Book delves into a dark corner of our world

Thursday. Throughout this anguished and gripping tale, this day of the week, Thursday” is usually italicized, suggesting that it has some special (and possibly sinister) significance. Specifically, it is the day that Eva Khatchadourian’s son, Kevin (two days shy of his 16th birthday) will kill 11 people. Taking the form of an epistolary novel, We Need to Talk about Kevin consists of a series of letters written by Eva to her “estranged” husband, Franklin. In essence, these letters represent Eva’s painful attempts to discover the reasons for her son’s decision to murder nine of his classmates and two adults. It is a daunting task.

By turns witty, arrogant, defiant and defensive, Eva records the details of her life in an attempt to find clues ... something that answers the provocative question, why? Where did it begin? Why did her morose and inverted son plan and stage a massacre in a school gymnasium? As she slowly sifts the chronology of her life ... the details of her marriage, revisiting every major and minor conflict, she searches for the flaw that led to disaster.

As Eva recounts her successful career as writer of a travel book series entitled “A Wing and a Prayer” — books which provided guidance to “economically disadvantaged travelers” — Eva recalls the factors attending her decision to have a baby: how she became increasingly aware of her biological clock (she is in her late 30s) and develops a devious scheme to have a baby despite Franklin’s ambivalence about parenthood. However, since they are wealthy, both would-be parents are confident that they can provide an exceptionally stable environment for a child. Eva plans Kevin’s birth as carefully as she orchestrates and markets her travel books.

However, there are disquieting factors from the beginning. Kevin rejects his mother’s breast and will only accept formula. Eventually, he also rejects toilet training and wears diapers (which he soils at an alarming rate) until he is nearly 6. Babysitters and care-takers quit. Daycare teachers complain of Kevin’s “asocial behavior,” and though he resists learning to talk, he perfects an irritating ability to “mimic” his mother’s speech in a sing-song voice — “Nah, neh, nah, nah, Neh, naw ...”— a talent that she suspects is a calculated attempt to anger her. Distressed by Kevin’s listless manner and his growing hostility to others, Eva begins to wonder if it is possible for a child to actually resent being born. Certainly, there seems to be little in life that pleases the sullen boy. By the time he begins school, he has already developed a bored and indifferent response to all attempts to elicit his interest: “Whatever,” he says, giving the response of the jaded and bored teenager.

Gradually, Eva realizes that instead of suffering from “attention deficient” or any of a host of mental impairments, Kevin is very intelligent. In addition, his indifference to his school, family, clothing and music is genuine. Ruefully, Eva notes that she had her son tested for Downs Syndrome, but “did not have him tested for malice, spiteful indifference, or for congenital meanness.” In time, it becomes evident that Kevin sees the world as “pointless,” viewing it with either hostility or repugnance.

However, he has an ominous fascination for the rash of school shootings that are happening with alarming frequency. He becomes a kind of authority on each incident. He can list all of the “vital statistics” — age of shooter, number of victims, choice of weapons, etc. — smugly noting that he is contemptuous of suicides and killers who leave elaborate notes. Kevin prefers motives that are “unknown, hidden and/or mysterious.”

In conjunction with Kevin’s growing antipathy for the world around him, Eva is alarmed by a series of “accidents” and disturbing events in which her son may have played a part. Kevin’s sister is blinded in one eye as a result of a suspicious accident; an unknown person plants incriminating evidence in the lockers of popular students, evidenced that suggests that they are budding terrorists or racists. Kevin acquires a “friend” who appears to be as maladjusted as he is, and the two boys create a plot that involves accusing a teacher of sexual improprieties; the local police show up inquiring about an alleged “prank.” Someone is dropping rocks and bricks from an overpass onto motorists.

Unfortunately, Eva’s growing distress is not shared by Franklin. What she sees as danger signals, Franklin sees as the robust vitality of a growing boy. When Eva confronts Kevin, Franklin invariably springs to his defense and assumes the role of a tolerant father who encourages his son’s interest in hunting by buying him an assortment of weapons ... including a crossbow. Franklin also promotes a series of father-son activities such as camping and visiting historic sites … including Vietnam. Perhaps the most poignant aspect of this relationship is the growing evidence that Kevin despises his father and will create a special punishment for him.

As the fateful date approaches — April 8, 1999 — Eva becomes increasingly anxious. Later, she will recall in detail the last family breakfast. Especially noteworthy is Kevin’s remark about his mother’s affectionate goodbye to Celia, the sweet and timid daughter. “Sure you don’t want to say goodbye to Celia one more time?” In the years to come, she will wonder if Kevin was hinting about the unthinkable acts that were to come.

We Need to Talk about Kevin will probably become a celebrated and hotly-debated book in the coming months. The fact that there is already a movie version in the theaters, featuring the brilliant actress Tilda Swinton, suggests that Hollywood is mindful of the fact that both the film and the book may prove to be “significant.” Eva, faced with the decision of hiring a lawyer to defend Kevin, observes that “We live in a time where lawyers see trials as games, not morality plays.” She is right, of course, when she continues, “We live in a country that does not discriminate between fame and infamy.”

A number of critics are comparing We Need to Talk about Kevin to works such as Rosemary’s Baby, and admittedly, I was reminded of a Ray Bradbury short story, “The Little Assassin” and a marvelous book by William March (circa 1950s), The Bad Seed. However, Lionel Shriver’s novel is no mere “spook” tale. Although it is a disquieting novel with a “Grand Guignol” ending, there is more here than a momentary scare. It poses a provocative question: why are these massacres happening? Is there a hidden cord, a motif that bounds them together? Is it, as Shriver suggests, a desperate yearning to become “special” in some way in a world where they feel both purposeless ... and anonymous?


We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver. Harper Perennial 2012. 500 pages.

Well-crafted stories about the dark side of life

Several months ago, I reviewed Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, and received an unusual number of responses from readers. In general, the responses were positive. However, there were a few readers who found Woodrell’s description of Appalachian (Ozark) culture distorted and misguided. However, others defended Woodrell’s descriptions of Appalachian life in Winter’s Bone as painfully accurate.  A few spoke with some bitterness about their experiences as “newcomers.”  At length, the whole debate wound down, but it is by no means resolved.

Now comes a new work by Woodrell, a collection of twelve short stories entitled The Outlaw Album. Like many fans of this author, I had thought that Winter’s Bone, despite the bleakness of Ree Dolly’s life, contained a powerful redemptive theme — one that suggested that this teenager would not only survive, but would become the means of saving her family. In effect, there was something innate in Ree Dolly’s genes that would sustain her. She would find a way to keep the land and protect her brothers.

Well, there is nothing in The Outlaw Album that speaks of redemption. These beautifully crafted short stories nestle together like 12 black pearls in a velvet-lined box ... luminous, lethal and uncompromisingly dark. The themes are familiar ones: a conflict with a new neighbor that turns into a murder; a wheel-chair bound serial killer; a campground manager who finds himself in a deadly conflict with a marauding gang; a storeowner, grieving for his missing daughter, and becoming increasingly paranoid as the years pass, wondering if his daughter’s killer is one of his customers. Then, there is the man who sets fire to a real estate development in an attempt to return the land to the way it looked before the developers came. On and on, these spare, dark tales unwind ... each a testament to the infinite variations in the nature of evil. Is it inherited or imported?  Is it a random virus or a judgment?

The protagonist of “Black Step,” an Iraqi veteran who has decided to re-enlist, relates the tragic aftermath of his father’s suicide and how his ailing mother painted the back-step black because it was stained with his father’s blood. After a life-time of raising livestock, the Girard farm is failing and is surrounded by new homes and real estate developments. Before leaving, the Iraqi veteran notes that the farm and the family cemetery appears to be sinking out of sight and observes that he “likes graves that disappear.”

“Night Stand” is possibly the most frightening story in this collection. It is narrated by a man named Pelham, who awakes one night to find a naked man standing by his bed growling. Seizing a knife, Pelham stabs the man to death. Belatedly, Pelham learns that the dead man was an ex-Marine (like Pelham). Eventually he comes to feel that he has been manipulated by a deranged man who wanted to commit suicide. In his search to find why the dead man “selected” him, Pelham befriends the victim’s father. As a consequence, both learn a heartbreaking truth.

“Two Things” proves to be possibly the most despairing story in this collection. Essentially, it defines a meeting between a social worker and the father of a boy named Cecil who is up for parole. The social worker has brought a scrapbook filled with Cecil’s “creative works” ... poems and drawings that allegedly bear witness to Cecil’s innate creative talent. The social worker wants the father to speak on behalf of his son, but she learns that Cecil’s family no longer feels that he can be redeemed. The father says, “He ain’t getting no more poems off of us.”

“The Horse in Our History” attempts to reconcile all of the contradictory folklore in a small Texas town regarding a legendary horse, a black jockey and a Afro-American prostitute named Dyna Flo. Was there an historic race? Was the dead man found by the railroad tracks the jockey? Did the town die because Dyna Flo was ostracized? Was Bleu the name of the horse or the owner?  Is it possible that the horse never existed and the fabulous tale told by the town folks is merely a desperate effort to keep the past alive by making it colorful?

“Woe to Live On” recounts the history of Coleman Younger, an enigmatic outlaw who rode with Quantrill’s Raiders and participated in some of the most horrifying atrocities of the Civil War. Coleman’s biographer, a man named Roedel, attempts to “honor” Younger and his vicious companions by carving driftwood images — a process that he describes as a means “whereby the large is rendered small.” As Roedel whittles and talks about the life of Coleman Younger, we learn that Roedel was a party to some of the war’s most shameful events, including mass executions and scalpings.

Particularly well done is “Dream Spot,” which relates the final episode in the life of a serial killer named Dalrymple and his female companion, Janet. Dalrymple specializes in the murder of hitch-hikers and unsuspecting motorists — that is until this final day when he finds a woman in a long coat standing on a lonely road, a woman who seems to be “predestined” to meet him here on this day.

The character Sleepy in the story “One United” enjoys his job of intimidating a farm family who are scheduled to testify in court. “Do I smell your barn burning?” asks Sleepy as he stands on the farmer’s porch. The frightened family realizes that if they speak out about some of the criminal acts carried out by the banks, they will lose their farm.

I found no stories that could be described as “uplifting and hopeful” in The Outlaw Album. Instead, I found 12 dark fables that provide proof that the world is going to hell. Like Cormac McCarthy, Woodrell not only sees evidence that the world is spiraling into chaos; he believes that we are long past a point where we could reverse the approaching apocalypse. It seems unlikely that there is a significant audience for a message like that.

The Outlaw Album is a paradox: dark and depressing, but beautifully crafted.


The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell. Little, Brown and Company, 2011. 168 pages

Intrigue, violence and opium in Oslo

The Leopard marks the eighth crime novel featuring the chain-smoking alcoholic Inspector Harry Hole of the Oslo Police Department, an agency that is rife with political intrigue, corruption and ineptitude. However, since Hole is immune to politics, doesn’t take bribes and has a reputation for always solving murder cases, he is the department’s calendar boy ... a fact that makes him despised by many of his fellow officers.

Somewhere between the last chapter of The Snowman, and the opening pages of The Leopard, Harry has managed to acquire yet another offensive (but secret) addiction: opium. In fact, his addiction is the direct result of the mental and physical traumas he suffered (he lost a finger and ended up with a broken jaw that left him badly disfigured) in tracking down Norway’s most notorious serial killer, the Snowman. 

Consequently, The Leopard is a sequel to Nesbø’s previous crime novel, The Snowman. In fact, the captured Snowman, who is slowly and painfully dying in prison, plays a significant role in the search for the new serial killer. (In a scene which is reminiscent of “The Silence of Lambs,” Harry Hole bargains with the Snowman for some insight into the mind of the new killer.)

As The Leopard opens, the reader learns that Harry has resigned and fled to Hong Kong where he has become an addict who spends most of his time trying to evade his debtors (he gambles). In fact, Harry seems well on his way to a nameless death in a Hong Kong slum when Kaja Solness, a police woman from Oslo, finds him. She has two messages for Harry: another serial killer is on the loose in Oslo; and Harry’s father is dying. Allegedly indifferent to yet another bestial killer who has dispatched two victims by a cunningly constructed device called Leopold’s Apple, Hole responds by finding a way to smuggle cigarettes/opium to Oslo and returns home and to Oleg Hole’s hospital bed.

For the uninitiated, it should be noted that Harry Hole is, in every sense of the phrase, “a work of art.” Women always comment on the fact that he is “Tall (6-foot, 4-inches) ugly and blond.” He is also a shameless admirer of American pop culture and prides himself on his encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood crime films (“Dirty Harry,” “French Connection” and the “Godfather” trilogy.) He plays Coltraine and Charlie Parker jazz, collects bluegrass and is currently reading a biography of Hank Williams Sr. His taste in art runs to painters like Edvard Munch and most of his favorite writers are (like Harry) manic depressives (Charles Bukowski, Jim Thompson).

His love life tends to be steamy and violent. He is totally devoted to a Russian paramour, Rakel, who is afraid to live with him because Harry’s arch-enemies invariably try to kill her and her son, Oleg. (The Snowman took them as hostages). However, Harry’s devotion to Rakel does not prevent him from sleeping with a bevy of sultry ladies, including Kaja Solness.

The Leopard has an intricate and convoluted plot which alternates between frantic attempts to intercept the killer. Each time Harry Hole learns the identity of a potential victim, he finds himself enmeshed in an interdepartmental power struggle instigated by a ruthless and ambitious official, Michael Bellman, who attempts to seize control of Oslo law enforcement agency by creating a competitive department called Krypos. For the political chess game to be a success, Bellman schemes to discredit both the existing police department and Harry Hole. As a consequence, Harry finds himself frustrated at every turn as Bellman contrives to interfere with the investigation and take personal credit for subsequent arrests.

When the number of fatalities increases to eight, Harry discovers that four of the victims spent a night in an isolated mountain retreat and ... the killer was also there. Hole and Kaja narrowly escape death when a scheme to draw the killer back to the cabin fails. Trapped in the cabin, Harry and Kaja are buried in an avalanche (created by the killer). Time and time again, Harry confronts suspects only to discover that they are not the killer he seeks but are often guilty of other crimes.

Of all of the Harry Hole novels, The Leopard proves to be the most complex. The plot becomes a tangled mass of intrigue with an atmosphere that grows dark and menacing. In addition, the excessive number of characters makes it difficult to remember who did what to whom ....and why.

Before Harry’s final confrontation, the reader may come to empathize with Harry Hole’s sense of disgust and loathing at the world around him. Certainly, The Leopard contains an excessive number of people who are motivated by self-interest: power, greed and envy. In all of the previous novels, Harry Hole has “got his man,” but each time, he has paid for his success by physical and mental suffering. It is no surprise then to discover that in the final, terrifying pages of The Leopard, a drugged Harry wakes in an abandoned church to find something painful in his mouth.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

The Leopard by Jo Nesbø. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. 517 pages.

A ‘kafka-esque’ story that offers redemption

Saddle up, kind hearts. I have a winner. Like most good things, this book came to me from a good friend who is in a position to read books that I would normally never see. Knowing something of my eccentric tastes it literature, my friend sent me an urgent dispatch, saying I should purchase it immediately. So I did and here we are.

Brodeck’s Report meets all the requirements of qualifying as a beautifully-crafted French novel (translated by John Cullen) that not only has the power to enthrall, but also posses some significant questions about humanity’s condition: are we blessed, doomed or merely irrelevant?

From the first page, Brodeck’s Report reflects that “timeless” quality that we associate with fables and fairy tales. Claudel’s characters move through a Brothers Grimm world in which the inhabitants of a small village are identified by their occupation: Schloss, the innkeeper; Diodeme, the teacher; Orschwir, the butcher; Cathor, the pottery-mender. The time is uncertain, and although there are distinct references to WWII atrocities (concentration camps) and 20th century technology (Brodeck owns an ancient typewriter), the novel’s small village seems timeless — a world where the necessities of existence (food, shelter, procreation) follow the ancient rituals that attend seasons. Change only comes to Claudel’s village with invasions and war.

Brodeck, the reluctant protagonist, has been given the dubious honor of writing a report regarding a mysterious incident that occurred at the local inn – the murder of a stranger who had recently arrived in the village. Since Brodeck owns an old typewriter (the only one in the village), he has been ordered to write an account of the crime. He is reluctant to do so. As time passes and the inquiries about his report become more impatient, the reader begins to sense that something sinister has occurred in the past.

As Brodeck becomes increasingly paranoid, he begins to write about events from his own past, events so horrifying he has attempted to erase them.

Eventually, we learn that Brodeck is not a native of the village. Although he has a family (his mother, wife and daughter) and has spent most of his life in this village, he is aware that his neighbors consider him — like the stranger who was recently murdered at the inn — “Anderer” meaning “he came from over there.”  In other words, the villagers consider both Brodeck and the murdered stranger someone “who is among us, but not of us.”

Brodeck came to the village as a child and grew to become a valued member of his community. In fact, when he is an adult, the village elders send Brodeck to a nearby city where he will learn skills that might prove useful in the village. The homesick Brodeck yearned to return to the village, and his beautiful wife Emelia, and finally he does so. However, he is troubled by events that he had witnessed in the city where he had seen people attacked, called “Fremder,” and driven from their homes. Eventually, he learned that “Fremder,” like the word “Anderer,” was an offensive word used to describe “unwanted foreigners.”

For several years, Brodeck is blissfully happy in his village. Then, war erupts in the city and eventually an army appears. An officer orders the mayor to “cleanse” his village or suffer the consequences. Bewildered and desperate, the mayor consults the town elders and together they create a list of “Fremders” — eccentrics, misfits, people who are not “native to the region. Brodeck is one of them.

Brodeck’s three years in the prison are filled with unspeakable horror. Although he survives, he is reduced to a bestial state and witnesses crimes that will haunt him for the rest of his life. Indeed, he is a participant in shameful acts. He remembers that his guards force him to walk naked on all four like an animal and taught him to repeat the mantra, “I am nothing.”

When the war is over, Brodeck returns to the village to discover that his wife is now a mute due to a brutal gang-rape, and that she now has a daughter, Poupchette — a child that Brodeck readily accepts as his own. Slowly, he rebuilds his life despite that fact that he knows that his neighbors have previously cast him out as a scapegoat.

So we come to Brodeck’s task — a report that gives an objective account of how (and why) the stranger at the inn was murdered. Brodeck “sees” the crime, but did not participate in it. He describes how the “Anderer” arrived in the village with a pampered horse and donkey, acquired lodging at the inn where he ate and drank to excess. Initially, he is accepted and a number of the villagers attempt to befriend him. The Anderer listens, but says little, and as the weeks turns into months, the villagers realize that he makes careful notes of all he sees and hears. At length, when the visitor shows no inclination to continue his journey to other towns and cities, the village begins to resent his presence.

On the night of his death, the Anderer treats the village to a kind of party complete with lavish food and wine. He even distributes a kind of personal “gift” to his guests .... a drawing that manages to capture the essence of each individual. Far from being pleased, the villagers destroy their paintings and their mood turns dangerous. Who is he? Why is he here? Is he judging the people of the town? Is he condemning them? When the villagers draw their knives and surround the Anderer, Brodeck withdraws, becoming a witness.

Brodeck’s Report is a dark parable. There is much here that could be termed “Kafkasque” since the novel’s atmosphere is thick with a kind of sinister threat, as though something unspeakable was about to happen. In addition, much of the action reminds me of the films of Michael Haneke, the German/Austrian director, who takes great pleasure in presenting dark tales of betrayal and moral decay (“The White Ribbon”).

Despite the sobering message behind Brodeck’s Report, this novel is probably a masterpiece. Admittedly, it is bleak, but it is also redemptive, for it affirms some essential goodness in mankind, something that rises despite overwhelming odds, and goes on. Brodeck does that. Like Aeneas fleeing Troy, Brodeck takes up his aging mother and his mute wife and his daughter, and he walks out of the village. He will start again somewhere ... where, doubtless, someone will call him “Fremder.”

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Disturbing crime novel covers some dark ground

Deer hunters call it “field dressing.” The dead deer is suspended head down from a sturdy tree limb and the hunter eviscerates the deer, leaving all internal organs on the ground. The carcass is much lighter after the organs are removed, and the hunter can transport it home easily.

However, the subjects of field dressing in The Blue Hour are young women, victims of a murder/rapist who hides behind the driver’s seat of their automobiles. After murdering them, he hangs their bodies from trees (frequently in Cleveland National Forest, Orange County, Calif.) and drains their blood.

When the first murder sites are discovered, the police are baffled by the fact that there are no bodies ... just a patch of blood-soaked soil. Usually, the victim’s purse shows up – one of those large one with handles (sometimes delivered to police headquarters) – and each one is packed with the victim’s intestines.

It is probably not surprising, in view of the grisly details given above, that T. Jefferson Parker’s The Blue Hour has acquired a reputation as this prolific crime/fiction writer’s most gruesome work. Readily acknowledged as one of America’s most gifted writers of fast-paced and tension-loaded action, Parker works are usually character-driven (L.A. Outlaws, Iron River, Triggerman’s Dance). In all fairness, although The Blue Hour contains two remarkable protagonists – Tim Hess, a semi-retired veteran cop dying of lung cancer, and Merci Rayburn, a young, short-tempered and very ambitious woman who has vowed to excel in law enforcement before she is 42 – readers are likely to find that the dark and chilling interior of the “Purse Snatcher” killer’s mind dominates this novel.

Tim Hess has been divorced three times and now finds himself alone and childless. As a consequence, he begins to perceive his involvement in the Purse Snatcher murders as an opportunity to make his life count for something. His investigation is slow and methodical; his 40-year career gives him a tenuous instinct that serves him well.

Early in the investigation, he begins to build a file of tenuous details: evidence that the victim’s car had been “jacked” with a slim jim, the frayed bark of a tree limb, a tiny fuse found in a victim’s car that had no reason to be there. Tim’s investigation contrasts radically with Merci’s aggressive impatience, yet this angry woman who pistol-whips and abuses witnesses, drives too fast and leaves a trail of offended citizens every place she goes also makes significant contributions to this search for a killer who is striking with increasing frequency. Tim and Merci are a mismatched pair, but they gradually build a working relationship that becomes deeply personal.

Like all of T. Jefferson Parker’s novels, The Blue Hour shows evidence of meticulous research. Some of the most unpleasant passages in this novel prove to be the most fascinating. Patterson’s previous works have contained marvelous arcane facts about guns, automobiles and California history. The Blue Hour bristles with fascinating and disturbing facts about abnormal psychology.

For example, one of the most offensive characters interviewed by Tim and Marci is Matamoros Colesceau, a Rumanian who is a convicted rapist and has been paroled provided that he allows himself to be “chemically castrated.” Colesceau is injected and interviewed each week, and as time passes, Colesceau loses his hair, his genitals shrink and his breasts enlarge. Due to the fact that the doctors treating him feel that he still represents a possible threat to others, his residence is revealed by the local media. The message is: “You need to know that you have a convicted rapist living near you.” Colesceau loses his job and is facing eviction. In addition, his neighbors have organized a 24-hour-a-day surveillance and protest outside his apartment.

Although Colesceau’s crimes were against elderly women and despite the fact that he is incapable of sexual performance, the public outcry orchestrated by the media brands him as dangerous. Tim and Merci must maintain a watch on Colesceau despite the tact that their search for the Purse Snatcher Killer requires interviews with possible witnesses and an exhaustive search for a silver van, an embalming machine and a man in a cowboy hat named Bill. Indeed, this frantic search becomes increasingly surreal as Tim and Merci come close to the final revelation.

Several years ago, I read another novel (English) that dealt with the same subject as The Blue Hour. In this instance, the criminal, a convicted pedophile, was living in a London suburb with his father when his cover was blown by the local media. Based on an actual event, the author described how the pedophile’s life was affected. The protests became more and more violent, and eventually it became obvious that some of the protesters were intent on mayhem and murder. Attacks were made on the pedophile’s home and some people attempted to burn his apartment.

Although The Blue Hour ended before civic violence broke out, I was left wondering about those happy campers — those folks who were camped on Colesceau’s lawn, sharing punch and cookies, passing out religious tracts and waiting for “the beast” to emerge. It may be that some insight into the morality of this murky affair is offered by the title of this novel. According to Wikipedia, “the blue hour” comes twice each day. It is that period in the morning and the evening when it is neither night or day. It is a time when it is difficult to clearly discern objects and the world seems nebulous and dim.

So, after all is over and done, the readers of The Blue Hour may not be left with just warm feeling for Tim and Merci (they certainly deserve to be viewed that way!), but also the image that may linger is “the despicable monster” trapped in his home and an angry mob at his door ... like an image from an old Frankenstein film. There is also an irony in the fact that both Tim and Colesceau are being subjected to a chemical treatment that makes their life unpleasant. As poor Tim deals with chemotherapy and Colesceau copes with Depo-Provera, both lose their hair, their appetite and much of life’s joy. 

In the end, both of these men die. Colesceau’s going will cause the world to breathe easier. Tim will be remembered because during his career, he saved three lives ... four if you count Merci ... and five if you count the baby.


The Blue Hour, by T. Jefferson Parker. Hyperion, 2000. 464 pages

Could we bring Shangri-La back to the mountains?

One fall when I was 9 years old, just about the time WWII ended, the Jackson County Elementary School was visited by a truck loaded with magic and magicians — at least, it seemed that way to me. When we peeped through the window on the second floor, we saw a truck with an elaborate sign: THE CAROLINA PLAYMAKERS! That sign meant absolutely nothing to us, but the people who climbed out of it left us stunned. There were lots of bright colors, parasols, soldiers, women with wigs, some folks that appeared to be Oriental and a guy wearing an aviator’s helmet. Maybe it was a circus!

Within a short time, we were herded into our creaky old auditorium and our teachers began to check the attendance book calling our names out so that they echoed. Nobody had escaped; in fact, all of us were filled with curiosity. When Mr. Cope, our principal, announced that a troupe of actors and traveled from Chapel Hill to perform a play for us, we were even more perplexed since we knew nothing of a place called Chapel Hill, much less what a “troupe of actors” might be.

There was a lot of coming and going, and I sat with my best friend, Charlie Kay, listening to the thump and rumble behind the curtain. Ah, but then the music began; the curtain opened and we were astonished into silence for the next hour.

I’m sure that the majority of us had never seen a play and perhaps that is the primary reason for its effect on us. It was a dramatization of James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, and we were transported from Sylva to some mystical village in the Himalayas (Shangri-La) where people wore huge coats and monks went about chanting. Gradually, we understood that the pilot was in love with this girl in a magnificent dress, and when the two walked together in the moonlight (yes, suddenly it was night on the stage!) and we learned that these people never died ... if they never left the village.

But, the pilot did leave, and in the final scene, he flew away. The beautiful girl stood on the stage and waved as her boyfriend flew away, the sound of his plane going from a great roar to a faint hum.

When the play was over, the Carolina Playmakers invited us on stage, where we were amazed to see that the set was painted cardboard. When I asked to see the plane, a stagehand laughed and pushed a piece of cardboard into an electric fan.  “ERRRRROOOOOMMMM!” it said.  That was the day I began to dream of magic and the art of making fantasies and dreams which could get up and walk around.

When I went to college, I learned how to build stage sets, hang lights and construct my own Shangri-La.  When I began teaching high school English, I took one-act plays to regional and state festivals where I saw my students not only win awards, but become young people who had learned to speak with confidence. Invariably, their experience with drama had a positive effect on their character.

Now, I come to the “real” purpose of describing the night a 9-year-old kid visited a cardboard Shangri-La. For some 40 years, drama and theater enjoyed a privileged position in North Carolina arts. North Carolina was praised for the quality of its theater and playwrights like Paul Green crafted plays that were admired by the rest of the country. Educators readily acknowledged that drama played a vital part in developing confidence. But now, something has changed.

We still have extravagant musicals and thriving summer stocks that “entertain” thousands of audiences. The majority of our small towns have active community theaters. However, for several years now, something has been quietly draining away. Perhaps this is only happening in my region. Is my experience unique? Is it not true that one-act drama festivals have disappeared?

Since I am a playwright, I am especially sensitive to the fact that grassroots theater seems to be endangered. More than a decade ago, I could go to any literary festival and find a covey of playwrights. Back then, I might even be asked to teach a workshop. When it comes time to hand out the accolades, there are glowing awards for novelists, poets, even essayists, but I haven’t seen the work of a dramatist acknowledged in a very long time.

A decade ago, although resources for playwrights were limited, I could still find a handful of organizations that promoted North Carolina playwrights and drama. They are gone now, although Google can still find a few of their abandoned websites floating somewhere in space.

What happened? Did the state of the economy eliminate theater as an art form? Certainly, North Carolina is still vitally alive in terms of the “other literary arts.” Novelists and poets are thriving. Universities and arts organizations continue to sponsor celebrations and book signings, but drama workshops and awards are missing. Why?

Maybe they are still out there and I am just “out of touch.” Or maybe a one-act play competition for high school students has been rendered an anachronism. It could be that today’s young people are content to watch from the audience. Perhaps they are all watching “Dancing With the Stars.”

Frankly, I had rather restore the magic that the Carolina Playmakers brought to my school some 60 years ago. I would like to see that dilapidated truck pull into a parking lot in Graham or Clay counties where a group of elementary kids watched, transfixed as the moon and stars over Shangri-La are carried inside. Would that old magic work now? Would the kids cut off their cell phones long enough to watch “Lost Horizon”?

Yeah, I think maybe they would. I would like to think that if we restored the event, they would come. Am I wrong?

(Gary Carden is writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A hunt for a murderer and some peace

I am a major Dan Simmons fan, but I had some reservations about signing on for this multi-layered, post-apocalyptic novel about life in the USA following The Day It All Hit the Fan. To tell you the truth, reading Flashback has been a hard jog down a rocky road. Simmons has never been a sunshine and roses author, as those of you who read (and loved) The Terror and Drood well know. However, this time out, the author’s grim and daunting worldview plumbs deeply into the lower depths of human nature.

A devastating Islamic nuclear attack has reduced America’s major cities to radioactive rubble, and a brutal invasion quickly divides most of the Midwest and the western coast into isolated fiefdoms controlled by Muslims and Japanese warlords; Texas becomes an independent country with its own flag, militia and constitution; Mexico decides to “reclaim” all of the land that had been taken from them and begins an aggressive invasion of New Mexico and the adjoining states. Surviving Midwestern Jews are herded into a sprawling camp known as “Six Flags Over the Jews” (on the site of an old theme park) and a terrifying jihad destroys Israel and six million inhabitants. American military forces are retrained by Japan as mercenaries and sent to fight in a protracted war in China.

All of these radical changes are merely some 20 years in the future. However, even the most surreal conditions described by Simmons are the projected outcome of conditions that have their roots in 20011. In case you are wondering, the economy does not recover and Medicare bottoms out. Simmons’ characters deliver harangues about how the world’s greatest superpower was brought down by a combination of governmental incompetence and public apathy. Right-wing radio programs are filled with hysterical rants; drug-crazed teenagers vandalize and rob; and America’s resources are being harvested by foreign powers. We have gone to hell. In fact, the Southeastern U. S. doesn’t even exist anymore – it is never mentioned in Flashback! (Perhaps it is a barbaric land filled with degenerate hillbillies.)

I have neglected to mention the significance of the title. Flashback is the name of drug to which 80 percent of the population is addicted. Although the drug is illegal, it is both cheap and available. In fact, there is evidence that suggests that major world powers will see to it that nothing interferes with the distribution of a drug that keeps the major part of America’s population dozing in thousands of flashback caves where they relive the past. Under the influence of flashback an addict can vividly experience the birth of a child that is long dead, honeymoons, athletic accomplishments and memorable/triumphant events – any action in which the addict felt vividly alive. Under the influence of flashback, death can be defeated ... for an hour or two.

The protagonist of Flashback is Nick Bottoms, an ex-cop living in an abandoned shopping mall in Denver. Nick, who occasionally encounters people who comment on the connection between his name and Nicolas Bottom, the weaver (and ass) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – this Nick has lost it all: Dara, his beautiful wife who died in a freakish car accident; Val, a son that he has abandoned (the embittered Val lives with his grandfather); a promising career as a detective; and, yes, his self-respect. Now, he spends every available moment under flashback with Dara and his 10-year-old son.

Now, over five years later, Nick’s flashback sessions are rudely interrupted by Hiroshi Nakamura, a billionaire warlord who wants Nick to investigate the murder of his son, Keigo. Put under continual surveillance by an astonishing array of advanced gadgetry and Hiroshi’s security officer, Hideki Sato (who resembles Odd Job in the James Bond movie), Nick reluctantly agrees, hoping to finance a lifetime supply of flashback. Despite the fact that Keigo’s murder has been investigated repeatedly, Nick agrees to retrace his steps and re-examine the original witnesses – especially those who were attending Keigo’s opulent party on the night of his murder.

At the time of his death, Keigo was completing a documentary film on the use of flashback in America. Nick Bottoms begins to run into rumors of another drug more powerful than flashback that would enable users to manipulate and enhance the past. In addition, when Nick uses flashback to attend the Keigo’s party, he discovers an indistinct figure standing in the background of Keigo’s film ... a figure that he believes is his wife Dara. Why is she there? Nick’s determination to find the answer to this riddle provides the motivation that he needs to solve Keigo’s murder and return to a meaningful life.

However, in the process, Nick Bottom will descend into some of the most nightmarish landscapes ever described in speculative fiction. For example, Coors Field in Denver has become an open-air prison camp which houses the most dangerous criminals in America. Visiting the prison is especially risky for law enforcement personnel like Nick, but since one of his key witnesses is Delroy N. Brown (the “N” standing for the forbidden racial term that has been restored to conversation in Nick’s world and used by everyone) is in the Coors Field prison, Nick goes, clad in Kevlar-plus armor and an armed guard, plus a licensed sniper who does surveillance with a state-of-the-arts rifle ready to shoot any attacker.

Simmons is at his best in suspenseful passages such as this one. There are other nerve-wrecking passages, including an assassination attempt at the Disney Center for the Arts ... the luckless, 16-year-old Val joins the flash gang that plans this ill-conceived venture and is the sole survivor. Along the way there is a trip to the Denver Landfill Number 9, the place where thousands of nameless dead are dumped each week.

Much of Flashback consists of following two journeys: (1) Nick’s search for answers to Keigo’s murder and his wife’s mysterious connection with this crime and (2) Val’s attempts to be reunited with his father (and perhaps kill him). In time, these two treks will converge and three generations (Leonard, the grandfather, Nick, the father and Val, the son) will join forces to face the “final conflict.” There are some surprises here and some of them may strain the reader’s “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Amid all of this darkness and subterfuge, there are patches of brilliant narrative. There is also an excess of deadly details about the power of automobile engines, the magnification strength of sniper scopes, and the marked improvements of military weapons (speed, destructive power, weight, etc.) All of this is verification of Simmons’ awesome research.

Finally, I was pleased to learn that Nick Bottoms comments on the solving of the Jon Benet Ramsey murder in Bolder, Colo. (1996). Although Simmons does not reveal the identity of the killer, I was gratified to know that this crime will finally be solved.

Flashback by Dan Simmons. Brown and Company, 2011. 553 pages.

Professor George Herring could always flip the switch

During the five years that I spent at Western Carolina University (1954-58 and 1965), I had the good fortune to attend classes under some extremely gifted but eccentric instructors. There were two Rhodes scholars that passed through the university like a summer cyclone, leaving a modest amount of wreckage in their wake.

One of them would sometimes appear on campus at midnight wearing a Scottish kilt. He sang Robert Burns songs and did a raucous little dance down the sidewalk between Hoey auditorium and Stillwell (some witnesses claimed that he did not wear underwear). Another, sporting a magnificent beard and speaking in a deep baritone, told us raunchy stories and taught us to write our names in Greek.

Since this was a “beardless era” at the university, he was told to shave. According to the campus gossip, he told the administration that he had a rare disease and that if he shaved, he would die. Some were skeptical, but they left him alone. There are numerous stories about this venerable scholar who managed to both offend and delight numerous teachers and administrators.

However, the most interesting personality in this motley crew was Dr. George Herring. Unlike his colorful associates, George survived ... or at least, he chose to stay. As a consequence, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of his former students scattered across the United States that remember him with affection and admiration. Certainly, there has never been another like him in my experience.

George’s attire and physical appearance was memorable. He sometimes sported a ragged tweed jacket, but weather permitting, he usually wore colorful (striped) T-shirts, wrinkled pants and sneakers (not tennis shoes) and no socks. He always seemed to be in need of a shave and his hair was always in such disarray I used to imagine that the last thing he did each morning before he came to his first class was to massage his head until his hair was a total mess.

In the classroom, he was filled with a kind of spastic energy, charging aimlessly about the room and talking excitedly. A student may have signed for a course in medieval literature, but George would be delivering a brilliant lecture on astrology or Chinese dictionaries.  Somehow, his students never felt cheated because somewhere in all of that constant flood of arcane knowledge, he would learn a great deal about medieval literature.

What rendered his students rapt was George’s feverish excitement. He loved what he was doing, and as he raced back and forth between the students and the blackboard, he laughed, wrote significant quotes on the blackboard, stopping occasionally to rake his disheveled hair into even greater disorder.  Sometimes, there would be sudden bursts of anger, directed at some disputable idea or person (Erskine Caldwell, predestination, etc.), but it would vanish as quickly as it had appeared, leaving us, his enthralled audience and George, an amiable elf. This fellow was wonderful!

Over the years, I had heard people talk about George’s “Everyman” lecture which was part of his course on Medieval Drama. The lecture had acquired a kind of “folklore” status at the university and each year, as the day approached for the Everyman Lecture, people who were not enrolled in the class began to call. I had the good fortune to hear this presentation twice and I can attest to the fact that there were attentive listeners standing in the room ... some from other universities.

Due to the fact that I was a theater major, I tended to perceive George as “theatrical.” When we were all in our seats, staring at the door in anticipation, George entered wearing his ragged tweed jacket and carrying a little attache case ... an item that I perceived as a “prop.” George began by telling us that he had attended Northwestern University and that each year, the university staged an outdoor version of the old play, “Everyman.”

As he recalled it, the stage was built at a point where two rivers converged and the banks of the rivers had a sound system, consisting of numerous loudspeakers. The play began as the sun was setting.  In the opening scene, a character named Everyman” was in a tavern with a bar maid in his lap drinking and singing. Then, suddenly the summons came. “EVERYMAN!” and that word echoed down those two rivers: “Everyman! Everyman! Everyman ....”  Then, Everyman stands, a bit frightened and says, “Who Calls?”  The answer, loud and echoing is “Death calls, Everyman.”

At this point, Dr. George Herring goes into full performance mode. He tells us the story of how Everyman begs for time, pleading that he does not want to go to his final judgement alone. Could he have time to seek out companions to go with him? Death agrees, but notes that Everyman must return promptly within an hour. In a series of frantic visits, Everyman goes to his companions who have names like Money, Beauty, Power, Love, Family, Strength, etc.

Regretfully, they all decline, stating that on this last journey they cannot accompany their friend. “You must go alone,” they say. As Everyman prepares to leave, a small frail figure named Good Deeds appears and agrees to accompany Everyman. He apologizes for the fact that he is so weak, noting that Everyman has neglected him all of his life, but finally, the two figures climb a nearby hill where Death waits by an open grave with a ladder. As total darkness comes, gravediggers with lanterns surround the open grave as Everyman descends.

Now, here is the thing. We had all read the play, “Everyman” in the textbook. Although we may have found it a bit grim, I am quite sure that none of us found the experience “riveting.” Ah, but Dr. George Herring’s version left us limp and speechless. As George read the lines, as he pled with his friends to come with him, we were transfixed by his words. As Herring finished his lecture, he picked up his notes, dropped them in the little attache case, stepped to the door and opened it. He then flipped the light switch, leaving us in darkness and closed the door. For a single moment, we sat silent and motionless .... and then the bell rang for the end of the class.

I have often wondered about that final moment. Did Dr. Herring have his lecture timed to interface with the flip of a switch and the closing of a door?

I do remember that no one moved for a while.

George is gone. The halls that he once walked and the classrooms that he once made vibrant with ideas an images are now filled with a different breed of scholars. There are no memorials outside of a few personal tributes by former students over the years.

However, I do believe that golden moment when George Herring closed the door and flipped that light switch is the most fitting tribute a teacher can have. Ave, George.

(Gary Carden is a storyteller and writer who lives in Sylva. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

This is delicious, fast-paced crime fiction

If you are one of those readers who has a grudging respect for outlaws, and if you find yourself sometimes fantasizing about putting on a mask, stealing a fast car — say, a Corvette 706 with 505 horses under the hood — and roaring through the night into some abandoned warehouse where a scummy bunch of crooks are dividing up their spoils (stolen diamonds, drug deal profits, etc.); if you dream of firing a couple of warning shots from your trusty pistol, scooping up all of that money/contraband and then speeding away into the night, well, dear readers, T. Jefferson Parker’s L. A. Outlaws is the book for you.

This fast-paced crime fiction opus is designed to give the reader a delicious, forbidden thrill as we speed through the dark underbelly of Los Angeles with Allison Murietta, the sensual, dangerous great, great, great, great, great, great granddaughter of the legendary outlaw, Joaquin Murietta. Joaquin was hunted down, murdered and beheaded in 1853 and his head was once exhibited floating in a jar of alcohol in California sideshows. However, his descendant, Allison Murietta, has become something of a celebrity. She robs KFCs, Starbucks, Taco Bells, Burger Kings, Radio Shack, Payless Shoes and Dennys — chains that Allison calls “poverty boxes” because they exploit their employees (Allison has worked in those places). She always leaves a business card, “You have been robbed by Allison Murietta, Have a Good Day!” before she strides through the exit, brandishing her derringer, Canonita (a kind of small, modified shotgun that has no accuracy after 10 feet). Invariably, Allison gives the money to charities (well, most of it).

Now, for a bit of unadorned fact. Alllison Murietta is actually a 32-year-old prize-winning schoolteacher named Suzanne Jones. Although she has a lifestyle that is totally out of sync with a teacher’s salary, she manages to maintain her wild adventure (she is a gifted car thief) while living with her husband (her third) and three sons on a large California ranch. She readily admits that she is unstable, shockingly carnal and has a tenuous grasp of reality. In effect, she seems to know that her criminal career is probably going to end with her in a shootout and dying on the floor of a Dennys.

In the meanwhile, she expects to enjoy the best — wine, sex, expensive clothes, cars and thrills. She often observes that she is never more alive than when she is waving Canonita in the faces of terrified employees and awestruck customers. Eventually, her audience starts clapping and the security camera film in the robbed stores starts to show up on TV. Allison loves the camera and often poses with the manager of the store she has just robbed.

However, what really makes L. A. Outlaws purr and shimmy like a stock car at the Indianapolis 500 is T. Jefferson Parker’s talent for developing tension and character. Especially noteworthy are two remarkable men, a cop and a killer. Both are destined to affect the destiny of Allison Murietta. Lupercio Maygar, a bandy-legged, little Salvadorian assassin will make your skin crawl. Born in the slums of El Salvador, Lupercio survived by learning to be “unremarkable.”

After he finds both his brother and his father in the pile of dead bodies that are dumped each night in a landfill, Maygar migrated to L. A. where he quickly became involved in the vicious drug wars — an assassin for hire. His weapon of choice is a machete (which, like Alllison’s derringer, has been “reconditioned” to house a shotgun in the handle). Even after murdering 12 gang members, Maygar is never arrested due to the fact that there are no witnesses to his crimes.

At the other end of the spectrum is Charlie Hood, a patrolman who is troubled by his dreams of a slaughter that he witnessed in Iraq. Now that he is back in L. A., he is struggling to create a purpose for living and since he finds himself surrounded by corrupt law officials and burgeoning violence, he is beginning to lose faith in what he is doing ... until the night that he stops a speeding Corvette and meets Suzanne Jones, who gives new meaning to the term “flirt.” The next day, he learns that a bloody massacre has occurred in an automobile repair shop near the place where he stopped Suzanne.

The reason that Suzanne is “out and about” that night is that her “other self,” Allison Murietta, has picked up on a rumor of a big diamond heist — the spoils of which are about to change hands in an auto repair shop. Not content with the modest sums that she gets in the chain stores and fast-food joints, Allison dreams of making the big steal — a half million or so in uncut diamonds.

However, when she arrives at the auto shop prepared to fire a warning shot into the air, demand the stolen goods and speed away, she gets a shock: the shop contains 10 heavily armed (but dead) men ... a shootout and no survivors. When she finds the diamond in a backpack, she thinks her dream has come true. When she hears footsteps, she hides and watches a small man with a machete move silently through the building and vanish. The diamonds will buy her the comfort and security that she needs to spend the rest of her life ... nurturing her three sons and pursuing sensual pleasures. When the midget with the machete is gone, she stashes the diamonds in her Corvette and speeds away — only to meet Patrolman Charlie Hood a few miles down the road.

The reader eventually learns that the local crime lord has dispatched Lupercio Magar to pick up a shipment of stolen diamonds from a jewelry store owner. Magar arrives to find the same bloody massacre. Someone has been there before him and they left with the diamonds. Lupercio gets in his cherished 1973 Lincoln and begins cruising the surrounding roads where he eventually finds  ... one highway patrolman, a feisty woman and a Corvette. Of course, he drives on, but Suzanne and Lupercio have seen each other now.

Eventually, Lupercio figures it out. Allison Murietta/Suzanne Jones has the diamonds, but worse than that, she saw him when he passed silently through the murder scene. No one has seen Lupercio and his machete and lived. This woman must die. For those of you who have seen Javier Bardem as the relentless murderer in “No Country for Old Men,” be assured that there is something that is as inexorable in the tiny killer Lupercio Magar.

Aside from the teeth-gritting tension in L.A. Outlaws, this novel is also filled with a lot of hot breath and passion. Yes, Charlie Hood and Suzanne Jones can’t keep their hands off each other. Of course, Charlie suspects Suzanne’s “real identity,” but each time he decides to do something about it, he finds himself keeping another rendezvous. Suzanne/Allison is paranoid and feels that Charlie is about to betray her. All of this guilt and paranoia seems to merely add more zest to the sex.

L.A. Outlaws by T. Jefferson Parker. Dutton, 2008. 371 pages.

An intriguing, intricate tale with plenty of twists

When I was a teenager, I became addicted to a late-night horror movie host named Bestoink Dooley. Based in Atlanta, Bistoink came on at midnight, and I can still see his stark-white face and his silly grin, complete with bloody fangs as he crawled out of his coffin and lurched toward the camera. Interspersed between adds for used car lots and factory-rebate furniture, Bistoink and his assistant, a Vampirella clone, sang, delivered bad puns about graves and ghouls, and hosted a black-and-white horror film - things like “The Mummy’s Curse” and “Cat People.” I was addicted to Bestoink Dooley, and I have no sensible explanation for my steadfast loyalty. Eventually, I learned that there was someone like Bistoink on every major television station in American during the 1950s and through the 1970s. Many of them had clubs, membership cards and autographed photos.

One of the major characters in Witches on the Road Tonight is Eddie Alley, better known as Captain Casket. At one time, Captain Casket had hosted a popular midnight show, complete with a theme song that bore more than a passing resemblance to Disney’s Mouseketeers:


Who’s the digger of the grave

For you, and you and me?





It is all innocuous fun, of course, but Captain Casket’s show has been cancelled and now, his alter-ego, Eddie Alley has decided to chuck it all. He has swallowed a mega-dose of sleeping pills, and as he lies in his old prop coffin in his New York apartment, he muses on his life, his loves, his tragic mistakes and Wallis, his famous daughter, who is the celebrity anchor of a major TV news channel. The mistake he doesn’t want to remember is the boy named Jasper. As Eddie dozes, remembering his life in fits and starts, Witches on the Road Tonight occasionally becomes reminiscent of another great pop horror classic, The Late, Great Creature by Brock Brower.

Eddie’s origins are fascinating. Born in a remote cove in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Eddie’s mother, Cora Alley, has a reputation as a witch. The local folks tell stories of the men who visited Cora and were never seen again. Eddie tells us that the stories are true and that he has watched his mother through a keyhole in her bedroom door and has seen her strip off her skin, hang it on a peg and fly away through an open window.

A turning point in young Eddie’s life came during WW II when he is struck by the car of two WPA workers, Tucker and Sonia Hayes, who are working on an illustrated book on Appalachia. Eventually, Tucker reveals that he is a frustrated, alcoholic playwright, and Sonia a gifted photographer, is not really Tucker’s wife, but she is pregnant with his child. In an attempt to entertain the injured Eddie, Tucker shows him a film: a 13-minute silent version of “Dracula” on a hand-operated projector.

Witches on the Road Tonight is an intricately woven tale with frequent twists that lead the characters in unexpected revelations. Eddie’s chance encounter with Tucker Hayes (and “Dracula”) will provide the prime motivation for Eddie Alley’s decision to find his way to New York where he will find work at a television station where he graduates from a “gofer” to Captain Casket. (Of course, his marriage to the daughter of the station owner help, a bit.)

But what about Cora Alley, who appears to be a gaunt, malnourished mountain woman one day and a vigorous and robust siren the next? Does she truly “ride men” over and through the foggy mountain coves at night? Does she really have a curious rapport with a mountain panther that does her bidding? What happened to Tucker Hayes? Are his bones scattered through the mountain undergrowth, or does he reside in the strange cabin on the crest of a distant (an unapproachable) peak?

Of course, this is not the story of a single witch but three witches: Cora, Eddie and Wallis. The dark powers that Sheri Holman finds in a mountain cove where a woman supports herself by searching for the elusive herb, ginseng also abide in the DNA of the whimsical, bisexual Captain Casket and his frustrated and guilt-ridden daughter who also finds night-time solace with one-night stands.

However, there remains another character: his name is Jasper and he is a homeless waif that shows up at the television station where Captain Casket’s show originates. Remembering his own childhood, Eddie gives Jasper the role of his assistant on his show. Essentially, he rationalizes his action by casting himself as a “father figure” for Jasper. To make matters worse, Wallis is drawn to the troubled young man. Thus begins a conflict that will eventually bring tragic consequences.

At one point in Witches on the Road Tonight, the successful, middle-aged Eddie returns home to his mother’s abandoned dwelling. Eddie has a momentary wish to return and stay, and with the assistance of Jasper and Wallis, he sets about making his mother’s rustic shack a possible home. It doesn’t work, of course. For this witch-boy, there is no going home again.

In addition to producing a compelling tale that blends the supernatural with the unacknowledged darkness in the human heart, Sheri Holman’s novel is packed with tantalizing bits of information about witchcraft, herbs and Appalachian superstitions. I was pleased to learn that a poison oak rash can be avoided by scrubbing your body with jewel weed (I live in the heart of Appalachia, but I missed that one). There is also considerable information on the history of ginseng, that marvelous plant that allegedly makes “old guys dangerous again.”

As for the fate of Tucker Hayes, Holman gives you multiple choices, but I think the panther (painter) got him, even though he tried to evade it with the same tactics that Granny Pop used in Cattaloochee. Granny Pop took off her clothes and threw them behind her. Eventually, she ran out of clothes, and so did Tucker.

Witches on the Road Tonight by Sheri Holman. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2011. 263 pages.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.