Humor, mystery and a wonderful menagerie of characters
Although migrations have become a significant and controversial aspect of our current history, there is another annual migration that has been with us for centuries. That is the annual arrival of visitors to Appalachia that has become an honored tradition. It is customary for retired and/or wealthy families to make the annual trek to the Southern Highlands. The “summer home” visitors have reshaped the Appalachian economy and a large percentage of the native work force is now engaged in building, repairing and maintaining the homes of the summer folk. In fact, many of the men and women who once farmed this land are now the employees of the summer residents: wives become cooks and housekeepers and the men develop carpentry skills. They build sun decks, kilns and fireplaces and with luck, they become “almost” a part of the summer family.
The new novel by Dale Neal — a longtime Western North Carolina journalist who is also a novelist — Appalachian Book of the Dead, takes us to the small town of Yonah (which is only an hour and a half from Asheville) where we meet a diverse cast of characters. There is Cal McAlister, a recovering alcoholic who has had a successful career on Wall Street and now plans on writing a book about his adventures in the world of pork bellies and the Trading Pit. His wife, Joy, is a potter and has spent her life attempting to create the perfect bowl. Her dream is to have her own studio and a noborigama raku-style kiln, plus the recognition of the professional craft schools like Penland. Joy loves cats and a multitude of felines live in her studio. Since her husband despises cats and suffers from a variety of allergies, he avoids Joy’s studio. His absence secretly pleases Joy since she does not have to listen to Cal’s cynical comments about her work and his contempt for Appalachia.
Then, there is Doyle Smathers, a native of Yonah who had learned to survive by adjusting to the changes of the world around him. Doyle had become “a handyman.” When wealthy investors created a series of summer camps, calling the one at Yonah Camp Bee Tree, Doyle became a plumber and carpenter, keeping the rustic cabins in repair, and building archery ranges and hiking trails. When the camps close down, Doyle “reinvents himself” and befriends the movie crew that comes to Yonah looking for an ideal setting for a zombie movie. The deteriorating Camp Bee Tree proved to be ideal. Before it was over, Doyle becomes an actor and kills a dozen zombies before he is overpowered by a bloody-thirsty crew. Now, the movie is over and he becomes a faithful worker for Joy, promising to build a kiln. In addition, he even refined his dowsing skills and launches a project to find a dependable source of water for Cal’s shower. His carpentry skills are doubtful. However, he is a survivor.
Ainsley Morse, the granddaughter of the wealthy lady who owns Camp Bee Tree and most of the surrounding land, has been at the camp since she was a child and was known to be the heir of the place. Ainsley was, according to Doyle, a “wild child,” and lived an unsupervised life. She had been under the care of a half-dozen gurus and psychiatrists.
Her arrival is memorable. She had just survived an exploding meth lab that killed her current lover, Bernie, but she is determined to make a new start. She shaves her dreadlocks and shows up at the “get acquainted party” with a badly scarred naked head. She discusses a plan recommended by her grandmother: tear down all the cabins and replace them with yurts. As she develops her plans, Ainsley attempts to follow the mystical and oblique daily advice of the Book of the Dead.
In addition to this cast of characters, each with an impressive number of personal problems, Neal adds a provocative element: two escaped killers, Jimmy Bray and Angel Jones, come to Yonah after murdering a boiled peanut vendor and a highway patrolman, and are reported to be in Camp Bee Tree. The presence of these criminals has a profound effect on everyone, including Cal McAlister, who begins to carry a loaded pistol.
But there is more. Something is killing Joy’s cats, leaving their mangled and half-eaten bodies in the woods. Suddenly, the nights are filled with the mournful howls of coyotes and there is nothing supernatural about these creatures that are now reported throughout Western North Carolina. The local law enforcement is besieged by crowds of alarmed women, all bearing the smell of patchouli, which lingers after their departure, and all have come to report missing cats and dogs.
Neal uses the theme of pottery to hold the diverse parts of Appalachian Book of the Dead together. There is also the element of suspense. When will the cynical (and horny) Cal McAlister discover “moonshine” and what will be the outcome of his lust for Ainsley? When Joy finally discovers the pottery sensation that brings recognition to her work, is it due to the facial features of Doyle Smathers, which are immortalized in her buck-toothed creation? This is a delightful novel and Dale Neal does a masterful job of combining the major characteristics of the gothic novel with a subtle touch of humor.