impressive reviews and discovered that White had a short story in the prestigious North Carolina Literary Review, so I ordered his short story collection.
Daniel Emerson is afraid of black people. After a chance encounter with a group of violent African American teenagers left him with a broken wrist, a chipped tooth and an abiding belief that he is going to be killed by either one of his clients or a crack addict, the young lawyer persuades Kate, his current helpmate, to sacrifice the advantages of the big city for the pastoral peace of his hometown, Leyden.
In recent years, there has been a kind of Swedish literary invasion in America, especially in the horror genre. Perhaps the most notable is John Lindqvist, who wrote the cult classic, Let the Right One In, which became an international bestseller two years ago. The film version that followed was enthusiastically endorsed by Stephen King as a landmark in “intelligent and provocative horror film.” Shortly afterwards, Lindqvist released Handling the Undead and The Harbor, which immediately became bestsellers.
Anyone who remembers Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and the Roman Polanski film that came out about a year later, then you have a handle on a spooky plot wherein two New York parents-to-be are faced with the daunting possibility that the wife may be pregnant with (and by) something that is “not of this earth.” I’m still haunted by Mia Farrow’s tortured dilemma as she stands before the crib that contains “the spawn of Satan” ... stands with a knife in her hand. Which is stronger, a mother’s love or her moral obligation to protect mankind from evil?
Sylva native and renowned Southern Appalachian storyteller Gary Carden received the North Carolina Award for Literature, the state’s highest honor, on Oct. 30 at a ceremony in the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh.