Dispatches from the kinky South

Surreal South: an Anthology of Short Fiction and Poetry edited by Laura Benedict & Pinckney Benedict. Winston-Salem: Press 53 $19.95 – 378 pages

The co-editors of this anthology, Laura and Pinckney Benedict, know “surreal” when they see it. In fact, Pinckney, who wrote a memorable short story collection called Town Smokes in 1987 at the age of 23, easily qualifies as a connoisseur of Southern bizarre/grotesque literature. Often compared to Flannery O’Conner, Carson McCullers, and Truman Capote, Benedict’s work (“The Sutton Pie Safe,” for example) often appears in college textbooks and anthologies. Laura Benedict writes “Southern Gothic thrillers (Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts and Isabella Moon).

Surreal South explores a country where hot summer nights are filled with sheet lightning and mournful owls that sometimes serve as harbingers of death. This is a South filled with small towns where football players and cheerleaders acquire the status of royalty. The deceptive landscape of abandoned farms, old country stores and summer languor often conceals potential evil; an evil that may have the comic face of a clown. Let ’s sample a few stories and poems.

The source of Ron Rash’s “Corpse Bird” is that dim world of folklore that lies beneath the surface of a Southern suburbia — a place where rural farmlands and forests have been buried beneath a veneer of civilization. When Boyd Candler hears the call of the owl his ancestors called the “corpse bird,” he knows that death has come to his modern suburban street. Since his neighbors no longer believe such “superstitious nonsense,” Boyd must make a decision — one that may cost him dearly.

Robert Olen Butler’s “Help Me Find My Spaceman Lover” presents the dilemma of Edna Bradshaw, a lonely divorcee in Bovary, Ala. Edna finds love in the nearly deserted Wal-Mart parking lot (it closes at 9 p.m.) where she encounters Desi, an alien that has “loved her from afar” but now yearns for a “close encounter.” Should Edna abandon her little trailer (with her own propane tank) and her yellow cat, Eddie, for life in another galaxy? Is Desi’s sexual agility a sufficient basis for a lasting relationship? Most importantly, is Desi real?

“Dog Song” by Ann Pancake represents the most diverse and imaginative story in this collection. Like Faulkner’s narrative in The Sound and the Fury, “Dog Song” presents a “stream of consciousness” narrative: Matley, a brain-damaged outcast whom20the locals call Dog Man – (because he has become the guardian and breadwinner for 22 stray/abandoned dogs). Pancake’s remarkable narrative attempts to recreate Matley’s thoughts. The result is a strange blend of vivid imagery, hallucinaations and disjointed, rhythmic passages that capture Matley’s soul and a mind which has a strange, heartbreaking beauty.

For anyone who has grown up in a small southern town with a rigid social caste (townies/country kids), Benjamin Percy’s “Swans” may bring back a host of discomfiting, cruel and comical memories. Drew, the protagonist of “Swans” lives in the little town of Overall that is next to the big town of Murfreesboro. Drew and his friend, Kenny, are accustomed to being humiliated and demeaned by Murfreesboro football team. Further, they live in a constant state of adolescent shame and inadequacy when they behold Murfreesboro’s cheerleaders who sunbathe all summer on a secluded beach. However, the two inept boys are talented voyeurs. Equipped with snorkels, they learn to lurk beneath the water when the cheerleaders leap from a nearby cliff. As the bikini-clad girls drop beneath the water, they frequently lose their tops. Drew and Kenny ogle and whimper. Ah, but there is a disruptive force at the lake — one that threatens to destroy Drew and Kenny’s Eden. A great flock of vicious swans patrols the lake, hissing and flogging the frightened cheerleaders. This reviewer is giving too much away. Suffice it to say, “the plot thickens.”

This is a big book and this review has barely scratched the surface. Readers will also encounter a classic horror story, “The Paperhanger,” by William Gay. Kathy Conner’s “The Widow Sunday” presents a marvelous story about a widow who has a horn growing out of her head and a young woman who covets it. Joy Beshears Hagy provides a classic example of “shock fiction” with a short story, “Dinner Date,” that is one paragraph long (Ted Bundy dates a vampire.) There is a poem about a clown who calls himself Cactus Vic and drives a Wonder Bread truck. Even Joyce Carol Oates gets in on the action ... and dear reader, there are a dozen more stories that cannot be discussed here, since I’ve run out of space. Read this one if you love the kinky South.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva.)

Everyone's mother

Mother Jones by Elliott J. Gorn. Hill and Wang, 2002. 408 pages.

When Mother Jones celebrated her (allegedly) 100th birthday on May 1, 1930, our nation rejoiced with her. Hundreds of telegrams arrived from statesmen, celebrities and politicians, including Eugene Debs, Clarence Darrow, Carl Sandburg and her old enemy, John D. Rockefeller. Many of her well-wishers, only a few years before, had endorsed efforts to silence or imprison her; but now, noting that the woman, who had been called “the walking wrath of God,” was in failing health, her enemies relented and became conciliatory. “Mother” greeted Union officials who arrived with a gigantic cake with one hundred candles. Even the New York Times (one of her most persistent critics), now cooed about her long life of valor and dedication. Yes, it appeared that the fierce old lady, who had once defied machine guns (armed only with a hat pin), had finally been “declawed, defanged and domesticated” — by time.

Author, Elliott Gorn presents the life of Mother Jones as two stories since in his view there are two people in this biography: Mary Jones and Mother Jones. Mary is a young woman who fled poverty and oppression in Ireland only to fall victim of a cholera epidemic in Memphis (1867) in which she lost her husband and children; then came the Chicago fire (1871) in which she lost all her worldly goods. In the grim days following the fire, Mary has her first encounter with a union called the Knights of Labor and she volunteered to help them.

At this point, Mary was 34 years old, but poverty and hardship had aged her. When her fellow workers began to affectionately refer to her as “Mother,” she gradually realized that the term gave her authority. Bit by bit, she began to acquire qualities that drew others to her: maternal, loyal and dependable. She learned to stand in saloons with “the boys,” matching them drink for drink.

She spoke their language and since she came from a similar background, she could speak of her experiences with arrogant land owners and greedy factory managers; when she realized that such stories struck a common chord with unemployed workers, she learned to embellish her tales for effect. And when she saw that her grey hairs gave her power, she added almost a decade to her age.

In time, Mary Jones became Mother Jones, a fearless old lady who possessed both remarkable reserves of energy and a gift for oratory. When desperate workers, literally reduced to starvation, confronted the managers of factories, Mother Jones led the march. When the DuPonts, the Armours and the Morgans rejected their demands for 8-hour work days and the abolishment of child labor, Mother Jones called them “bloodsuckers” and denounced them from hundreds of platforms. When the managers hired an armed militia that fired on unarmed strikers, Mother Jones rallied the workers and returned to confront management again. Eventually, she became the voice of abused workers everywhere and once led a “children’s march to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt where she camped outside his gates. Roosevelt, like a more recent president, refused to see her or respond to her appeal.

For better than forty years, this incredible woman marched through coalmines, factories and railroad yards, denouncing child labor, company stores, payment by script, and unsafe working conditions in West Virginia coal towns, Colorado mining camps and the railroad slums of Pennsylvania. On these occasions, she lived with the strikers, ate with them and walked with them to their jobs (or strike sites) each day. As time went on, her indifference to personal safety and her willingness to confront armed goons caused her to be labeled “the most dangerous woman in America.” Indeed, at times she seemed half in love with the possibility of martyrdom.

In retrospect Gorn notes that Mother Jones rarely won significant concessions. Time and time again, “her boys” were forced to return to jobs where they endured the same injustices. Gorn’s careful documentation demonstrates that in the early 20th century, the forces of industry had become so powerful, they virtually ran the country. Certainly, they elected presidents, owned the major newspapers, appointed judges and reduced state governors to status of puppets. Yet, there is little doubt that Mother Jones initiated change. Once such issues as child labor and unsafe working conditions were raised, they would not go away.

Gorn concludes that Mary Jones, the seamstress and teacher “invented” Mother Jones, a charismatic figure that spoke for millions. He concludes that she was sometimes fallible and used her position to criticize anything that displeased her, including suffragettes, ministers (“sky pilots”) and the Salvation Army. At times, she gave rants that were filled with egotistical bombast, and she often played fast and loose with “the facts.”

On the advent of her 100th birthday, it is quite likely that Mother Jones was actually a mere 92. Perhaps a woman named Mary Jones was trapped inside “the most dangerous woman in America;” if so, Mary relished every moment of it. In the final analysis, whatever her shortcomings, Mother Jones captured the hearts and improved the lives of millions — workers who called themselves “Mother Jones’ children.”

A gem of a novel

The Missing by Tim Gautreaux. Knopf Double Publishing Group, 2009. 384 pages.

This is a novel that seems to vibrate in your hands. It is filled with sounds, smells and the bittersweet beauty of a vanquished time — the Mississippi on a moonlit night as the Ambassador, an aging four-decker steamboat, churns slowly downstream occasionally shattering the night with its strident whistle. The heart of the ship contains a vast Texas dance floor where more than 1,000 dancers can alternately sway and swing to blues and jazz. It is the golden age of riverboats (circa 1920s), a time when crowds stood expectantly on the docks of a hundred towns along the Mississippi, waiting for a grand old steamer that would sweep them from their dull lives into a night filled with music and laughter.

But, I’m getting ahead of the story. First, we must bring our hero home from the threats of a deserted (but heavily mined) battlefield in France and a fateful meeting with a frightened child whose face haunts his dreams.

Gautreaux’s protagonist, “Lucky” Sam Simonaux, returned from WWI to his wife and his personal dream job — the floorwalker in Krines, a gigantic New Orleans department store, a place where he has learned to move with grace and efficiency through each of the four floors, watching for shoplifters, drunks and trouble. He does his job well; life is good and the future is bright until ... the day a 3-year-old child, Lily Weller, is kidnapped from Krines. Despite the fact that Sam is injured in his attempt to stop the kidnappers, he is held responsible by his employer and is fired.

In truth, Sam broods about his failure to save Lily, and decides to launch his own search — a decision that leads him to leave his wife in New Orleans and seek employment on the Ambassador where the child’s parents, Ted and Elsie Weller, are employed as musicians. Sam’s logic is that Lily was stolen by someone who saw her performing with her parents (the 3-year-old has been taught to dance and sing) on the old steamboat at one of the river towns. That turns out to be a vast area that runs from Louisiana to Ohio.

For almost six months, Sam fails to find a trace of Lily; however, in the meantime, he becomes an accomplished pianist and learns to love the Ambassador’s special blend of funky jazz and blues. Then, abruptly, a series of random events (including an observant ticket clerk) leads Sam to Lily’s abductors — a wealthy, childless couple, Willa and Acy White, who had employed a degenerate family of outlaws, the Skadlocks, to steal Lily.

In the months following the kidnapping, the Whites have attempted to create another identity for the child. They shower Lily with presents, rename her “Madeline” and strive to convince her that her parents are dead. As the months pass, Lily’s memory of her parents begins to fade, and she begins to change, acquiring the opinions and prejudices of her “new parents.”

Eventually, Sam Simonaux finds himself forced to make a decision that has tragic results. Ted, Lily’s father, becomes impatient with Sam’s cautious investigation of the Skadlocks and ventures into the wilderness where the outlaws live. It is a trip that costs him his life. Eventually, Sam finds his way to the home of Lily’s abductors. However, upon secretly witnessing their wealth, he begins to feel that Lily has advantages and a future that her natural parents could never provide. Instead of confronting her abductors and reclaiming the child, Sam decides to returns to the Ambassador and tells the grieving mother that his lead to Lily had turned out to be a wild goose chase. It is only after Sam’s return to New Orleans that he confesses the truth to his wife; she forces him to tell Lily’s mother the truth. Both Elsie and her son, August, are outraged and demand that Sam help them get Lily back.

Finally, Sam, now repentant of his mistake, takes Lily’s brother, August, and makes a desperate journey to confront the Whites. Ironically, in the meanwhile, the Skadlocks have stolen Lily again, confident that the Whites cannot report the second kidnapping without revealing their part in the initial abduction. Their intention is to sell Lily to the Whites again! In the ensuing events, Sam finally rescues Lily and returns her to her mother, but it is a belated reunion. Within a few months, Elsie Weller will die in an influenza epidemic. It also becomes evident that the lapse of time (almost a year) has done Lily considerable harm.

At this point, The Missing undergoes an astonishing change. Tim Gautreaux does not bring his novel to a conclusion, but adds a second plot that expands and enriches the original. Throughout the search for Lily Weller, Sam Simonaux has frequently behaved in a perplexing manner. His ambiguous attitude toward parent-child relationships acquires significance when Sam reveals a secret and undertakes yet another journey.

When Sam Simonaux was six months old, his entire family was murdered by a savage band of outlaws. Sam escaped only because his father threw him into an old stove just before a virtual hurricane of bullets destroyed the house and killed his parents and his brothers and sister. His Uncle Claude found Sam in the stove the following day and raised him. For all of his life, “Lucky Sam” had felt a strange detachment about his family’s fate.

However, with the death of Lily’s parents, he feels an impulse to confront his own tragedy. Now, he returns to talk to his Uncle Claude and learn the truth about his family’s massacre; he will then go to confront the murderers, the Cloats: a family so bestial, their crimes are legendary.

Although the journey to reclaim Lily (who has much in common with the face that has always haunted Lucky Sam’s dreams) is tense and suspenseful, Sam’s final journey is riveting. It is not only a journey for justice, it is also an odyssey of self-discovery. When this last confrontation is over, Sam will return to claim the only object his father left him — a violin. He will also claim his adopted daughter, Lily, and he will devote the rest of his life striving to restore the gift of music that he knows is within her.

(Gary Carden of Sylva is a playwright, an author and has been awarded the North Carolina Folklore Award. He can be reached This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A complex legacy

William Dudley Pelley by Scott Beckman. Syracuse University Press. 269 pages.

The first time I heard the name William Dudley Pelley, a friend of mine was telling me about an Asheville-based oral history project that he had launched. He said that while he was interviewing elderly Jews in a retirement community about their lives in Asheville during the 1930s, one of the participants exclaimed, “I remember watching that SOB Pelley marching with his Silver Shirts down Charlotte Street!” When my friend asked him who he was talking about, the excited fellow rushed out of the room and returned in a few moments with a “Wanted” poster. There was a photograph of Pelley, bedecked in his silver shirt, a dapper little man in a Van Dyke beard. Beneath the photo was an impressive list of charges, including fraud, sedition and “Un-American activities.”

Scott Beckman’s biography of Pelley might prove to be something of a revelation for the American public who remember his well-publicized trials (Washington, North Carolina and Indiana courts). Charged with sedition by the Martin Dies Committee (Un-American Activities committee of Congress) for his racist and anti-Semitic activities, Pelley was denounced, reviled and finally imprisoned. By the 1950s, the nationally known “Asheville Fascist and Madman,” was not only forgotten, his life and his writings seemed to have virtually vanished without a trace.

After his death in 1965, family members and devoted followers made some notable attempts to restore Pelly’s badly damaged reputation by reissuing some of his extensive (and less controversial) writings — especially those dealing with spiritualism, metaphysics and the significance of unidentified flying objects! Certainly, there is more to this man than his much-publicized Neo-Nazi activity in the 1930s.

Born in Lynn, Mass., on March 12, 1890, Pelley was the only son of a poor Methodist minister. Despite an unstable home life, William did well in school and quickly demonstrated a remarkable talent for writing. (He published his first newspaper at the age of 12 and was editing the weekly Springfield Homestead at the age of 19.) The utopian novel Looking Backward by Edward Bellamy had a profound influence on the young journalist and prompted him to write a series of articles in which he denounced churches (they did nothing to help the poor). He also repeatedly attacked capitalism and privately owned industry (which he thought should be owned by the government).

Shortly after his marriage, Pelley moved to Vermont, bought a comfortable home and incurred a number of debts. After the death of his first child, he found himself saddled with more debts (medical expenses), and turned to writing fiction as a means of supplementing his salary. He was good at it. Not only did he become solvent, he quickly developed a reputation as a promising young writer. During the next decade, he published more than 200 short stories and won several prestigious awards, including the O’Henry Award in 1920.

Emboldened by his luck with magazine fiction, Pelley tried his luck with film scripts. Again, he was successful and wrote numerous scripts for the silent film industry, becoming a close friend of the actor Lon Chaney, “the man of a thousand faces.” However, it is during his sojourn in Hollywood that Pelley developed a bitter resentment of Jewish studio moguls. As time went on, Pelley’s anger hardened into a form of anti-Semitism that was so intense it would become a major component of his social and political life.

On a trip to Russia and Japan, sponsored by the Methodist Episcopal Church (purportedly to find sites for future missions) Pelley became convinced that the world was threatened by two evils: Jews and Communism. As he traveled through Russia, Korea and Japan — parts of which had been devastated by recent wars — he became convinced that all of the misery he saw could be traced to a great Jewish-Communist conspiracy. Their ultimate goal was world dominion, and Pelley vowed that he would use his talents to rally the forces of Aryans and Christians and prepare for a holy war.

Shortly after his return to the United States, Pelly allegedly experienced a spiritual revelation that made him famous. In a pamphlet entitled “Seven Minutes in Eternity,” Pelley claimed that he was lifted from his corporal body and conversed with a “Divine Being” that revealed the future of the world to him, as well as his role In preparing for Christ’s Second Coming. Pelley claimed that he returned to his earthly form with great reluctance, but the Divine Being told him that he had a lot of work to do in Buncombe County preparing for the Apocalypse.

Pelley spent the next decade in developing a convoluted, and complex political theory, much of which he claimed was “dictated” to him by spiritual beings. Alternating between rabid rants about Jewish spies (Roosevelt was one) and social-political diatribes which defined the new era (cities would be demolished and American citizens would live in pastoral settings; blacks and Jews would be denied citizenship and would live in “restricted areas;” Pelley published hundreds of periodicals, magazines and directives. Continuing to claim to be both a telepathist and clairvoyant (he could converse with spirits and travel to heavenly spheres), he became an ardent spiritualist and often participated in séances in which he claimed to converse with Jesus, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington (who told Pelley that he “looked forward to shaking his hand someday.”) In conjunction with all of this, he launched a political-military organization called the Silver Legion of America (based in Asheville) and sought to align himself with Adolph Hitler and Nazi Germany.

When the Dies Committee convened in Washington in 1939, many witnesses noted that the atmosphere bordered on paranoia. At the time there were several hundred “suspect” organizations that received subpoenas, many of which were far more militant and “un-American” than William Dudley Pelley. However, the Silver Shirt leader’s belligerence (he had ignored the initial summons) and his repeated attacks on Roosevelt and the “Jew Deal” sparked considerable anger from the Committee members. He was sentenced to 15 years and his property was confiscated. Despite numerous appeals, he remained in prison until 1950.

Pelley died on July 1, 1965. Since he had been enjoined against indulging in political affairs after his release from prison, he spent the last 15 years of his life promoting a spiritual/metaphysical organization called Soulcraft. Still an avid séance participant (and a clairvoyant), he allegedly spent much of his last years in conversing with Nostradamus, the 16th century seer and physician. According to Pelley, the two men had much in common.

Digging up John Williams

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. New York Review of Books, 1960 reissued 2007. 274 pages.

For those of us who truly love books, our greatest pleasures are often derived from discovering the “neglected classics” — remarkable books that somehow manage to pass under our personal radar. In the great deluge of novels that have flooded this country for the past 50 years, it is not surprising to discover that many distinguished works were published with little or no fanfare — they fade quietly, unnoticed by either the critics or the media.

Well, it is gratifying to learn that somebody noticed John Williams and lifted his three novels (Butcher’s Crossing, Stoner and Augustus) from obscurity. (The New York Review of Books is devoted to finding “lost or missed” classics). Although the Denver-based author of Butcher’s Crossing died in 1994, his works are being re-evaluated (and critically acclaimed). Almost 50 years after their publication, his works continue to attract attention. Current critics compare Butcher’s Crossing to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and graduate students are finding the novels of John Williams on their required reading lists.

Butcher’s Crossing is a western. The setting is the 1870s when Will Andrews arrives in the raw and primitive town of Butcher’s Crossing, Kansas. A Harvard graduate and a fervent admirer of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Andrews is on a spiritual quest. He wants to encounter Nature in its most brutal aspect (“bloody in tooth and claw”) so that he can merge, or “become One” with it.

Essentially, this is the clichéd beginning of a hundred potboilers: the eastern “tenderfoot” confronts a daunting “rites of passage,” but his innate courage and moral principles enables him to survive. He emerges hardened and confident, ready to take his place among the stalwart natives of the rugged west.

However, Will Andrews is destined to encounter a dark and brutal world that bears no resemblance to Emerson’s precepts. His six-month ordeal as a member of a buffalo hunting party not only change his perceptions of the natural world; it also affords him with the dubious opportunity to experience a dark and mindless violence that has much in common with Joseph Conrad’s descent into the heart of darkness.

When Andrews arrives in Butcher’s Crossing, he makes the belated discovery that the great buffalo hunts are virtually over. (The fashion craze in the East for buffalo coats has diminished and customers are complaining about the “smell that they can’t get rid of.”) The surrounding prairie is littered with thousands of bone piles that the local farmers are slowly converting to fertilizer. However, by chance, he meets Miller, a buffalo hunter who tells him of a remote valley in Colorado where an enormous herd grazes peacefully. Using his inheritance, Andrews offers to finance a hunting expedition, on the condition that he is included in the party.

Thus begins a journey into an immense wilderness; yet it is a transitory world that is forever altered by the passage of these men who seem to have a desire to destroy everything they see. In addition to Miller and Andrews, the hunting party includes Charlie Hoge, a one-handed alcoholic with a penchant for quoting scripture, and Fred Schneider, an angry, taciturn man who glares at world around him with contempt. Hoge is a gifted cook and driver; Schneider is a skinner. Miller promises that they will return with several thousand hides — enough to make them all wealthy.

The journey is memorable. The author’s ability to describe natural phenomena, a terrifying snowstorm, thirst, drought and the immensity of the natural world is remarkable. However, I feel that John Williams’ real purpose is to demolish the “myth of the West.” The author does not describe a primitive world where men are ennobled by travail and hazardous encounters. Instead, he takes his tenderfoot to the brink of an abyss where he glimpses the mindless and destructive violence in his own heart.

Brooding obsessions

Dying Light by Donald Hays. MacAdam/Cage, 2006. 261 pages

In recent years, I’m sure that the average reader feels intimidated by the steady onslaught of new publications that flow into the bookstores each day. (I also hear that all of this excess may cease soon as publishing houses close.) Given the sheer mass of novels, plays, poetry collections and biographies that appear each week, I am often eager for guidance. One of my favorite ploys is to ask a reader whose judgment I respect, “What are you reading these days?”

For a couple of years now, I have been asking my favorite writer, Ron Rash, and he always takes the time to give me a few titles. “Read Out Stealing Horses,” he tells me. I do and I love it. “Read Dirt Music,” he adds. “Read everything that Donald Harrington has written. Read William Gay and Cormac McCarthy.” About a month ago, he said, “Read Dying Light.” In my opinion, Ron never misses, and this time, he exceeded all expectations.

Dying Light is a collection of 10 short stories that are so beautifully crafted, I found myself deeply affected by the author’s skill. Each time, as the story concludes, the various components slide together effortlessly like the interlocking pieces of a musical instrument, a fiddle or a dulcimer. However, these stories are harsh and uncompromising in their insight. Each tale, even the comical “Private Dance,” deals with the consequences of bad decisions — lives wrecked by human frailty, obsession and betrayal.

“The Rites of Love” chronicles a passion that refuses to die — even when a football injury reduces Monty Shepherd to an invalid and his high school sweetheart, Elizabeth, marries another and has a son. The two thwarted lovers still strive to re-create their single night together. As the years pass and Monty’s health deteriorates, their bond intensifies. (The conclusion of this story is a stunner!)

In “Akerman in Eden,” a mentally unstable poet finds himself vacillating between two worlds: a motel room in Oklahoma and the sacred temple of Ophir near the river Euphrates. In the real world (the motel room), he is at the mercy of strangers who have stolen his credit cards, but without his medication, Akerman yearns to join an exotic caravan that is moving toward Eden. Akerman’s dilemma suggests that sometimes madness is preferable to reality.

Angler, the distraught protagonist of “Salvage” finds himself sitting in a hospital room with his dying wife while he yearns for a lost love — Sara, who rejected him 58 years ago. He feels compelled to leave his grieving family and drive to Sara’s home. He feels attempts to confront his lost love — now a widow with impaired hearing who lives in a junkyard. Like many of Hays’ characters, Angler is about to experience the consequences of obsession.

“Why He Did It” deals with Wilder, a doting father who takes desperate steps to assure his son’s future. Realizing that the daughter of the woman he has married has fallen in love with his son, Justin (thereby posing a threat to Justin’s college career), Wilder devises a plan that will assure his son’s future. It works, but it has unforeseen and tragic results.

Three of the stories in this collection, “Redemption,” “Material” and “Dying Light” deal with commonplace domestic dramas: abandonment, deceit and the belated (but sincere) need for forgiveness.

Frank Wheeler cannot forgive his father for abandoning his mother and broods about it continually. When the penitent father returns (with a young wife) eager to make amends, Frank (much like Wilder in “Why He Did It”) devises a scheme to render justice and protect the innocent. It works, but it places the vindictive son forever beyond the pale of redemption.

When Harper, the elderly creative writing instructor, is caught in an affair with Erin, one of his students, he confesses his adultery and assumes responsibility for the tragic consequences. However, after his wife divorces him, and Erin moves to Paris and becomes a successful writer (who has written a series of sensational stories based on her affair with Harper), he realizes that he has been “material” for Erin’s novel. Erin has heeded his quote from Henry James, “A writer is one on whom nothing is lost.”

This collection’s title, Dying Light, comes from Hays’ final short story which, despite the somber setting, qualifies as a tale that acquires a kind of redemptive beauty. Bud McMahon is dying, and as the cancer spreads in his throat he bargains with the radiologists for two more months of life. In that interim, he starts smoking again, and is reunited with his son (an artist who paints his father’s portrait). As the dying Bud sits watching the sunset, he thinks, “Still, the sun — an old glory of dying light. It is beautiful. It is almost enough.”

Carden’s insights and answers to Appalachian 101

What would surprise someone the most about the Appalachian culture?

Well, assuming that they are not Appalachian, it would probably be the fact that we have nothing in common with the stereotypes. I remember teaching a class at the Mountain Retreat near Highlands and encountered several enrollees who were afraid to go “downtown,” because they had encountered so many people with gun racks in their trucks as they drove up the mountain. Their assumption was that Appalachians are so prone to violence, they go armed everywhere. They had never encountered people who fish and hunt. That is just one classic example of the bias that I encountered in elder hostel classes. I used to use a book entitled Appalachia: The First and Last Frontier. The first sentence summed it up. It stated that there was no geographic area in the U.S. more misunderstood than Appalachia.

If you had to describe the Appalachian culture in one sentence, what would that be?

People who have retained a profound awareness of their heritage and traditions.

What is the biggest contribution the mountain culture has given to our society?

Probably our ability to co-exist with the natural world.

What do you think is the biggest collective fear of Appalachians?

That they will be erased. The steady encroachment of concrete, industry and technology could plow us all under.

Is there one Appalachian folklore that stands apart from the others?

There is a lot of Appalachian folklore that deals with a single individual who is pitted against daunting odds, but retains his identity: outlaws, musicians and a few “public officials.”

Why is knowing local folklore worth while?

Well, it defines who were are and what we value. English folklore is different from Italian folklore, for example, and yet both demonstrate what that culture values.

What is your favorite aspect about teaching?

My favorite aspect of teaching is the “exchange” that flows between teacher and students.

Tales of survival from the American frontier

Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx. Simon & Schuster, 2008. 240 pages.

When critics attempt to define Annie Proulx’ writing style, they invariably use adjectives like “visceral” and “gritty.” Without question, she is the master of a method that blends dark humor, tragic bleakness and lyricism. Common sense suggests that these qualities appear incompatible — yet readers who laugh at the behavior of her eccentric/venal/callow characters also thrill at the beauty of her prose and ponder the fate of her spunky but luckless protagonists with tears in their eyes.

There are nine stories in this collection — the third in her “Wyoming Series,” and they run the gauntlet from an over-the-top urban myth (a kind of sagebrush demon that thrives on garbage and hapless cowboys) and two marvelous fantasies dealing with Satan’s management problems (Hell is becoming drab and boring) to a series of heartbreaking tales of hardships and suffering on the old frontier. Pity the thousands of newlyweds that blithely loaded a wagon (or a car) and drove into the Wyoming backcountry with visions of finding a lush Eden!

This is not a collection for the faint of heart. Even the marvelous “Family Man,” which presents a delightful caricature of a Wyoming retirement home, “The Mellowhorn,” combines humor with grim irony. The owner of the Mellowhorn believes that his elderly charges should enjoy “their last feeble years,” therefore he promotes smoking, drinking “and lascivious television programs.” There are very few males in the retirement home, but a plentitude of widows; consequently, the few “palsied men with beef jerky arms” can take their pick of “shapeless housecoats and flowery skeletons.” “Family Man” focuses on Ray Forkenbrock, who spends most of his time staring out the window and musing on the past. However, Ray dotes on his granddaughter and agrees to tell her a bit of family history. As he talks into her tape recorder, he gradually reveals a “dark family secret.” Dark it may be, but it is also hilarious.

Proulx prefaces “Them Old Cowboy Songs” with a bit of caution regarding the “frontier myth.” Many of the homesteaders who ventured into Wyoming in the 1880s “lived tough, raised a shoeless breed and founded ranch dynasties. Many more had short runs and were quickly forgotten.” Archie and Rose belong in the latter category. Archie sings impromptu ballads, loves his wife, endures daunting hardships (like being frozen to his saddle during a blizzard) and remains blissfully optimistic. Rose scratches a livelihood out of a hostile land, has a baby under daunting circumstances and waits for Archie to come home with enough “cowboying money” to start a farm. Yet, despite their stubborn persistence, this plucky couple dies tragically and miserably, leaving no trace. “Them Old Cowboy Songs” appears to be a tribute to the thousands of Wyoming’s vanquished homesteaders who fell victims to weather, hardship and starvation.

“The Great Divide” and “Testimony of the Donkey” both demonstrate that hardship and tragedy in Wyoming are not restricted to the 19th century. When Helen and Hi Acorn become victims of a 1920’s real estate scam that leaves them stranded on a sterile hilltop, they try to struggle on. When farming proves to be disastrous, Hi resorts to joining a dangerous venture — capturing wild horses with an old friend named Fenk. (Proulx has a knack for colorful names.) Belatedly, Hi discovers that the horses are destined for a dog food plant, and his life goes downhill from there. Catlin and Marc, an environmentally aware couple in “Testimony of the Donkey,” are adept at surviving in wilderness areas and have become seasoned campers and hikers — until they have a domestic argument and Catlin ends up alone on a desolate mountain with her foot trapped in a crevice. Once more, Proulx’ natural world becomes merciless.

For those readers who admire Proulx’s ability to craft a short story masterpiece like “Brokeback Mountain,” please note that this latest collection contains another tour de force, sporting the dubious title, “Tits Up in a Ditch.” The protagonist, Dakotah Lister, embodies heart, courage and hope, like many of Proulx’s characters. Abandoned by her mother, raised by her indifferent grandparents and betrayed by her devious paramour, Sash Hicks, Dakotah absorbs each defeat and gamely gets up and goes on. Ending up in Iraq where she endures injury and additional disillusionment, she does what is unusual in Proulx fiction: she survives.

(Gary Carden is a storyteller and writer from Sylva whose honors include winning the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award from the North Carolina Folklore Society and the Book of the Year award from the Appalachian Writers Association. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

A new take on murderess legend

Midwinter by Maurice Stanley. Whittler’s Bench Press, 2008. 208 pages.

North Carolina’s folklore and music resonates with the pain of doomed lovers and guilt-ridden killers: penitents who find themselves standing on a rough-hewn gallows before a silent multitude. In keeping with folk tradition, they often use their final moments for dramatic effect. “Profit from my example,” they say. “Take heed, or you, too, may try that awful road!”

Of all of the gallows confessions, none are as famous as Frankie Silver (1833). This alleged ax-murderess has inspired over a dozen novels and non-fiction treatments, several made-for-TV dramas, and a collection of bad plays and documentaries. Frankie’s notoriety is largely due to the fact that, in addition to cleaving her husband, Charlie, into pieces, she burned him in the fireplace.

Some accounts of this grisly affair have taken liberties with the facts and molded Frankie into either a courageous feminist or an innocent pawn. Over the years, the story has acquired additional layers of fanciful details, including ghosts, omens, divinations and conspiracy theories.

Maurice Stanley’s Midwinter makes use of previous treatments, including sources as diverse as True Detective Magazine, a research paper by Carolyn Sakowski and the colorful pronouncements of storyteller, Bobbie McMillon. All of the components are here: the Elkhorn Tavern (Charlie’s home away from home); the old slave from Tennessee who finds missing people by “conjuring” with a glass pendant on a string; the rumors about Charlie’s abuse of his young wife (she has multiple bruises and a black eye on the week prior to the murder); the bone fragments in the fireplace (could be teeth); Frankie’s escape from the Burke County jail and Frankie’s gallows ballad (confession?) — all familiar pieces of a story that has become an Appalachian folk legend.

What, then, is different? Is Midwinter merely the repetition of the same series of events that has been chronicled before? Well, not exactly! Stanley manages to surprise us by simply “rearranging” the order of some key events. Like the South American writer Julio Cartazar, who asks his readers to shift the order of chapters in some of his novels (thereby creating an entirely different story), Stanley skillfully creates a new version of the Frankie Silver legend — simply by utilizing a little imaginative manipulation.

In Stanley’s novel, Frankie Silver is an independent “bookish” young woman who reads Shelley, Keats and the Bible. Although Charlie Silver is a doting husband, he is also the product of a culture that stresses the subservient role of wives (Frankie’s books infuriate him). Now, add some interfering in-laws (Frankie’s mother is mentally ill and despises her son-in-law). The final ingredient is jealousy (a young lawyer named Woodfin who adores Frankie angers Charlie and a big-bosomed Elkhorn floozie who comforts Charlie when he is feeling low produces temper tantrums in Frankie.)

Although Midwinter moves toward its tragic conclusion with a kind of predestined certainty, there are some notable variations. Stanley builds a credible explanation for Charlie’s murder: Frankie acts in self-defense since she believes that Charlie intends to shoot her. (She misinterprets his behavior when, after seeing a wolf near his barn, he rushes into the house and loads his gun.) In addition, the author expands the oft-repeated suspicions regarding Frankie’s “accomplices” (the belief that Charlie’s dismemberment and cremation was carried out by Frankie’s mother and brother). This “variation” acquires additional pathos when Stanley presents a scene in which Frankie’s brother, Blackstone, is haunted by a memory: Having left Frankie at home, her mother and brother, go to Charlie’s cabin to “make Charlie’s corpse disappear.” Charlie is still alive — but not for long.

Midwinter also presents an explanation for Frankie’s strange behavior during the interval between the murder and her execution. Stanley presents Frankie as a young woman in a near-catatonic state, haunted by nightmares, and tormented by guilt. She does nothing to avoid her fate because she feels it is deserved. When she reaches the gallows, she reads her “Sonnet for Charlie” and willingly accepts the noose.

Note: Maurice Stanley is also the author of The Legend of Nance Dude — a tale of another guilt-ridden mountain woman, trapped in a place and a culture that made her a killer. His response to the tragedy and suffering inherent in the Frankie Silver ordeal resembles an observation made by W. M. Thackeray at the conclusion of Barry Lyndon. Thackeray notes that all of the grief and pain in his story occurred “a long time ago” and all of his characters are dead and gone. Their guilt or innocence is now irrelevant.

Memories of WCTC’s feline director of all things theater

Back in the days when WCU was WCTC (Western Carolina Teachers’ College), I was one of a few kids that hung around “the little theatre” with Mabel Crum, the Chair of the English Department (circa 1950’s). In the absence of a “professional director,” Mabel (we never called her “Dr. Crum” when we talked about her) volunteered for the job and immediately announced an impressive schedule of productions.

Nothing daunted Mabel; she was perfectly willing to take on Shakespeare (“A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream”) Arthur Miller (“The Crucible”) and Sophocles (“Oedipus Rex”). We had a great time. It didn’t matter that we were mostly mountain kids with pronounced nasal twangs. After all, the audience was mostly our peers and no one seemed to notice ... Well, except for the Dr. Hayes, a recently-arrived Rhodes scholar, who stood during the intermission of “A Merchant of Venice” and announced, “Sounds as though the Avon has mingled with the Tuckaseigee.” (Mabel had to explain to the cast that Dr. Hayes was talking about our dialect.)

There were other embarrassing incidents, of course. When I did Tieresias, the blind prophet wrapped in a bed sheet, my eyes taped shut and blacked out with shoe polish (Mabel’s idea), the audience laughed the first night when I delivered all of my lines to back wall. The Western Carolinian mistakenly reported that the current production at the Little Theatre was “Oedipus Wrecks.” Mabel was philosophical about that. “Well, he does, you know ... wreck, I mean.”

And so we bungled on. In “The Crucible,” the half-crazed minister, Rev. Hale, rushed on stage and managed to loudly mispronounced a crucial word, substituting “crouch” for “crops,” as in “the stench of burning crouch hangs everywhere.” In “Sabrina Fair,” the lighted ships that sailed serenely across the bay (on a painted backdrop with movable vessels) began to fall, fluttering to the floor like fat fireflies during Sabrina’s love scene. In “Twelfth Night,” Sir Toby Belch rushed on stage five scenes before his appointed entrance to discover that he was among strangers. After delivering a few lines he bowed and announced, “I will have more to say about this later!” and promptly departed. I envied him his skillful recovery. We sped recklessly on through “Bus Stop,” “The Rainmaker” and “Antigone,” never dreaming that our unbridled fun was about to come to an end.

When, Josefina Niggli arrived, Mabel called a meeting in the WCU “Little Theatre,” and told her little rustic band of thespians that “theatre” was about to become a serious affair. While Mabel struggled through the highlights of Josefina’s astonishing career prior to coming to Cullowhee (two Book-of-the-Month Club novels, an illustrious career in Hollywood, movie and television scripts, etc.), we looked at the large woman who sat like a sleepy Cheshire cat down stage center in an ornate chair (from “Sabrina Fair”) and staring at us (we were in the audience, of course). She was alternating sips of coffee with puffs from a cigarette.

When she finally spoke in a deep Tahullah Bankhead contralto, she said, “Darlings, I’m so gratified to see you.”

We were charmed in the true meaning of that word. We sat like a hapless flock of birds, mouths agape, gawking at this feline woman who spoke in a voice that both whispered and thundered. She talked about her life in Mexico, told anecdotes of famous movie stars (she called Henry Fonda “Hank” and Lawrence Oliver “Larry”). Although we immediately became Niggli disciples, it soon became obvious that our feelings were not reciprocal.

All of us gamely registered for Acting 101 and found ourselves reading nursery rhymes aloud on the stage while Ms. Niggli drank coffee from a thermos and occasionally said, “Read it again, dear. This time pronounce ALL of the syllables.” At the end of the class, she smiled serenely and said, “Darlings, when you speak, I positively shudder.”

She then delivered a long diatribe on how communication was essential to get on in the world, and we appeared to be unable to do so. “How can you teach or work in any jobs that require communication?” When we ventured to ask about the next play, she said, “Darlings, you are a long way from being in any play that I would direct.” Then, she rose and floated slowly up the aisle, leaving us alone on a brightly lighted stage.

Students began to drop out of Acting 101, muttering that the fun seemed to have gone out of theatre. A stalwart handful persisted because they thought that perhaps Ms. Niggli was merely weeding out the “undesirables.” Eventually, Ms. Niggli directed “My Three Angels,” but ended up casting the primary roles from the English Department faculty. Many of us were banished from the theatre (I was among them), and we found ourselves reading one-acts and practicing diction. Ms. Niggli announced her resignation, saying that she found the challenge of molding us into thespians “too daunting.”

When we returned the following semester, a bright-eyed UNC graduate named Charles Barrett sat at the “Speech and Drama” table at registration. “Call me Chuck,” he said. The rumor spread that he had spent the summer as “Sir Walter Raleigh” in the outdoor drama, “Lost Colony.” He announced that he would be doing “Inherit The Wind,” and although the play had a large cast, the two major leads would be “experienced adults.” That meant the roles of Henry Drummond (Clarence Darrow) and Matthew Harrison Brady (William Jennings Bryant) would be played by “Chuck” and a retired insurance salesman who lived off campus. The rest of us would have to be content with character roles and mob scenes.

I was in the Townhouse when I heard that Ms. Niggli was back. “That’s correct,” said Dr. Crum, “She arrived back on campus last night from Baylor. Said she would be content to teach Basic Speech 201 and Fundamentals of Grammar 101.” I got the definite impression that Mabel was as surprised as I was by the return of the Cheshire cat, but she noted that “considering her experience with theatre and film, we are lucky to have her.”

Poor Chuck. He was just beginning a career and had bought a house. He had cast “The Glass Menagerie,” and had a full teaching load ... but he was sharing the theatre with Ms. Niggli, who had decided to teach her classes there. Frequently, when he was directing students, he would turn to see Ms. Niggli, sitting silently in the darkness watching him. At first, he attempted to solicit Ms. Niggli’s opinion.

“Don’t you agree, Ms. Niggli?” he would chirrup, referring to a stage movement or a line interpretation he had just given a student.

“Chuck, darling, you are the director,” she would say and lapse into silence.

After Chuck resigned (he once said that sharing the theatre with Ms. Niggli was like living too close to the sun) and fled to Raleigh and a government job that required him to produce educational films for the state highway department, Ms. Niggli graciously agreed to once more become the head of the Speech and Theatre Department. She quietly moved into the vacant office and began directing again. In a few years, she became the campus celebrity and hundreds of students rushed to enroll in her classes. She often “held court” in her homes in the evenings where she sat in a great upholstered chair while the “Nigglites” sat on the floor around her, enraptured by her stories of James Dean, John Garfield and “Monty” Clift.

Many years later, when I returned to WCU to work on my masters, I dropped by Ms. Niggli’s office. By this time, she was something of a legend and a dozen students attended her every whim. Finding that we were alone for a few moments, I couldn’t resist broaching a question that had troubled me for years.

“Why did you come back?” I said. She laughed and said, “You mean when I renounced you all and fled to Baylor?” She drank her coffee and looked at me as though she were deciding just how much truth she wanted to tell.

“When I got to Baylor, I found a large theatre department filled with notables. They had playwrights and novelists that were far more significant than I! I was not ... unique. That is it, darling. I wanted to be honored and pampered, so I came back to this mountain college and all of these nasal twangs.”

So, there you have it. I guess I was a “Nigglite,” too, and I also sat on Josefina’s carpet, sipping coffee while I listened, enthralled by a magic world through which this remarkable woman moved with ease. She had known Thomas Wolfe, Paul Green and Tyrone Power! But yet, I will always remember Dr. Crum and the wonderful world of drama that existed “before Niggli.” When I grow sentimental about the past, it is usually for that innocent time when my heart quickened and I felt a pure joy at discovering something wonderful on a brightly lighted stage ... before it all became ... serious.

(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..)

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