Gary Carden

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For millions of readers, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind proved to be one of the most captivating novels of the last decade. Zafon’s talent for combining fantasy, suspense and realism produced unforgettable scenes that linger in the memory. As a result, Zafon’s name immediately conjures up the dark streets of Barcelona and the Museum of Forgotten Books. Zafon’s next book, The Angel Game, took place in the same environs. For that reason, The Prince of Mist is a bit of shock. We are no longer in Barcelona.

Zafon has has shifted to a different setting: a small coastal village with a mysterious beach house and a family that has abandoned their home in the “capital city,” because of the threat posed by an invading army, The reader may surmise that WWII is raging somewhere in the background, but its reality is not a major concern for Maximilian Carver (a watchmaker), his wife Andrea, and his three children: Alicia, 15, Max Jr., 13, and Irina, 8. Within hours of arriving in their new home, the entire family is drawn into a world of intrigue and mystery.

Most of The Prince of Mist is viewed through the eyes of Max Jr., who eagerly explores his new world and listens to his father’s tale about Dr. Richard Fleichmann, the man who built the beach house. When Fleichmann’s son, Jacob, had drowned in the sea near to the beach house, the father became despondent and died soon afterwards. For many years, the house remained unoccupied ... until Maximilian Carver bought it. Max Jr. soon discovers that there is something dark and troublesome about the house, the garden and the bay (which he discovers contains the remains of a sunken ship).

Eventually, Max visits a nearby lighthouse and meets the lighthouse keeper, Victor Cray and his son, Roland. At this point, a remarkably elaborate tale of love, betrayal and supernatural evil begins to unfold. In addition, it becomes increasingly evident that the Carver family has ceased to be innocent observers. They have attracted the interest of the Prince of Mist, a specter that sometimes materializes in the beach house, the garden and ... the sunken ship in the bay.

The Prince of Mist has an awesome diversity of seemingly unrelated factors that gradually converge to create a multi-faceted picture of evil. The walled garden near the house appears to be filled with bizarre statues — figures that resemble circus performers. Victor Cray tells Max Jr. an eerie tale of the sunken ship that crashes on the rocks some 20 years ago. The drowned victims included a troupe of circus performers. Eventually, Max learns that the only survivor was Victor Cray, a man who has devoted his life to building the lighthouse from which he could keep watch over the sunken vessel. Max Jr. becomes aware of an enigmatic image — a six-pointed star in a circle that seems to be everywhere. This symbol is associated with the Prince of Mist — the evil shape-changer that ... in time will touch the lives of everyone in this tale.

The Prince of Mist preys upon individual who venture into his territory by offering to make their most treasured dreams a reality. Max Jr. learns that both Fleichmann and Victor Cray were once in love with the same woman. Fleichmann succeeded in marrying her because he struck a satanic bargain with the Prince of Mist: Fleichmann would give his first-born son to the Prince of Mist. So, it would seem then that the drowning of Jacob Fleichmann was the fulfillment of this bargain. However, The Prince of Mist is filled with convoluted events that conceal surprising revelations. Max discovers that Jacob did not drown. In fact, Jacob was saved by Victor Cray, the lighthouse keeper. Cray knows that the bargain with the Prince of Mist has not been fulfilled.

The lighthouse keeper knows that there will be a night when the Prince of Mist will return to claim his victim. When that night comes, the sunken ship will rise again under the command of the Prince of Mist. The ship will return to the harbor flying the Prince of Mist emblem – the six-pointed star in the circle. The statues in the walled garden will heed the call of their master and return to the ship. There are numerous unanswered questions: Can Max save his newfound friend, Roland (who is really Jacob)? What about the budding love affair between Max’s sister, Alicia and Roland/Jacob? Is Alicia in danger, too? And what about 8-year-old Arina, who is suffering from a concussion after falling down the steps of the beach house (after tripping over an evil cat that is probably the Prince of Mist in one of his many incarnations?

Well, enough. The Prince of Mist is packed with omens of evil and portents of good. In addition, the shape-changing demon that lurks in the darkness is constantly making cryptic statements about the nature of time, implying that he can stop it, move it forward or make it repeat itself. In fact, his powers are so prodigious no one stands a chance. Yet, in the end ...

This is a work of fantasy and it is targeted for “young adults.” That explains why many of Zafon’s literary skills are missing from The Prince of Mist. For example, the erotic details that made The Shadow of the Wind memorable are missing. So are the dark emotions that drive the men and women through Barcelona’s streets in The Angel Game. As a consequence, the characters in The Prince of Mist seem to love, hate and perform acts of great courage (defying impossible odds) for no discernible reason.

However, one admirable possibility remains. The Prince of Mist will make a great movie. It makes no difference whether the film is animated like an old Disney movie or lavishly produced like a Star Wars epic, this modest narrative will serve as a template. Perhaps, in its final incarnation it will make sense.

The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Little, Brown and Company, 2010. 200 pages

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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.)

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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.”

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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..)

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The Terror by Dan Simmons. Little, Brown and Company. 2007. 769 pages.

Dear readers, let’s begin by establishing two contrary conclusions regarding this massive, painstakingly researched novel: First, the writing in The Terror is masterful; it reeks of atmosphere, intrigue and suspense. Second, I cannot, in all honesty, recommend this book to readers who are troubled by a narrative that is steeped in unrelenting suffering and despair. Having said that, let me reiterate: The Terror is an astonishing work.

The Terror is a fictionalized (and fantasized) account of Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition (1845-1848) to the Artic — purportedly, to find the illusive Northwest Passage. Initially, the expedition consists of two ships — The Terror (Sir John Franklin commanding), and The Erebus under Commander James Fitzjames. The two crews total 126 men. However, within a few weeks of reaching the Artic Circle, both ships are locked in a vast waste of ice. Artic nights are 22 hours long, and the temperature rarely rises above 50 below zero.

The hardship endured by the members of this expedition borders on the unbelievable: frostbite, gangrene, amputations (mostly feet and fingers), scurvy and before this tale is finished, cannibalism. Eventually, Franklin and Fitzjames discover that the ship’s canned foods have been poorly processed in London and the majority of it is spoiled and/or contaminated. As the daily allowance of liquor (grog) diminishes, the likelihood of mutiny increases. Coal is running out and the ice field surrounding the ships is expanding. A thaw seems unlikely, and as the “pressure” ice begins to literary squeeze the two ships to the point of shattering the outer hull, Franklin and Fitzjames reluctantly discuss the possibility that they might eventually abandon the vessels and attempt to drag sleighs loaded with diminishing provisions to a seaport or Esquimaux (19th century spelling of “Eskimo”) village. Success of such a venture is deemed unlikely.

However, all of these misfortunes combined do not represent a terror as great as “the thing on the ice.” There is something huge, white and deadly (much larger than a polar bear), which constantly circles the ships. Almost at its leisure, it snatches victims from the decks and even enters the ships, mangling and slaughtering its hapless victims. When the crew makes inept attempts to hunt or fish (all of the wildlife seems to have mysteriously disappeared), the “thing” murders the hunters, frequently beheading and disemboweling them.

In a series of terrifying encounters, “the thing” kills Sir John Franklin, slaughters three of the expedition’s four physicians and manages to snatch the majority of the trained seaman from the decks. Fitzjames dies of a combination of exhaustion, exposure and starvation. Eventually, the new captain of The Terror, Francis Crozier, attempts to marshal his forces and plan a retreat. Despite a demented, mutinous caulkers mate (who may be more dangerous than “the thing on the ice,” Crozier overcomes his own alcoholism and mental depression, unites the starving seaman of both ships and begins a painful (and pointless) journey.

Let me assure you that this synopsis barely scratches the surface of this novel. I haven’t mentioned Lady Silence, a beautiful Esquimaux girl who does not have a tongue. Considered a “Jonah” (jinx) by the seaman, she moves quietly among the starving men, managing to find food and shelter for herself in the frozen vastness beyond the ships.

During the latter half of The Terror, Francis Crozier emerges as one of the most engaging protagonists that I have encountered in recent fiction. After he becomes the official leader of the survivors, he frequently conducts religious services for the dead in which he reads passages from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. He also “hallucinates” and is blessed (or cursed) with “second sight.” (I’m not likely to forget the episode in which Crozier “channels” the infamous Fox sisters in upstate New York.) Suffice it to say that eventually, the reader will discover a mysterious link (or symbiosis) between Crozier, Lady Silence and the “thing on the ice.”

The Terror shows evidence of exhaustive research. This novel is packed with fascinating details about the Arctic and seaman, such as “growler” icebergs, ice that “screams,” Welsh wigs, the habits of Norway rats, seracs and a landscape that sometimes glows blue due to magnetism. There are deadly lightning and hailstorms, vibrating stars, a surreal “Carnivale,” (right out of Edgar Allen Poe) and tales of shaman who die laughing.

Most fascinating of all is a “Creation Myth” that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Cherokees myths about “the beginning.” However, author Simmons also presents a concluding episode that includes a grotesque parody of the Catholic Communion service that may leave readers stunned. If you read this one, please tell me what you think about the conclusion. Visit my blog: hollernotes.blogspot.com/.

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To tell you the truth, when I read that some woman claiming to be Popcorn Sutton’s daughter was publishing a book about her legendary father, I was openly skeptical. Following Popcorn’s suicide on March 16, 2009, I surfed thorough a lot of sites on the internet where I encountered an astonishing number of references to alleged relatives (sons, wives, ex-wives and lovers) — all who were frantically working on their “personal recollections” of this colorful and fiercely independent man. The odor of shameless greed and b.s. hung in the air like the stench of a dead and/or offended skunk on the interstate.

Well, I was pleased and a bit humbled to discover that Sky Ann Sutton is the real thing. Born in Cocke County, Tenn., and currently living in Massachusetts (where she earns her livelihood as a New England historian), she grew up as the only daughter of a single mother. Sky readily acknowledges that most of her information about Appalachia has been gleaned from her mother’s Foxfire books. Even though her attempts to talk to her father (by phone) were disappointing, she was readily accepted by a host of Popcorn’s relatives, so she maintained contacts with all of them. As a result this book is filled with old photographs, marvelous yarns and testimonials of love.

Of course, none of the messages are from Sky Ann’s father. “Marvin Sutton and I have never been formally introduced,” she says. “I’ve been known to call myself Rumpelstiltskin’s daughter because if my father ever met me, he’d have to guess my name.” In evaluating her “paternal relationship,” she wryly concludes, “The only thing I was sure of was that my father had washed his hands of me.”

As a consequence, Daddy Moonshine resembles a scrapbook more than a biography. However, it is one hell of a scrapbook, filled with perceptive insights, hilarious anecdotes and poignant memories. There is a priceless collection of photographs and some of Popcorn’s raunchy stories would be at home in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Much of my empathy for Rumpelstiltzein’s daughter is due to being an abandoned child myself (a father dead and a mother who left me on my grandparents’ front porch), so I sometimes sensed other emotions lurking beneath the surface of Sky’s narrative, including anger and frustration mixed with a powerful need for acceptance from her “lost family.” (It is also an acceptance that, regardless of how often or how freely it is given, it will need to be repeated again and again.)

Potential readers should be aware of a singular fact. Daddy Moonshine was written before Popcorn’s death. Indeed, Sky’s manuscript was at the printers when she received a “text message” on her cell phone. Sky immediately contacted the printers and informed them that she needed to add a few pages. That final section became a moving eulogy to the father she had never met. Quoting a woman named “Becky,” Sky concludes Daddy Moonshine with this quote:

“There’s no way of telling how many times Popcorn Sutton went to town and, quietly and anonymously, paid the light bill, the doctor bill or the drugstore bill for someone in dire need. He paid for several funerals, too, and left more than a few boxes of groceries on front porches in the middle of the night. Helping somebody wasn’t something he did for praise or thanks, it was something he did because that is what a man’s supposed to do. Do you suppose there is anyone who will do the same now that Popcorn’s gone?”

(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..)

Daddy Moonshine by Sky Sutton. Northhampton, 2009. 156 pages

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Most small southern towns have a place like The Coffee Shop in Sylva — a cafe that has become a local landmark.

I hopped curb here in 1950 when it had a wooden frame exterior and the jukebox had both “Put Another Nickel In” (Theresa Brewer) and “A Fool Such As I” (Jim Reeves). At night, the parking lot was always full of WW II veterans in souped-up cars. Sylva was “wet” and life was good.

Just up the street, the Ritz had just begun showing Sunday movies and I never missed a Cagney, Mitchum or Bogart. I got my salary docked every Sunday because I insisted on seeing the final 15 minutes of the movie before I came to work for Cicero Bryson. I would stand in the back of the theater with the door open, and when the credits started sliding down the screen, I would run like hell.

Now, 60 years later, The Coffee Shop has morphed into a kind of nostalgia museum where you can eat breakfast, lunch and dinner under the benevolent stares of multiple John Waynes, Clint Eastwoods, Dale Earnhardts and The Three Stooges. There are tattered Confederate flags, Robert E. Lee and his generals, James Dean, Bogart, Elvis and Marilyn frolic in period shots of drive-in cafe parking lots and all-night restaurants (a parody of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”), their images interspersed with vintage Coco-Cola signs, Uneeda Biscuits ads and hundreds of personalized license plates (RAMB-FEV, BADABANG, NOTKNOWWN POISINUS), with every state (and Aruba) accounted for.

Advertisements for fresh strawberry pie sit cheek to jowl with a seating section labeled “Police Officer Parking.” A collection of vintage pop bottles (Sunspot, Grapette) mingle with potted plants and birdhouses. Johnny Cash, a photo of the Brothers of the Bush (1950’s Centennial) and a photo of Popcorn Sutton. The sheer magnitude of this display causes visitors to stand, mouth agape, staring at the walls, while the constant clatter of spatulas, the sizzle of butter, bacon, hamburger, and the shouts of the “breakfast crew” mingles in a kind of grand, roaring symphony of sound, smells and color.

The majority of The Coffee Shop patrons are local. Elderly couples eat dinner here and the daily menu reflects local preferences: fried okra, cabbage, meatloaf, trout, slaw, potato salad. A significant number of Cherokees eat regularly, and there are the WCU college students who often stare about as they eat as though they had found themselves in an exotic, primitive village in Russia or Germany.

But The Coffee Shop endures, a primal life form that simply acquires an additional layer of scales and armor: a protective coating of ... history and pop stars, Uneeda Biscuits and Coke — a shield that deflects “the changing world.”

(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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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial Press. 277 pages

For readers who love epistolary novels, T.G.L.A.P.P.P.S. will prove to be a delight. In addition to containing bright and witty letters between a host of literate, comical and personable friends, this novel is saturated with a love for books and reading. At the heart of T.G.L.A.P.P.P.S. is a profound concept: literature not only educates, it also humanizes and elevates us.

At the end of WW II, Juliet Ashton, a successful and popular English writer (Izzy Biggerstaff Goes to War) prowls war-torn London in search of a subject for her next book. Since both the country and the people seem subdued and joyless in the aftermath of Germany’s devastating bombing raids, Juliet yearns for a topic that will restore confidence and optimism. At this point, she receives a “fateful” letter from a stranger living in Guernsey which is one of the Channel Islands between England and France. It is a letter that will change her life forever.

Dawsey Adams has found Juliet’s name and address on the flyleaf of a second-hand book by Charles Lamb, and he writes to inquire how he may obtain additional books by this author. As it happens, Juliet has written a book about Lamb and is an ardent fan of his writings. Thus begins an incredible correspondence that will eventually grow to include the entire membership of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society — a remarkable collection of eccentrics, misfits, intellectuals and pig farmers.

Juliet initiates a vigorous correspondence with the Society members — each of which has a story to tell about the five-year occupation of Guernsey by the Germans. The stories run the gamut from hilarious to heartrending. Eventually, Juliet knows that she has found the subject of her new book. She will do a detailed history of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Gradually, the members emerge as distinct and vivid personalities. Among them are: Dawsey, the silent, brooding romantic who resembles Jane Austin’s Heathcliff; Isola Pribby, who lives with a parrot named Zenobia and eventually becomes a practicing phrenologist (she divines character from the bumps on your head); Clovis Fossey, who wins the hand of Widow Hubert with Wordsworth’s poetry; Amelia, the group’s most rational member and its mainstay; and Wil Thisbee, the philosopher (who has no use for Yeats). All open their hearts and bare their souls to Juliet Ashton.

However, the most powerful personality in the Society (and its founder), Elizabeth McKenna, never speaks, for she is dead — killed by the Germans in a concentration camp shortly before the end of the war. In time, Juliet learns that Elizabeth had a child by a German soldier, who later died at sea. The Society has become the child’s guardian. These scant facts about Elizabeth leave a number of unanswered questions. In time, Juliet will find someone to answer them all.

Eventually, Juliet’s fascination with the Society members brings her to Guernsey. Although her acknowledged motive is to complete her research, it quickly becomes evident that these people have become her dearest friends; she has come to stay. Although she continues to write letters to her publisher (and Susan, her best friend and confidante in London), Juliet concentrates on Guernsey — the land, the people and the awesome scenery. Each day brings additional questions and revelations. Who was the German soldier that loved Elizabeth? What are Todt workers, and what was Elizabeth’s relationship with them? Was there a witness to Elizabeth’s death? If so, are they alive? What does Peter Sawyer know about all of this? (He is willing to tell all for a stiff drink and a photograph of Rita Hayworth.)

Naturally, there is also a love story, and it is one that would rival Jane Austin since it is fraught with melodrama, misunderstandings and suppressed passion. (Juliet has an abundance of beaus, but they are mostly the wrong kind!). In addition, Juliet’s letters (written and received) sparkle with wit, literary references and ruminations on “the human condition.” This is a stimulating book. References to Oscar Wilde, Yeats and Miss Marple are interspersed with recipes, observations on goat farming, the Society’s minutes and reports, and factual data about the German occupation of Guernsey.

If The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society isn’t already a best seller, it soon will be. It pushes all the right buttons: sentiment, wit and history. Does it sometimes appear “contrived”? Oh, yes, but it works. However, as a recipe, it might be a little to heavy on the sugar.

(Gary Carden is a writer, playwright and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and maintains a blog at www.tannerywhistle.net/books.)

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Remembering Henderson County by Louise Bailey. History Press, 2005. 144 pages.

In Louise Bailey’s Remembering Henderson County, the author recreates the past with affection, nostalgia and humor. To me, reading any of her books (I’ve located six of them) is akin to sitting on my porch in the evening while the light fades and the hectic noise of traffic recedes, until it could easily be a century ago; rain crows call and the night wind is freighted with honeysuckle. Now, all I need is a cool sip of spring water from a gourd dipper. For me, reading a few pages of a Louise Bailey book is the equivalent of a refreshing drink from a mountain spring. I’m a little anxious about the results though. Water is not supposed to be intoxicating, but after reading Louise, I tend to get a bit light-headed and “fanciful.” This is an example.

In the chapter titled, “Who Are We Western North Carolinians?” Louise describes a conversation with a farmer near Flat Rock who bought one of the first Model T trucks (circa 1915) so he could haul produce to Laurens, S.C. “It had solid tires on the back and pneumatic tires on the front.” This model had no windshield and no curtains; consequently, on a hot summer night, a steady stream of bugs and insects peppered the passengers’ faces.

The farmer’s first run to Laurens was memorable. The roads were washboards and gullies that could easily warp an axel, and heavy rains often made them impassible or dangerous. Average speed was 10 mph. However, the most interesting aspect of the journey was the return trip. “The way the lights worked, if you had the motor running real fast, you had good light.” Inevitably, the T-model would slow and the lights would dim and go out.

It is easy to imagine what this trip would be like in moonlight. Progress would be slow, but what a wonderful experience, puttering through the moonlight ... a kind of

magical, dream-light landscape. Ah, but for this weary farmer, there is no moon. He stops and sleeps fitfully until daylight.

For me, this wonderful description of an interrupted journey reminded me of all of those analogies in literature for the creative impulse or revelation. I remember some old German poet that told a story that is similar to Louise Bailey’s description of a night journey home from Laurens.

The German poet was lost in “a dark wood,” and very frightened because a storm was brewing. Suddenly, there was a flash of lightning, and in that instant, the traveler saw the distant village, the church steeple and the roof of his own home. When he was once more in darkness, he retained a memory of where he was going and how he could get there. There are other famous brief “flashes of lightening” or momentary insights in which weary, disheartened travelers a nd poets suddenly “see” a world “behind” the darkness.

Maybe I’m getting a little carried away here, and I am definitely “embellishing” Louise’s story. However, I like the image of a Model T truck puttering through the dark At 10 mph. The lights have gone out, but for a moment, the moon swims from the clouds into the open sky and the Model T truck travels for a short time by moonlight.

Yes, I am “pushing the envelope” here, but that seems to be an apt analogy for a writer who sometimes travels by the magical but brief illumination.

To me, “traveling by moonlight” in a Model T is profoundly different from traveling by the “common light of day,” or its artificial equivalent (electricity). Maybe if I sit still on my porch tonight, maybe if I play a little Nina Simone, drink a little spring water and concentrate, I can, for a brief moment, be a passenger in Louise Bailey’s Model T. I’ll let you know what happens.

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Reading So Cold the River may give many readers a weird sense of déjà vu — a feeling that they have been here before. When the protagonist, Eric Shaw, travels to a remote part of southern Indiana to film a documentary about not one, but two spectacular hotels that are being restored to their legendary grandeur, the name of another legendary hotel may come to mind: the Overlook in Stephen King’s The Shining.

For a time, the resemblance continues. Eric, like Jack Torrance in King’s spooky opus, is an aspiring writer (plus he is an unemployed filmmaker) and failed husband. Although Claire Shaw does not accompany her husband to the twin towns of French Lick and West Baden Springs, she is a tangible presence since Eric sees his film project as a way to salvage his marriage. Meanwhile, he talks/argues with her daily as he wanders through the spectacular hotel that once played host to millionaires, movie stars, mobsters and world travelers. He listens to stories of intrigue and mystery — especially those regarding the product that created this resort and all of this fabulous wealth: mineral springs and a patented medicine of dubious merit called Pluto Water.

Eric has been “commissioned” to make a film about the history of West Baden Springs by a wealthy woman named Alyssa Bradford who claims to be married to one of the descendants of the man who founded Baden Springs, the notorious Campbell Bradford. However, Eric soon discovers that nothing is what it seems. Suddenly, his employer (who had given him a bottle of the original Pluto Water) cannot be reached. Eric becomes increasingly frustrated, smashes his expensive camera and inexplicably opens his ancient bottle of Pluto Water and takes a healthy swig. At this point, Koryta’s novel veers off the track into a nightmare country that no longer holds a shred of resemblance to The Shining — unless you agree that both authors frequently present events that can best be defined as “inexplicable.”

Shaw begins to have hallucinations and/or visions. To complicate matters further, Shaw is blessed or cursed with a kind of “second sight” that enables him to perceive both past and future disasters. In addition, the water in the old bottle brings Eric face to face with Campbell Bradford, who turns out to be “evil incarnate.” Since a local plant is still producing Pluto Water (now considered to be a mild purgative), Shaw soon discovers that the “boiled and purified” version allows him to observe past occurrences without participating in them. Confused? Yeah, me too.

Koryta certainly believes in giving the reader a generous supply of terrifying images, sinister characters and undeveloped themes. Mysterious trains come chugging out of the night loaded with boxcars awash in Pluto Water; an embittered descendant of Campbell Bradford, named Josiah Bradford, becomes a hapless slave to the “spirit” of his fore-bearer and devises a scheme to destroy the Baden Springs Hotel (apparently Campbell resents the fact that he has been forgotten.) A nice, elderly lady named Anne McKinney who has a hobby involving tornado watching becomes a stalwart friend to Eric. She also collects old bottles of Pluto Water.  Kellen Cage, an Afro-American history major is doing research on West Baden Springs and becomes Eric’s friend. He also provides an excessive amount of historic background regarding an old feud that developed between Campbell Bradford and his Afro-American counterpart, a man named Shadrack. Somebody killed Shadrack, but no one knows who did it.  In fact, someone killed Campbell Bradford. Naturally, it looks like Eric will have to solve all of these mysteries by using a combination of “second sight” and Pluto Water. Oh, and I forgot. A private investigator from Chicago shows up only to be murdered by Josiah Bradford.

Eventually, it becomes apparent that Eric Shaw is addicted to Pluto Water.

If he doesn’t get his daily dosage, he is plagued with headaches, dizziness and nausea. The most potent powers reside in the old bottle that Alyssa

Bradford gave him -–the one that has a red tint. In time, Eric belatedly discovers that the “red tint” is the blood of Campbell Bradford. By drinking the water, Eric has unwittingly provided Campbell with a means of returning to West Baden to wreck his revenge. In Eric’s first “vision” of Campbell Bradford, the ghostly specter tips his black bowler and thanks Eric for “bringing him home.” As So Cold the River progresses, Campbell becomes stronger and more tangible.

Koryta piles visions and images on top of each other until So Cold the River threatens to split at the seams. As this novel approaches its thunderous, bell-ringing and explosive climax, the story becomes increasingly unwieldy. Suffice it to say that the conclusion involves a truckload of dynamite, the arrival of four tornados that descend on West Baden and a frenzied search for the original Pluto Water spring that had been used by a local moonshiner in producing a legendary whiskey. In conjunction with all of these events, Shaw’s wife, Claire comes to West Baden to bring her husband home. Before that can happen, she is kidnapped, thrown from a speeding vehicle and run over (or was she?)

Inexplicably (there is that word again!), she escapes with a broken arm and collarbone to be reunited with Eric who has just been dragged from the Pluto spring and delivered to the West Badin hospital with no discernible heartbeat. Nothing to worry about though; Eric is a hearty lad.

As this book neared its conclusion, I kept thinking about the final movement of Tchaykovsky’s “1812 Overture” – the one that ends with a thunderous crescendo of bells ringing, drums, French horns and whistles. Tchaykovsky’s conclusion sounds like a jubilant celebration. Koryta’s final “movement” sounds like a train wreck in a tornado.  However, as bad as this novel is, it was a lot of fun to read.

 

So Cold the River by Michael Koryt. Little, Brown and Company, 2010. 503 pages.

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When a friend sent me an advanced reading copy of Ravens with a note that said, “There is no one to like in this one,” I prepared myself for a dark and bleak journey through South Georgia grunge. That is exactly what I got, but “grim and gritty” is just the glue that holds this yarn together. George Dawes Green’s Ravens combines nightmare, humor, white-knuckle tension and a roller-coaster ride that never eases up. It has been a long time since I got my hands on a psychological thriller that captivated me like this one.

Meet Romeo and Shaw, two drifters from Ohio (Romeo has a pistol; Shaw is psychotic) who are on their way to Key West, Fla., with a vague plan to get jobs on a fishing boat, when a series of random events changes everything. First, somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Romeo runs over a possum that becomes lodged in the car’s fender well. Later, near Brunswick, Ga., when the Toyota Tersel develops a shimmy and a bad smell, Romeo wakes his fellow passenger, Shaw, suggesting that they stop and check the tires. At a convenience store called Chummy’s, Shaw overhears a teenage clerk talking about a winning lottery ticket for $318,000,000. Shaw learns that the winning ticket belongs to a Brunswick family named Boatwright and he immediately develops a daring scheme: He and Romeo will hold the family hostage and demand half of the money.

At first, Shaw’s plan seems silly — especially since he seems to be making it up as he goes. However, within an hour, Shaw’s vague scheme has evolved into something complex, methodical and deadly. Shaw invades the Boatwright home and forces the father, Mitch Boatright, to inform the lottery officials that he and Shaw are dual winners ... and old friends. Concocting a story about their meeting at a crisis center where Mitch was a counselor, Shaw has a series of interviews with the media and begins to acquire the trappings of a cult hero — especially when he announces plans to give “his share” away.

In the meanwhile, Shaw has given Romeo a map with the homes of all of the Boatwright relatives marked on it. Romeo drives a continual circuit, enduring the stench of rotting possum (which he thinks is the pervasive smell of Brunswick). He is linked to Shaw with a cell phone. Romeo has instructions to call Shaw at specific intervals, and if Shaw fails to answer, Romeo is to start killing Boatwrights, including a grandmother, in-laws and close friends. “Just kill whoever is nearest,” instructs Shaw.

Eventually, the strange bond between Shaw and Romeo begins to acquire a deeper, disturbing character. Shaw is accustomed to assuming the role of leader while Romeo is the devoted servant, committed to performing his master’s orders without question. As Shaw attends press conferences, church services and rallies with the helpless family, the lonely, introverted Romeo continues to drive his endless circuit. Finding himself the center of attention and with a growing cult of admirers, Shaw becomes increasingly irrational and manic. Romeo, “the angel of death” with a .22 pistol, begins to feel abandoned and spirals toward self-destruction.

Perhaps what is most disturbing about Ravens is the alterations in the Boatwright family. Mitch, the father (and a religious man) becomes increasingly fatalistic and submissive; his alcoholic wife begins to fantasize, seeing Shaw as her future lover; Tara, the teenage daughter oscillates between sexual lust and a desire to murder Shaw; and Jase, the young son gradually becomes Shaw’s disciple, eager to supplant Romeo. For each character, the unrelenting tension and danger of their trapped lives forces them to confront their own unnatural fears and yearnings. Eventually, the Boatwright family and all of their friends willingly submit to Shaw’s control.

Although the foregoing details do not appear to be comic, Ravens has an abundance of dark humor. Finally, if the reader makes a few grudging concessions, there is even one character who qualifies as a hero ... of sorts. Burris, the old, obese policeman, who is referred to as “Deputy Dawg” by his fellow officers, becomes suspicious and questions the clerk at Chummy’s. Despite the ridicule and contempt of his superiors, he launches an investigation of Shaw and Romeo. Ironically, when all of the other characters are filled with indecision, it is Deputy Dawg who perceives a way to bring peace and resolution to this kinky, terrifying tale.

Ravens, which will be published this month, has been “anticipated” for 14 years. George Dawes Green published two prize-winning novels, The Caveman’s Valentine and The Juror in 1994-95. Then came this lengthy silence. Advanced critical response indicates that Ravens is well worth the wait.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller. His recent writings can be found on his blog, hollernotes.blogspot.com.)

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Getting Naked with Harry Crews, edited by Erik Bledsoe. University of Florida Press, 1998.

The first time I ever heard of Harry Crews — some 30 years ago now — was when a friend gave me a copy of The Gospel Singer and said, “Don’t tell anyone where you got this.” I read it immediately, and in the parlance of some of my young friends now, Crews “cleaned and polished my brain stem.”

It was a darkly humorous tale, filled with gothic figures, murder, sex and mayhem. I’ll never forget the funeral parlor scene in the opening, the terrifying lynchings (two of them) at the conclusion, and the bizarre events in between. My favorite characters were Foot (a midget with a 27-inch inch appendage), Willalee Bookatee Hull (a black minister and rapist), and the protagonist, who has a magically sweet voice and a black heart. I still remember the quote, “In a world where God is dead, mankind worships each other.” When I finished the book, I just opened it and started again.

Occasionally, I gave The Gospel Singer to friends, but they frequently returned it unfinished and asked me why I read “that trash.” I had no answer. I only knew that I had read something that spoke to me as no other writer had ever done. For years, I read everything Crews wrote. The Hawk is Dying followed by the quirky Car (the protagonist decides to eat an automobile), Naked in Garden Hills, This Thing Don’t Lead to Heaven, and finally the book that told me why Crews appealed to me — Childhood: The Biography of a Place. In this painful autobiography, Crews, records the details of his own origin, a story of hardship and grinding poverty in rural Bacon County, Georgia.

Crews acknowledges that he grew up bitterly ashamed of his voice (that means his redneck dialect), his family and the place where he lived. For years, he made desperate attempts to escape the ignorance and poverty of his roots, only to discover that it was bred into him — blood, bone and soul.

“I have Georgia in my mouth,” he is fond of saying, “every time I speak.” Finally, after years of trying to escape his origins, Crews came full circle. He realized that the only subject he could write about with accuracy was his own life. Eventually, he learned that what he viewed as his greatest shortcoming was ... a gift! He could speak from the perspective of a poor white Southerner at a time when no one was doing that in Southern literature — someone who had experienced crippling poverty, a daunting host of childhood ailments (including polio), and the pity and contempt of those who judged him, including the school system, the privileged town folk and the world beyond Bacon County.

Crews came to feel a passionate kinship with outcasts — people who had been rejected because they were physically and emotionally “different.” In effect, for Crews, physical abnormalities became the outward embodiment of the inner disfigurements that we all have. Consider this incident from his childhood: When Harry was about 6 years old, he accidently fell into a barrel of scalding water during a hog killing. Jerked from the boiling water by a neighbor, Harry watched the skin unroll down his arms and drop off his fingers (along with his fingernails). He carried severe scars for the rest of his life.

A short time after the incident, he recalls sitting on the porch with a number of other children and turning the pages of a Sears catalogue. He and his friends amused themselves by making up stories about the people pictured in the catalogue. Several of his playmates wondered why “the pretty people” didn’t have any scars — no acne, no disfigurements. Crews knew that it was impossible to grow up in rural south Georgia (or Appalachia, for that matter) without being “marked by your environment” — scars, missing fingers, broken teeth, etc. Crews said that his playmates decided that the beautiful folks in the advertisements had scars. You just couldn’t see them. In a sense, that is what Crews finally came to write about — the scars that are not visible, the ones that are inside.

Getting Naked With Harry Crews is a comprehensive collection of interviews with the author from 1968 until the present. The title is a Crews metaphor for telling the unvarnished truth. The result is a bit overwhelming. Beginning with interviews that reveal Crews as a boastful, garrulous and angry writer determined “to write 20 novels,” the collection progresses through the author’s violent and provocative career.

Some early interviewers treat him with pompous condescension, while others view him with awe and trepidation. He discusses his alcoholism (“the dark twirlies”), his legendary propensity for violence — at the present his nose has been broken nine times, along with both hands, most of his ribs, his neck and both legs — and his checkered career as a journalist for Esquire and Playboy, including his famous pieces on Robert Blake, Charles Bronson, Vic Marrow, and the Texas sniper Charles Whitman.

This impressive collection contains a diversity of motifs. Crews has spent 40 years defending himself against charges of populating his works with freaks, raw sex and gratuitous violence. His defense is impressive and consistent, although the repetitive questions of his interviewers occasionally becomes an irritation. Again and again, he laments the rapid loss of Southern language (“Eventually, we will all talk like disc jockeys!”), the loss of family, manners, customs, a “sense of place,” the decline of reading, and the destruction of nature. He also unabashedly endorses blood sports (boxing, cock fights, dog fights) and reasserts his belief that mankind has a black and beastial heart. There are other themes, too: a smoldering rage at the loss of his own youth; despair at his lack of critical success; and the belief that his next book will be “the best one.”

Not too long ago, I saw a PBS interview with Crews, and it was memorable. Harry’s scarred and broken body was covered by tattoos and he sported a bristling, gray Mohawk haircut. To me, he resembled one of those ancient carcasses unearthed from some Icelandic peat bog. Under the timid prodding of his interviewer, Harry explained his appearance. In effect, he had given up trying to look “academically presentable.” He said that from here on out, he chose to be the old maverick freak that he was. Obviously, he took considerable delight in discomfiting his colleagues at Florida University where he has been a full professor for 20 years (in the school that had once denied him acceptance to their graduate program).

The final interviews in Getting Naked With Harry Crews are a bit more reflective and somber. Crews has a multitude of ailments now and he tends to think more about death and dying. “I’ve always been interested in the skull beneath the flesh,” he says as he considers his own mortality. “Now, I’m gonna find out what it is like to die.” Then, he quotes one of his favorite deceased celebrities, Diane Arbus, who said “My favorite thing is to go someplace that I have never been.

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Tender Graces by Kathryn Magendie. Bell Bridge Books, 2009. 315 pages

 

Some of the most poignant passages in literature are uttered by children: Tom Sawyer, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter Bone — all are juvenile protagonists who relate the events of their lives with candor. Perhaps Kathryn Magendie gave her child protagonist a narrator’s “voice” because when a children address us, they usually speak with unabashed honesty, relating without guile, the anguish of growing up in a families shattered by either alcoholism, mental illness or divorce. In Kathryn Magendie’s Tender Graces, spunky, little Virginia Kate Carey must cope with all three.

Much of Virginia Kate’s childhood is spent in “By God West Virginia” where she and her brothers, Andy and Micah are the hapless pawns of their parents, Fredrick and Kate Ivene Carey — two ill-matched alcoholics. Like most children in an unstable home, the Carey kids survive by clinging together. They are also adept at drawing on inner resources. Micah, the oldest, paints, and as he grows older, his childish scrawls turn into provocative depictions of the world around him. The youngest, Andy, turns to sports. However, it is “Bug” (Virginia Kate) who keeps a diary; as she struggles to make sense of her mother’s violent rages and her father’s repeated absences, she sometimes withdraws into a fantasy world filled with nurturing spirits (including her beloved grandmother, who perished in a suspicious fire) and a mythical horse, Fionadala.

At the heart of Tender Graces resides Kate Carey, who is a deeply troubled and enigmatic woman with a perverse need to injure and reject those who are closest to her. Eventually, she drives Frederick away, and when he ends up in Louisiana with a divorce and a new wife, Kate’s destructive nature grows as she lashes out at her bewildered children and all of the attending relatives. Gradually, she banishes them, first Micah, then “Bug” and finally Andy, sending them to Louisiana to live with the Shakespeare-quoting, womanizer, Fredrick.

The traumatic impact of this dislocation is extensive, and all the Carey children will carry the subsequent scars for the rest of their lives. At this point, Tender Graces becomes a study in contrasts. West Virginia’s lofty mountains, cooling breezes and colorful relatives are replaced with heat, mimosa and alligators. Instead of Kate Carey’s dark beauty, her chaotic house and the ever-present smell of bourbon and Shalamar, Micah, Bug and Andy find pale, blond Rebekha and a neat house filled with color-coordinated rugs, drapes and towels. However, Rebekha is not the traditional Grimm Brothers fairytale stepmother, nor is the Louisiana household crawling with vicious relatives (Aunt Ruby in West Virginia is especially memorable) and carnal uncles. Gradually, the shame of being unloved is replaced with security, nurturing and kindness.

Tender Graces contains a paradox. As the Carey children grow into teenagers, evolving into talented and capable adults, Virginia Kate continues to yearn for the approval and love of her unstable mother. Despite repeated rejections she harbors an irrational need to return to this selfish and drunken woman who has abdicated all of her maternal responsibilities. Eventually, it is clear that Virginia Kate’s bond with her mother will only be resolved by her mother’s death.

Kathryn Magendie has a marvelous talent for capturing the world of children. Andy, Bug and Micah emerge with distinct personalities, each with their own set of interests. Their daily lives are depicted with vibrant details. However, these children bear no resemblance to the usual characters in juvenile fiction. Magendie’s children talk with their mouths full of food, engage in endless (affectionate) taunting and often curse like longshoremen, and they all have the marvelous gift of exaggeration, especially Bug! (“I couldn’t talk because I had 40 frogs in my throat.”) Their speech is filled with references to period TV programs (Rawhide, Lassie, Elvis, The Wizard of Oz) and food (Zero candy bars, Orange Crush, etc.) It is a fully realized juvenile world filled with color, sound and smells.

There are also some tantalizing mysteries. What happened at the cabin on the hill where Virginia Kate sometimes sees her father? What dark secret does Micah conceal about the death of his Uncle Arvelle? Who is the mysterious “adopted child,” Anin?

Is there anything wrong with Tender Graces? Well, yes, although the flaws are minor compared with the numerous merits. These people eat too much! It is New Orleans food, of course, but I got heartburn. The latter part of the book gets dangerously close to a cloying sweetness and needed some brutal editing. There are too many characters — some of which vanish for such prolonged periods, I forgot who they were.

I suspect that there will be more books from Kathryn Megendie. In fact, Tender Graces probably needs a sequel. A book with this much vitality deserves a child/grandchild.

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There aren’t many things that cause my weary heart to quicken. The local bookstore, Netflix, rain crows and, yes, the Oxford American which is “proudly published by the University of Central Arkansas.” I’ve stuck with them through bankruptcy, inept leadership, and a series of in-house disputes because, regardless of the management, this quarterly is one of the best publications dedicated to promoting, explicating and celebrating what it means to be “Southern” (that includes “Appalachian”).

One of the writers for this issue, a young man named Matthew Vollmer from Andrews, N. C., made me salivate when he describes how a misguided attempt to create a huge sensory deprivation tank morphs into a reincarnated soda fountain from the ‘50’s. This drug store specializes in egg creams, grilled cheese sandwiches (ten different cheeses), buttered popcorn and grilled peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches, bisque soups and milkshakes (everything has lots of sugar!) When customers over-indulge, they sometimes get silly and irrational. The manager of the soda fountain, armed with squirt-gun water bottles to keep everybody in line.

I remember thatI was skeptical when I got my first subscription to Oxford American. I expected something academic, Faulknerian and obscure. But, then, they published a recipe for possum stew, did a wonderful article on Jerry Lee “The Killer” Lewis, published humor by Roy Blunt, book reviews by Hal Crowther (Lee Smith’s husband) and essays by Barry Hannah. In the early years they sent me a free record with their “music” issue; now they send a DVD! They publish remarkable short stories (Ron Rash, William Gay) and poetry that I cut out of the magazine and paste on my bathroom mirror.

I save every issue and they are stored and cared for as if they were illuminated manuscripts. I’ve been thinking about having them bound, and I often go prowling through them looking for that memorable article written by James Dickey’s daughter or that essay on “The South in Cinema.” It is all here: art, fiction, food, theater, film, essays, poetry, “personalities,” etc.) Probably what is most important is, it makes my gears spin and engage, makes me think ...and makes me want to write.

This issue is devoted to “Odes to the Best” and is filled with memorable quotes. George Singleton, who just won a Guggenheim, said that the hardest part of writing is “not being distracted by email and other forms of techno-procrastination.” (I have some friends who should mull that one over.) There is a wonderful ode to “Mandingo,” the best “bad” movie about slavery in the South; a recipe for pimento cheese which should be “spread on a gridded hamburger;”a poem by Billy Collins, and a marvelous article on lawn-mover racing in Ellebee, N. C. where an old NASCAR track has been given a second life. This “working man’s racetrack” complete with “souped up lawnmowers” caters to “stock” and “modified” mowers with the blades removed. The races create screaming fans, boiling dust (winning purses up to $200), and a growing number of “drivers” who are becoming local heroes. Not surprisingly, lawnmower races are spreading to other North Carolina towns.

A disturbing “Ode to Southern Highways: recalls scenes of night-time terror and violence throughout the Southeast. (For example, there was a night in 1947 near Greenville, S. C. when a convoy of 37 taxes escorted Willy Earle who had allegedly stabbed a taxi driver up highway 124 to his lynching. The writer, Alan Grant, visits bridges, wooded tracts and riverbanks that are “haunted” with tragic memories.

Daisy Dodge’s “Ode to Coming Home,” made me get all misty-eyed:

“It will be very happy to see you, son.

It will look how much you’ve grown

It will look how far you’ve come.

It will always, eternally, love you.

...It will make sure you’ve eaten.

It will make sure you’ve slept.

It will make sure you’ve passed a good time.

It will not let you go.

It will not let you go back out into the cold.”

There is also a poignant ode to a BBQ funeral (the deceased had prepared the meal before his death and stored it in a freezer). Hal Crother’s essay “Home From the Hills,” explans the current mountaintop removal crisis. There is a much-deserved tribute to James Harold, a North Carolina outsider artist, who killed himself in 1999; David Taylor’s visit with James Harold echoes another interview conducted by Jonathan Williams some fifteen years ago when this gifted folk artist was vibrantly alive.

Even the advertisements are entertaining: recording artists from Appalachia, new novelists and poets with provocative titles. The promotion blurb for one old Delta blues musician says: “He’s never lip-synched, trashed a hotel or demanded a larger dressing room. Let’s give him a hand.”

Check this magazine out!

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Although I sometimes wish that the maps of my Jackson County had a more beguiling shape — perhaps a bear or a quarter moon — its outline is pretty prosaic (it seems to resemble a pork chop). But marvelous events (mythical and real), notable lives and tragic encounters have occurred within these boundaries. Let’s begin with the fantastic.

According to the Cherokees, the witch Spearfinger once lived on Whiteside Mountain, where she often stood at night on the high cliffs during raging thunderstorms, brandishing her deadly digit and laughing. The great serpent Uktena once swam in the Tuckasegee (the marks of his scales are still etched in the river’s rocks). The giant, Judaculla, the “Slant-eyed One,” now sleeps in the Balsams, his flinty, upturned features visible at Pinnacle Rock. A hundred coves and creeks whisper of vanquished water spirits, nunnehi, “little people,” raven-mockers and giant eagles.

Then, there are the “maybe, maybe nots” — Jackson County tales of people, creatures, events and places that live in the twilight realm between reality and myth: the ghostly baying of Boney (sometimes called Bonas), the legendary hunting dog that leaped to his death from a cliff near Cashiers; the Tuckasegee “Smoke-hole” that was rumored to have great curative powers — now vanished; the chilling scream of “painters” in Little Canada (they were drawn to houses with new-born babies and lactating mothers.)

Many famous and infamous folks have lived here briefly and then traveled on to other destinies. William Bartram, whom the Cherokees called “flower plucker,” picked strawberries here; the outlaw, Major Lewis Redmond lived for several years at the King Place above Fisher Creek; Will Holland Thomas built a home near Whittier and, according to oral tradition, buried gold in his pasture; Dr. John R. Brinkley, the “goat-gland-man,” who sold patent medicine on XERA and ran for governor of Kansas, built a summer home above Cullowhee (his name is still inscribed in the rock walls near the road); Charlie Wright, the man who rescued Gus Baty (who fell/jumped) off Whiteside (a feat that earned Charlie a Carnegie medal) was equally famous as the man who courted Kidder Cole, the most beautiful woman in Cashiers Valley — which brings us to Judge Felix Alley, another Jackson County native who not only wrote Random Thoughts of a Mountaineer but also courted Kidder. When Wright “beat his time,” he wrote a famous square dance piece, “The Ballad of Kidder Cole.” (The lyrics include the line, “Charlie Wright, dang your soul/You done stole my Kidder Cole.”) Kidder later married “Little Doc” Nickols in Sylva.)

Any county history that is not seasoned with a bit of local bloodshed and courtroom drama is likely to be a bland chronicle. My county has a generous helping. In my childhood, I often saw the infamous Nance Dude trudging the roads near Wilmot with bundles of split kindling on her back; Bayless Henderson, the luckless killer of Nimrod Jarrett was hanged in Webster (2,000 witnesses, four preachers and picnic baskets.)

There were mysteries, too. What happed to Frank Allison, the deputy sheriff who joined a foxhunt into the Balsams and never came home. There was also a minister in Glenville who went out one evening to call his cow home — his remains found over 40 years later and his identity verified by his gold watch.

Now, comes a few of our notable people and places. Gertrude Dills McKee, the first female senator for the state of North Carolina, read poetry by candlelight at the Jarrett House when she was a child and grew up to pass legislation that revolutionized education in this state. Robert Lee Madison, who grew up in the home of Robert E. Lee (and once told my fifth-grade class about attending Traveler’s midnight funeral); attended (and described) the hanging of Jack Lambert (who was innocent), and founded a little college in Cullowhee that became Western Carolina University. The writer, John Parris, who launched a career when he interviewed a snake-bitten preacher named Albert Teaster and went on to write a series of books about the history and folklore of this region.

Is that all? In actual fact, these people, places and events are but the thin outer shell of my county. Beneath that resides my personal memories and dreams fostered by the Ritz Theater on Saturday; the courtroom of the Jackson County Courthouse where I sat in the balcony with my classmates and watched murder trials as gripping as anything that I witnessed at the Ritz; the music of Harry Cagle and Aunt Samantha Bumgarner; a little lady named Sadie Luck, Sylva’s first librarian who used to say, when I entered, “Gary, I’ve been saving a book for you;” and, finally, the faint echoes of a tannery whistle and (faintly) a song my father played long ago in the Rhodes Cove twilight, “The Raindrop Waltz.”

I think, perhaps, that the story of my county is just beginning. This is but a small, modest swatch in the gigantic tapestry — or perhaps a few bars of a symphonic musical score that is still being woven/written by countless fingers and voices. Can you hear it? I hear it best at night when I take out my cochlear implant and listen to the rich, dark silence and the unheard sounds around me.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller. His recent writings can be found at his blog, http://hollernotes.blogspot.com/)

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Willful Creatures Stories by Aimee Bender. Doubleday & Company. 208 pages.

 

Recently, Garrison Keilor mentioned a new writer, Aimee Bender on his daily post, “The Writer’s Almanac.” Garrison noted that Bender’s quirky and enigmatic books were causing quite a stir on the west coast – short stories about families with pumpkin heads and little boys who are born with fingers shaped like keys. An Internet search informed me that Aimee’s books contained strange parables that often left the reader both puzzled and fascinated. I immediately ordered The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own and Willful Creatures Stories.

An Invisible Sign of My Own opens with this paragraph:

“There was this kingdom once where everyone lived forever. They discovered the secret of eternal life, and because of that, there were no cemeteries, no hospitals, no funeral parlors, no books in the bookstore about death and grieving. Instead, the bookstore was full of pamphlets about how to be a righteous citizen without fear of an afterlife.”

I was hooked. For the past two weeks, I have been reading odd fables that often resemble perverse variations of Grimm fairy tales.

In “Off” from Willful Creatures Stories, a determined young woman goes to a party intending to kiss three men: a black-haired one, a red-head and a blond. Her plan has disastrous consequences. Then, there is “Debbieland” where a shy teenager is attacked and humiliated because she wears a skirt that offends some fellow students. In “Fruit Without Words,” a customer at a roadside fruit stand discovers that it is possible to buy words that are composed of the items that they represent.

“Ironhead” is a disturbing tale of a child born with the head of an iron frying pan – born into a family of pumpkin-heads. In “Dearth,” a lonely woman finds seven potatoes in her kitchen; despite all of her efforts to rid herself of them, they return and gradually develop arms, legs and facial features. Willful Creatures also contains “The Leading Man” and the story about the boy with fingers that resemble keys – keys that are destined to open locks that appear throughout the boy’s life.

What is going on here? At present, a great many people are attempting to analyze these stories. I am struck by how many of Bender’s perverse tales appear to be parables that embody the problems that beset all of us. Bender’s protagonists are often victims of alienation and rejection. They are filled with yearnings and a desperate need to “belong” and often, they overcome daunting obstacles only to be disillusioned with their success.

My favorite in the Willful Creatures Stories collection, “Job’s Jobs,” is a marvelous variation of the travails of the biblical Job. A vengeful and unrelenting God pursues Bender’s modern-day Job. Each time that Job acquires success (a writer, a painter, an actor, etc.) God appears and demands that Job relinquish his new career. In addition, God refuses to justify his actions. Finally, Job’s world becomes so small he is left no alternative but to retreat to the infinite world of his inner thoughts.

Although I found some of Bender’s stories inexplicable, I am so pleased with the ones that provide a shrewd insight into life’s uncertainties, problems and mysteries (death, alienation, guilt, etc.) I wholeheartedly recommend these books. If you like Angela Carter, Ambrose Bierce and the poetry of Stephen Crane, you will treasure Aimee Bender.

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“The Spirit of Asheville” (video) by Arthur Hancock and Katie Brugger. Time Capsule Video: Highlands. Running Time: 73 minutes.

 

The Spirit of Asheville” is an unabashed siren call to the rest of the world: “Come to Asheville! This is the land of your heart’s desire.” In terms of photography, it is truly a visual feast. “Spirit” unrolls like a tapestry of fluid and vibrant images — each capturing a unique aspect of this “city with a small-town atmosphere.”

Even native-born denizens of this region will find themselves enthralled by a diversity of culture and entertainment currently flourishing in and around Asheville. Quite honestly, I had no idea all of these wonderful treasures existed. From the hypnotic, sustained thrum of a golden cymbal in the Skinny Beats Drum Shop to the raucous cacophony of Jack of the Woods string band at midnight, this video provides a kind of symphony of Asheville’s sounds, sights and attitudes. Motorcycle enthusiasts streak down the Blue Ridge Parkway and joyful multitudes gather for the drumming sessions in Prichard Park. The animated atmosphere of Bele Chere blends with dozens of sidewalk performers, jugglers and musicians — all contrasting with other, peaceful images: the serenity of yoga classes, falling snow and the placid flow of mountain streams.

“The Spirit of Asheville” contains numerous interviews with both visitors and local entrepreneurs; a multitude of residents (mostly transplants) provide enthusiastic endorsements for everything from hiking and camping to the quality of the region’s beer (breweries are flourishing in this region). Owners of innovative industries speak with pride about their efforts to create alternative fuels, ecology-oriented housing and “cutting edge” media technology.

In short, Asheville has become a mecca for a middle-class that seeks an environment that combines “quality of life” experience with maximum cultural enrichment. It is all here: a region rich in history, tradition and natural beauty. In “Spirit,” artists, musicians and writers repeatedly speak of Asheville’s casual, “liberal” or open-minded atmosphere. One enraptured transplant describes the region as “Southern, mountain and progressive” combined with “hospitality.” At one point, a number of self-proclaimed independent “free spirits” interviewed on Lexington Avenue noted that they had migrated from the west coast to Asheville (one noted that she came for Asheville’s “hippie feel with a modern twist.”

Indeed, in “Spirit” this mountain city emerges as the “American dream” for a large segment of this country’s middle-class. Wonderful food, musical entertainment, funky blue grass saloons, a fantastic climate, folk festivals, independent bookstores, coffee houses, beer parlors, quality theater productions and, if we are to believe the energetic chorus of interviewees, all of that wrapped in an atmosphere of laid-back casualness and friendliness that is uniquely southern. Wow!

However, the greatest appeal of “Spirit” is the lush richness of the photography. Indeed, there are numerous scenes that are captured so perfectly, they would serve as vibrant paintings: a frisky bobcat in a tree, a yawning bear, deer in Cades Cove, snow-laden hemlocks, a nest of wild bees, spring flowers at the Asheville Arboretum, a weaver at the Folk Art Center, basket-making artisans and an endless collection of wonder-struck children, playful dogs and a final shot of Asheville’s nighttime skyline that is painfully beautiful. This is the point, I think. Although the obvious purpose of this film is to provoke a migration of well-heeled hedonists to “The Land of Sky,” this visual paean has an additional value. It is a work of art.

Are there flaws in “The Spirit of Asheville?” A few, I think, and this is purely a personal quibble, but I’ll go ahead and give it.

It is too long. It could stand to lose 15 minutes.

Finally, there is a neglected target group out there who yearn to come to our beautiful mountains, but their concerns were not addressed in this film. They are the retired people who love the region’s scenery, art, culture and music, but invariably want information about more personal issues ... things like the quality of medical care, the presence of retirement communities and support services for the elderly. I know because at this point in my life, that is what I want to know about. Oh, I will be an enthusiastic participant in all of the wondrous diversions treated in this film, or at least in the ones that I am capable of enjoying.

If Asheville has truly become the modern Byzantium — a place which, according to William Butler Yeats, is teeming with the young “in one another’s arms.” Yeats further notes that it is “no country for old men.” I hope that isn’t so of the “Mountain mecca.” I think I saw a few of my peers in this film, sitting quietly in the background or moving along the sidewalk (with canes and metal walkers) near Malaprops. In “Spirit II,” let us send a heartfelt invitations to them, as well.

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The Monsters: Mary Shelley and the Curse of Frankenstein by Dorothy and Thomas Hobbler. Little, Brown and Company. 374 pages.

 

Back in the 1950’s, when I was an English major, I frequently found myself moribund with boredom as I suffered through classroom lectures on the meaning of sonnets, epics and allegories. I slogged through the quagmires of literature, not because Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope and Milton were boring, but because I was in thrall to teachers who seemed incapable of making literature “walk, talk and sing.” There were exceptions, of course, but the majority of my guides merely succeeded in convincing me that I was either immune or insensitive to “great literature.”

However, when we got to the Romantic poets, not even the best/worst efforts of my instructors could deaden that music. I heard it; we all heard it: the seductive music of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats. Suddenly, here was a world that was populated by misfits, rebels and (with the exception of Wordsworth) drug addicts. They thumbed their nose at religion and social convention, behaved outrageously and often died young. Even if we didn’t approve of them, they got our attention.

Those of us who loved (or were fascinated by) the Romantics have probably heard some version of that magic night when five young people gathered inside the Villa Diodati, a luxurious summerhouse on Lake Geneva in Switzerland to tell ghost stories. It was June 17, 1818, and violent thunderstorms and lightning swept across the lake that night. Illuminated by lightning and flickering candles, the guests attempted to frighten each other with lurid tales of vampires, the resurrected dead and vengeful spirits.

All of those present were either gifted, famous and/or notorious: George Gordon Lord Byron, “the most famous man in the world,” whose literary works and sexual exploits had shocked (or fascinated) Europe; Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had abandoned his pregnant wife, Harriet, and eloped with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (soon to be Mrs. Shelley); Dr. John Polidori, Bryon’s personal physician and aspiring poet, who was about to lose his lucrative position; and Claire Clarmont, Mary’s step-sister and Byron’s current mistress (she is pregnant with his child). Finally, there is Mary W. Godwin, daughter of London’s renowned, radical and scandalous William and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, both of whom considered conventional marriage to be “a form of prostitution.”

Of all the lurid images and tales evoked that night, only two are destined to survive: Mary’s Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus and Dr. Polidori’s Vampyre — both destined to become world famous (Polidori’s novel will eventually become Bram Stoker’s Dracula). The gothic tales created by Byron, Shelley and Claire Clarmont did not survive long enough to be published.

Dorothy and Thomas Hobbler have undertaken a provocative thesis: to demonstrate that Mary Shelley’s novel is a thinly veiled autobiography. The Hobbler’s contend that the “monster” created by Dr. Frankenstein is Mary Shelley’s alter ego! It is a persuasive argument. Both the author and Dr. Frankenstein’s creation are unloved and outcast. Further, both Mary’s father, William Godwin and her perverse husband, Percy Shelley have much in common with the cruel, remote Dr. Frankenstein who rejected his own creation and sought to destroy it.

In addition, the Hobbler’s perceive other parallels between the novel and the lives of all of the original guests at Villa Diadoti. Not only are all of the characters fated to either die prematurely or, like Claire Clarmont, live tragic, obscure lives; they often suffer the loss of their loved ones. In effect, all seem to be victims of a curse that was engendered on the night that Mary Shelley outlined the basic plot of Frankenstein – the tale of a monster that vows to destroy all that his creator holds dear — children, lovers and relatives.

The first to die are children. Mary and Percy’s children fall victims to sickness (cholera and or related epidemics). Then, Harriet Westbrook, Shelley’s abandoned wife and Fanny Godwin, William’s oldest daughter, commit suicide. Byron and Claire’s daughter, Allegra, dies in a convent. Dr. Polidori, having lost control of Vampyre and living as a social outcast, commits suicide; Shelley drowns in a boating mishap; Byron joins a Greek struggle for independence, becomes ill and dies tragically — a victim of incompetent doctors.

The sole survivor, Mary Shelley, devotes the remainder of her life attempting to reconstruct (or resurrect) her brilliant husband’s life and work. She painstakingly gathers his poems, diaries and letters — all of which she edits and transcribes. There is considerable evidence that Mary destroy ed or altered any materials which did not support her vision of Shelley as a brilliant, revolutionary genius. In effect, she “recreated” him.

The Monsters is a brilliant, exhaustively researched work. However, I was distressed to find that some of my most cherished images of the Romantics were groundless myths (Edward Trelawney did not snatch Shelley’s heart from his burning body at the seaside cremation service, nor did Leigh Hunt have it shaped into an amulet that he wore around his neck.). For me, the most distressing evidence in this book is that which dealt with the personal flaws of Percy Bysshe Shelley. The Hobblers’ research reveals him to be an arrogant, thoughtless hedonist whose self-serving behavior led to the deaths of his children (acknowledged and unacknowledged), and the suffering of countless others.

In conclusion, the Hobblers provide significant insights into the period that produced the Romantics. It was a period that was preoccupied with the French Revolution and the thrilling ideas of individuality and personal freedom. In addition, Shelley, Byron and Mary Godwin were all fascinated by recent scientific advances — especially experiments with electricity and magnetism — experiments that held an aura of magic about them. These discoveries found their way into Frankenstein. In many ways, they saw themselves as a vanguard — disciples and torch-bearers of a new era of enlightenment in which women would be treated as equals and war would become obsolete. Perhaps they were flawed prophets since that era has not yet arrived.

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Willful Creatures Stories by Aimee Bender. Doubleday & Company, 2005. 208 pages

 

Recently, Garrison Keilor mentioned a new writer, Aimee Bender on his daily post, “The Writer’s Almanac.” Garrison noted that Bender’s quirky and enigmatic books were causing quite a stir on the West coast – short stories about families with pumpkin heads and little boys who are born with fingers shaped like keys.

An Internet search informed me that Aimee’s books contained strange parables that often left the reader both puzzled and fascinated. I immediately ordered The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, An Invisible Sign of My Own and Willful Creatures Stories.

An Invisible Sign of My Own opens with this paragraph:

“There was this kingdom once where everyone lived forever. They discovered the secret of eternal life, and because of that, there were no cemeteries, no hospitals, no funeral parlors, no books in the bookstore about death and grieving.

Instead, the bookstore was full of pamphlets about how to be a righteous citizen without fear of an afterlife.”

I was hooked. For the past two weeks, I have been reading odd fables that often resemble perverse variations of Grimm fairy tales.

In “Off” from Willful Creatures Stories, a determined young woman goes to a party intending to kiss three men: a black-haired one, a redhead and a blond. Her plan has disastrous consequences. Then, there is “Debbieland” where a shy teenager is attacked and humiliated because she wears a skirt that offends some fellow students. In “Fruit Without Words,” a customer at a roadside fruit stand discovers that it is possible to buy words that are composed of the items that they represent.

“Ironhead” is a disturbing tale of a child born with the head of an iron frying pan — born into a family of pumpkin-heads. In “Dearth,” a lonely woman finds seven potatoes in her kitchen; despite all of her efforts to rid herself of them, they return and gradually develop arms, legs and facial features. Willful Creatures also contains “The Leading Man” and the story about the boy with fingers that resemble keys — keys that are destined to open locks that appear throughout the boy’s life.

What is going on here? At present, a great many people are attempting to analyze these stories. I am struck by how many of Bender’s perverse tales appear to be parables that embody the problems that beset all of us. Bender’s protagonists are often victims of alienation and rejection. They are filled with yearnings and a desperate need to “belong” and often, they overcome daunting obstacles only to be disillusioned with their success.

My favorite in the Willful Creatures Stories collection, “Job’s Jobs,” is a marvelous variation of the travails of the biblical Job. Bender’s modern-day Job is pursued by a vengeful and unrelenting God. Each time that Job acquires success (as a writer, a painter, an actor, etc.) God appears and demands that Job relinquish his new career. In addition, God refuses to justify his actions. Finally, Job’s world becomes so small, he is left no alternative but to retreat to the infinite world of his inner thoughts.

Although I found some of Bender’s stories inexplicable, I am so pleased with the ones that provide a shrewd insight into life’s uncertainties, problems and mysteries (death, alienation, guilt, etc.) I wholeheartedly recommend these books. If you like Angela Carter, Ambrose Bierce and the poetry of Stephen Crane, you will treasure Aimee Bender.

Comment

Among the varied “revelations” brought to light during the celebrations attending the 75th Anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this year was the verification of the existence of an unpublished novel by Hoarace Kephart. Until this discovery, Kephart’s reputation rested on two singular achievements: he is the author of Our Southern Highlanders, a definitive work on the culture and traditions of Southern Appalachia; and he proved to be the primary impetus for the creation of the park by speaking, writing and soliciting financial support from government agencies and foundations. Now, some 80 years later, Kephart’s descendants have announced the existence of Smoky Mountain Magic, a “lost novel of mystery, intrigue and romance.”

According to the preface to the novel, written by Kephart’s granddaughter, Libby Kephart Hargrave, the manuscript has survived intact due to the efforts of Kephart’s heirs. On May 1, 2009, The Great Smoky Mountains Association acquired the manuscript with the understanding that they would publish it. Smoky Mountain Magic was officially released in mid-September.

So, what is Smoky Mountain Magic? What was Kephart’s motivation in writing it? Does it have merit? One critic (Daniel Pierce of the UNC Asheville History Department) has compared it to digging up a “time capsule from the 1920s,” and that seems an apt comparison. Also, it quickly becomes evident that Kephart had a shrewd eye for the popular novels and films of his time; he was well acquainted with writers such as Emma Bell Miles (Spirit of the Mountains) and James Fox (Trail of the Lonesome Pine.) These authors provided him with an excellent template for a tale of “mystery, intrigue, and romance.”

Kephart’s protagonist, John Cabarrus, a.k.a. “Little Jack Dale,” is a man of mystery. When he appears in Kittuwa (Bryson City), he attracts the interest of the entire community, including Tom Burbank, the local sheriff; William Matlock, a corrupt land speculator; Youlus Lumbo, a member of a degenerate mountain family; and Marian Wentworth, a beautiful, intelligent (and highly independent) young woman who is visiting relatives for the summer. We soon learn that Cabarrus has returned to Kittuwa and Deep Creek to right old wrongs, find a missing deed and conduct a geological survey that may lead to a hidden mineral deposit worth a fortune. After a few meetings and a good bit of witty repartee, John and Marian find that they are attracted to each other. The promise of a passionate consummation hangs in the air like the scent of honeysuckle.

Now, let’s add a venerable old chief of the Cherokees named Dagataga and an old friend of John Cabarrus, who is well-versed in the ancient legends of his people. A nighttime visit by John and Mirian to Dagataga’s home during a thunderstorm provides a proper setting for suspense, magic and the supernatural. As the old chief relates the frightful myth of a vengeful serpent called the Uktena, startling his audience by producing the Ulunsuti, the magic jewel that was plucked from the Uktena’s skull, Kephart’s tale moves into a new theme: the true meaning of myth and the struggle between science (or reason) and the world’s ancient superstitions and myths.

To Kephart’s credit, he manages to weave these colorful strands together into a unique pattern. In time, Cabarrus’ search for mineral deposits leads him to a wilderness labyrinth, Nick’s Nest, an “otherworldly place” that is shunned by both the white settlers and the Cherokees. Cabarrus’ descent into this dark hollow will bring him face to face with the contraries represented by myth and science.

Smoky Mountain Magic reflects a time when heroes like John Cabarrus dominated novels and film. Cabarrus is handsome, courageous, physically fit and the master of a dozen diverse fields, including mythology, geology, botany, poetry and psychology. (He will quote Disraeli, Robert Burns or The Iliad at the drop of a hat.) Whereas Mirian is frequently puzzled and uncertain about the world’s unknown aspects, she can simply turn to John who will gently “inform” her. In fact, her primary purpose seems to be to provide John with the opportunity to demonstrate his encyclopedic knowledge. It doesn’t matter if the subject is the subtleties of the Cherokee language, the diversity of plant life, astronomy, the composition of radium or the theory of “thought transference,” John always speaks with total authority. In 1929, it is possible that audiences and readers adored men of this caliber; in 2009, they would consider Cabarrus a pompous and pretentious ass.

Is Kephart’s novel entertaining? Yes, it is. Even at this late date, Smoky Mountain Magic has significant entertainment value. Some of the scenes move with an infectious vitality and excitement. Kephart is at his best in dealing with atmosphere. The visit to Chief Dagataga is masterfully done and the graphic descriptions of numerous solitary wilderness scenes are memorable.

Although many of the minor characters remained woefully undeveloped, the author has a gift for creating “local color” through masterful miniature portraits of minor “characters.” Especially noteworthy is “Sang Johnny,” who survives by digging herbs; Old Hex, Sang Johnny’s mother, who is known as a witch and practitioner of dark magic; Myra Swimming Deer, John’s childhood nurse; and the Cherokee tracker named Runner, who could follow his prey through the forests with a kind of supernatural certainty.

Smoky Mountain Magic would make an excellent movie since the journey into the unknown (“Nick’s Nest”) is still a viable theme. The characters are uncomplicated (like the cast of a Hardy Boys Adventure), violence is minimal and actual murder is restricted to the murder of creatures: a rattlesnake and a “fice” (Kephart’s spelling) dog. Despite the fact that the villains are dedicated to killing our hero, they are all thwarted without significant bloodshed. (Even black-hearted Matlock get off with a mere brain concussion); and sexual content, despite a lot of heavy breathing and a passionate kiss or two, is definitely G-rated.

Kephart’s motivation is writing Smoky Mountain Magic is obvious. He hoped to tap the rich market for tales of adventure — both in fiction and in cinema. What better topic than a journey into a forbidden realm, complete with witches, robber barons, noble savages and a winsome lady, all wrapped in a cloak of mystery and myth. Doubtless, Kephart’s notorious inability to handle his finances prompted him to write the novel. He probably dreamed of paying his debts and acquiring solvency. It should have worked, but as John Cabarrus notes, quoting Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men/ gang aft agley.” If Kephart’s spirit still haunts Kittuwa, he should be immensely pleased to know that even after 80 years, he has made another significant contribution to the Great Smokies National Park.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. Visit his blog at hollernotes.blogspot.com.)

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The Cleansing by Ben Eller. Fireside Publications, 2009. 292 pages

 

In Ben Eller’s science fiction novel, The Cleansing, (2020), progress in the next decade is a mixed blessing. Although significant advances have been made in areas such as astronomy, weapons design and computer science, mankind appears to have regressed in terms of moral and ethical development. Statistics indicate that crimes against children, drug addiction and poverty are increasing at an alarming rate; pollution and the unchecked abuse of the environment continue while a half-dozen wars smolder in the Middle East. International diplomacy founders in a pervasive atmosphere of cynicism, duplicity and covert activity. Worst of all, the general public languishes in a quagmire of callous indifference, pursuing shallow entertainment (karaoke, binge drinking and sitcoms) and instant gratification — intent on “amusing themselves to death.” Then, the “blue lights” arrive.

Initial sightings, reported by astronomers, describe the phenomenon as a kind of luminous mist that encircles the Earth, and it appears to have originated in “outer space. Although puzzled by this event, the public perceives the lights as non-threatening. Then, ‘THE SCRIPT” appears inexplicably (and instantly) on the governmental communications monitors in every country on Earth. The tersely worded message states, “Preservation of earth’s habitat and species requires the following:

• Cessation of wars and violence among Homo sapiens.

• Disabling the weapons of Homo sapiens conflict.

• Discontinuance of planet destruction and extinction of species.

• Cessation of the reproduction of Homo sapiens.

In the United States, an alarmed president convenes an emergency session of his cabinet and launches an investigation. Is this an ill-conceived prank, launched by college students or hackers? Eventually, two conclusions are readily apparent: (l) The four edicts in THE SCRIPT are not suggestions; they are “directives.” (2) THE SCRIPT did not originate in any country on our planet.

These conclusions are verified when hundreds of bronze spaceships arrive and land in the most remote and barren regions on the planet. The president establishes Homeland Security measures and struggles to control a divided cabinet that includes a morally corrupt, ambitious vice president and a growing number of hawkish military experts who cannot accept the fact that they are no longer in control of this country’s defense system.

Eller establishes and promotes a suspenseful atmosphere by rapid shifts in the novel’s points of view: From the “war room” in Washington to bleak battlefields in Kosovo or Iran where bewildered soldiers discover that their weapons refuse to fire; a saloon in Ten Sleep, Wyoming where customers are divided between following the unfolding events on CNN or joining the fun in the Karaoke Room; random reports of the instant disappearance of thousands of serial murderers, child molesters and psychotics — all gone in a flash of blue light.

Although we have had this fanciful confrontation before in numerous movies (“The Day the Earth Stood Still” and “Encounters of the Third Kind”), this fact does not lessen the potential for dramatic tension in The Cleansing. One of mankind’s most dreaded (and most anticipated) encounters is imminent: emissaries of an “otherworldly power” have arrived and the innate merits and frailties of all of the Earth’s civilizations have been weighed — judgment is at hand.

Eller orchestrates the suspense with considerable skill as he moves toward an encounter between the invaders and Earth’s emissaries (who were selected by the aliens): a Tibetan monk, a blind 5-year-old boy from India and a 14-year-old girl from Detroit — all gifted with the ability to communicate by telepathy. Have the aliens come to stay? Will humanity by weighed and found wanting? Has the vice president succeeded in his search for a weapon that can be used against the invaders? And what about Zolef, the fanatic in Iraq who has developed a cunning weapon that will destroy the United States — one that is immune to the “blue light?” And finally, what are “Truens?”

The Cleansing suffers from two minor flaws. First, due to the author’s painstaking and exhaustive research, his narrative sometimes suffers from an excessive use of arcane jargon — especially acronyms. Occasionally, the novel’s suspense and tension falters, buried beneath HS, NIH, THADD, GPS, NEST, KH12, UAVS, SARA, ABS, SNN, SOG, MASH and etc. Finally, there is Josh Jones, the protagonist of The Cleansing. Josh is handsome, gifted and experienced in a diversity of fields, including hand-to-hand combat. He speaks four languages, is a former SEAL, excels in mathematics, computer programming and lovemaking. He is accustomed to keeping company with the privileged elite that includes the powerful, wealthy, the intelligent, and in terms of women, he tends to favor the well-endowed (mentally and physically). He is equally at home in graduate courses at Chapel Hill or in a slum hospital with Mother Theresa. His most memorable moment comes during the historic (and televised) encounter between the aliens and Earth’s emissaries in a remote desert in southern Arabia: Josh makes the mile-long walk to the site naked, thereby exposing his flawless physique to an adoring TV audience and demonstrating the fact that he “is not armed.” (I’m surprised that he didn’t levitate.) I found Josh’s exploits to be an irritating distraction. The Cleansing would have benefited from either his absence or a severe reduction in his gifts and accomplishments.

However, in spite of the acronyms and Josh’s posturing, the basic premise of The Cleansing still contains a thought-provoking dilemma. If some divine intermediary every brings our planet to the bar of justice, would we be found worthy of survival?

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. Read reviews and other postings at his blog, hollernotes.blogspot.com.)

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Eli the Good by Silas House. Candlewick Press, 2009. 295 pages

Eli Book, the 10-year-old narrator/protagonist of Silas House’s new novel, Eli the Good, dreams of being a writer. As he secretly records the pains and joys of living in a small town called Refuge during the Bicentennial summer (1976), he quickly learns that both his family and the world are plagued by uncertainty and trouble.

“There was the atom bomb, the Rapture, the possibility that I might be possessed by the Devil, the threat that my parents might one day not love each other, or me.”

So, when Eli hears the word “cancer” for the first time, he ponders the way people look when they say it and he intuitively understands that cancer “must be a very bad thing.” He also learns that his beloved Aunt Nell has it.

It soon becomes obvious that Eli “overhears” a lot. He has learned the craft of lurking and moves like a ghost through the Book household taking notes, (he even lies under the porch) listening to his parents’ conversations, eavesdropping on his sister and her boyfriend and spying on Edie, his “best friend” (a girl). In his determination to understand his father’s nightmares, he even steals a collection of letters that his father had written to his mother from Vietnam — letters that were hidden in his parents’ bedroom.

As a result, he gradually unearths a tangled knot of family secrets, disappointments and resentments including: the reason for his father’s nightmares; his mother’s secrets regarding her own life; and the revelation that his sister Jodie is really his “half-sister.” There are also the consequences of the increasingly bitter family disputes provoked by the Vietnam War and his father’s role in it.

At times, even the weather seems to reflect the changeable emotional climate in the Book household. As languid summer nights are replaced by a series of violent thunderstorms, tempers flare. The simmering conflict between mother and daughter explodes; Eli’s father becomes a “walking time bomb,” as he broods on a day in Boston when two anti-war demonstrators called him a “baby killer” — a condemnation he hears echoed in the opinions voiced by his own family. Even Eli begins to taunts Edie, whose parents are divorcing. But the storms pass, temperate weather returns and Eli continues to record the mounting evidence that his family has the strength to endure all things.

It would be an oversimplification to characterize Eli the Good as simply a “rite of passage” novel since it contains a number of other significant themes. Not only does Eli change from a callow, self-centered youth; he also develops a growing sense of the intricate web that binds him to both his family and the physical world. There is something of a paradox here since the violent and emotional encounters that threaten to tear Eli’s world apart are also responsible for revealing (and affirming) the family members’ love for each other.

In addition, Eli the Good is a celebration of a time and place — America’s Bicentennial year in a small Southern town. Eli and his family are wrapped in the warmth and security of a decade that is still full of hope and promise. As Eli consumes Zagnuts, drinks Pepsi Cola, and watches “Happy Days” and “The Waltons,” listens to Nina Simone and the Beatles on Aunt Nell’s phonograph, he is increasingly aware that he is living in a magical world where even the trees are sentient spirits (especially willow and beech).

As he rides his bike to a communal swimming hole, dances with his mother in the kitchen and reads The Diary of Anne Frank, he becomes the embodiment of a nostalgic dream; he is also the best of what America once was, and hopefully, can be again.

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. Readers can contact him through his blog at hollernotes.blogspot.com.)

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If you are a fan of the apocalypse movies that are currently common fare in American theaters, you will immediately recognize the landscape of Season of Rot. From Cormac McCarthy’s classic, The Road to the endless clones of the “Mad Max” and George Romero’s “Day of the Dead,” this is a world of rusted wreckage, starvation and the smell of decay. There are still pockets of life — terrified colonies of beleaguered humans who spend each day in a desperate search for food and shelter. The prevailing atmosphere in these “latter days” epics is a kind of sustained despair plus paranoia. Eric Brown’s message, like the signs held aloft by the crazed prophets in cartoons is, “The End is Near.”

In Season of Rot, humanity is defenseless against the legions of “the undead” — millions of mindless, rotting corpses that suddenly, inexplicably crawled from their graves as though responding to a mysterious summons. Now, they shuffle through abandoned buildings, deserted homes and the barren countryside searching for food: living flesh. Earth’s survivors are dwindling while the ranks of the undead are growing. Eric Brown, the author of Season of Rot and a Haywood County resident, frequently notes (with ill-concealed glee) that humanity doesn’t stand a chance.

Much of the action in Season of Rot resembles the plot of a graphic novel without the graphics (In fact, according to this book’s gutsy self-promotion, one of Brown’s novellas, “Dead West” is destined to become a graphic novel — It would make a good one). In most of the stories, the action has a “computer-game” quality with each plot presenting a series of predictable and interchangeable episodes and characters: (1) Beleaguered survivors flee; (2) find a temporary safe haven; (3) plan an escape to permanent safety (another country or an island), (4) are invariably attacked (hopelessly outnumbered), (5) die heroically, usually firing AK-47s as their intestines, hearts or heads are ripped away.

The majority of Brown’s characters suffer from minimal development since in “zombie world,” the emphasis is on action, not introspection. Male characters are limited to: handsome and muscular or “scientific and eccentric” or military and short-tempered. Women are well-developed, manipulative, sensual or nurturing. Everyone is well-armed. The weapons of choice are AK-47s, shotguns and flamethrowers. Slaughter reaches epic proportions with the majority of characters in Season of Rot barely having time to acquire names and a presence on stage before they are swept away in a flood of gore.

Readers are rarely given the opportunity to learn anything about the background of the people who inhabit Brown’s five novellas. It may be that in this grim world where all humanity is as ephemeral as mayflies, their personal dreams, hopes and aspirations are irrelevant. Sooner or later, everyone is “grist for the mill.”

Brown’s five novellas consist of the following: The title piece, “Season of Rot,” which is set in a besieged hospital (with the obligatory snipers on the roof) “The Queen” which is the name of a ship — the crew of survivors are in search of an uncontaminated island; “The Wave” provides an original explanation for the “rising of the dead” — a wave of energy originating in outer space, that creates and manipulates the dead; “Dead West” which is set in the Midwest following the Civil War and presents “an alternate version of history;” and “Rats” in which infected rodents, in conjunction with “the dead,” have taken over the world, except for a secret military installation ....

Two of these novellas, “The Wave” and “Dead West” actually contain viable characters, and in both stories, the plot unfolds with an imagination and a sense of suspense that is largely missing in the other tales. However, all of the stories suffer from stilted, awkward dialogue that is invariably delivered by characters that sound like posturing teenagers, ill at ease in the role of adults. Sexual activity seems more functional than erotic, and the occasional introduction of gay and/or lesbian characters lacks credibility, depth or warmth. Possibly, they were added in an unabashed attempt to suggest sophistication and maturity.

What then, is the appeal of Season of Rot? Why are impressive numbers of teenagers addicted to “zombie land” novels and film? Well, to quote one of R. Crumb’s characters, “It was ever so.” The excesses of violence and horror found in Brown’s novellas (disembowelments, beheadings, and an abundance of gore — geysers of blood, savage rapes, raining body parts and bone fragments and numerous intestinal tracts that are continually springing from ruptured bodies like Jacks-in-the-boxes — all of these shocking images have a famous precedent: The Grand Guignol Theater in Paris in 1897 which became notorious for enacting scenes of graphic, amoral horror on stage. Due to the graphic realism of the action, members of the audience frequently fainted and/or vomited. Since that time, any work of horror (film, paintings, novels) that stresses excessive bloodshed over plotting, good writing and character development is called “Grand Guignol.” Season of Rot definitely qualifies.

Season of Rot (Five Zombie Novellas) by Eric S. Brown. Permuted Press, 2009. 240 pages.

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The publication of New Stories from the South 2010 marks the 25th anniversary of this prestigious series. Obviously, the folks down at Algonquin Books in Chapel Hill know how to put together an appealing anthology. In the introduction to this collection, Amy Hempel notes that of these 25 short stories, 13 of the writers have appeared in this series before and 11 are here for the first time.

Most fans of this anthology will immediately turn to the table of contents to see if their favorite authors are here. This one has a stellar cast: Ron Rash, Wendell Berry, Dorothy Allison, Rick Bass, Tim Gautreaux, Elizabeth Spencer, Ann Pancake and George Singleton are back. Regrettably, Larry Brown and Barry Hannah (both deceased) are not. Over the years, many readers first encountered the works of writers who were destined to become their favorites in this series: William Gay, Tony Earley, Robert Morgan, Lee Smith and Romulus Linney are good examples.

In making their selections, Algonquin sifts through the best of America’s literary magazines and quarterlies: Tin House, Appalachian Heritage,The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Oxford American, The Georgia Review, etc. However, the criteria for making the final selections are a bit ambiguous. Editor Amy Hempel notes that all of the stories have “a voice that is distinctly southern.” Certainly, the action occurs in distinctively “southern” locations.

For example, “The Coldest Night of the Twentieth Century” takes place in a Tennessee prison in January 1985. The temperature has dropped to 27 degrees below zero and a colorful collection of inmates are imbibing Lysol in a desperate attempt to keep warm while they launch an inept escape plan that requires crawling through the heating system to another cell block where the women prisoners are housed. Then, there is Kenneth Calhoun’s “Nightbooming,” which is narrated by a young drummer who has taken a job with the Nightblooming Jazzmen. His fellow musicians, who play nothing but New Orleans/Dixieland jazz, are senior citizens who are gradually being decimated by old age. The narrator revels in the charm and courtly grace of the Nightbloomers’ world only to belatedly discover that he is participating in their last performance. 

Julian, the protagonist of Tim Gautreaux’s “Idols,” is also drawn to a world that has retreated into the past. Eking out a living by repairing old manual typewriters, Julian finds himself heir to a decaying Mississippi mansion and proceeds to spend his life savings in a vain effort to renovate it. It quickly becomes obvious that both Julian and the house are hopelessly obsolete. 

“This Trembling Earth” by Laura Lee Smith deals with another unstable world where a woman living near the Okefenkokee Swamp struggles to support a family that seems either helpless or apathetic. The daughter (an unwed mother with an ailing child) makes no effort to improve her life and the son, filled with a self-destructive anger, is doomed. Smith is a gifted writer; however ,this story’s atmosphere is unrelentingly oppressive and bleak.

Then, there is Asheleigh Pederson’s “Small and Heavy World,” which is inspired by New Orleans in the tragic aftermath of a Katrina. Pederson’s characters are tree-dwellers. As the weeks pass and the waters do not recede, a community develops in the trees. Life goes on in the tree houses, and each day is spent foraging for food and supplies. Even in these desperate circumstances, the same domestic problems flourish: theft, adultery, father/son rivalry, etc.

The largest number of stories that share a common theme are variations of child abuse and/or neglect. “The Ascent” by Ron Rash captures the alienation of a young boy who literally steals from the dead and passes the purloined items to his drug-addicted parents who sell them. The boy has stumbled on the wreckage of a crashed plane; he steals personal items from the frozen bodies and takes the home.  Eventually, the boy comes to feel more comfortable with the silent dead that with his indifferent parents.

“Jason Who Will Be Famous” by Dorothy Allison is a beautifully crafted interior dialogue of a young boy who is so starved for attention, he begins to fantasize about being abducted. (He fantasizes that he will escape, become a TV celebrity and will finally be loved and respected by his family and friends.) Another interior dialogue from an unhappy child is “Eraser” by Ben Stroud. Having lost his father and finding himself ignored by his stepfather, the boy begins to make desperate (and potentially fatal) attempts to get the attention of the world around him. His preoccupation with his eraser (which has the power to make his school work vanish) becomes an analogy for his own dilemma.

There are some memorable creatures in this collection. “Fish Story” by Rick Bass contains a painful chronicle of a dying catfish. Despite having been skinned and beheaded, the fish persists in its struggle. Meanwhile a cookout is in full swing and the neighbors are impatiently waiting for their share of the dying fish. This is a discomfiting story that contrasts the festive atmosphere with the brutal demise of “a great fish” that threatens to become mythical. Bret Anthony Johnson’s “Caiman” has two alternating stories: One concerns a dialogue between a man and his wife about the dubious merits of giving a caiman to their son as a pet (“He can take it to show and tell”) while an underlying story touches on an all-too-common occurrence — the ongoing search for a missing child. A dead deer resides in the heart of “Housewarming” by Kevin Wilson. A father struggles to relate to his angry son whose entire life has has been a series of mishaps and mistakes. When the son discovers a dead deer in a lake near his cabin, he becomes obsessed with removing it — as though this single task will correct all of the results of his misspent life.

Without a doubt, the best story in this collection is “Drive” by Aaron Gwyn. Jimmy and Jill are on the downside of a doomed marriage when they discover a disturbing method of “bringing the magic back.” It consists of crossing the centerline on a dark highway, shutting off the lights and stepping on the gas. A very close contender is “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s No Way to Go” by Danielle Evans. Georgie, home from Iraq and haunted by nightmares of murdered children, allows himself to be caught up in the “family” of a former girlfriend and her daughter. When he allows the daughter to enter a contest in which Georgie poses as her father, he becomes a part of a charade that will end in tragedy. (The reader will long remember the marvelous story of the “Pop my Bubble” girl.)

There are other stories that contain marvelous characters. Uncle Peach, the good-natured family drunk in Wendell Berry’s “A Burden” is especially memorable. Ann Pancake’s “Arsonists” captures the atmosphere in a West Virginia mining town where the mine owners have abandoned the mines and left a handful of stubborn (and paranoid) landowners to deal with arsonists who burn empty homes each night. In addition, random nocturnal dynamiting a are eroding both the foundations of homes and the mental stability of the occupants who dread the coming of night.

The themes and images that characterize this latest collection are both perverse and dark. However, there is a singular image that permeates the majority of the stories — that of the dysfunctional family. In a larger sense, a primary theme in New Stories From the South is the loss of traditional values. The majority of the lost of wounded children in this collection are victims struggling to find love, stability and home. Perhaps the bleakness and pathos of an impressive percentage of these stories illustrate a literary truth. Good writing and great literature flourish amid unjust and tragic conditions.

 

New Stories from the South - 2010: The Year’s Best edited by Amy Hempel. Algonquin Books, 2010. 384 pages

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Drood by Dan Simmons. Little, Brown & Company, 2009. 775 pages.

I must admit, I’ve never been much of a Charles Dickens fan. Other than watching those wonderful film adaptations (“Oliver” and “A Christmas Carol”), I have only read A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations. All of that melodrama and sentimentality threatens my diabetes. Nevertheless, Wikipedia tells me that in addition to being the greatest novelist of the Victorian period, Dickens remains one of the most popular writers in the English language. His 15 most notable works have never gone out of print. Perhaps I should at least add Bleak House and David Copperfield to my “to read” list.

However, thanks to novels like Isabel Zuber’s Salt and Jeff Rackam’s The Rag and Bone Shop, I have developed something of an obsession with Dickens’ private life. His divorce, his marriage to his wife’s sister and his life-long affair with the actress Ellen Ternan shocked many of his peers, but had no effect on his popularity as a writer, playwright and actor. I have always been fascinated by Dickens’ life-long friendship with William Wilkie Collins, one of the most bizarre “personalities” of the Victorian period — a mentally unstable laudanum addict (many Victorians were addicted since doctors readily prescribed the drug for migraines and rheumatism). Wilkie Collins frequently corroborated with Dickens on numerous highly successful publications and theatrical productions. Unfortunately, Wilkie also suffered from a massive case of envy. One of his biographers noted that “in the great constellations of 19th century literature, Dickens’ shone like the sun;” by comparison, poor Collins, a writer of supernatural tales and detective fiction, “glimmered like a pale and distant star.” The accolades and honors bestowed on Dickens were a lifelong thorn in poor Wilkie’s side, and eventually, the minor writer began to resent and finally, to hate his best friend.

What does all of this have to do with Dan Simmons, who is noted for epic treks into the realms of horror (The Terror, Olympus, Summer Night)? The link is Dickens’ unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This strange, fragmented tale has fascinated writers and playwrights for over a century. Since Dickens’ death, there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts to complete it (including a recent musical). Simmons’ Drood not only delves into the mystery behind Dickens’ last work (and his private life) — it also uncovers a fanciful abyss of evil that once thrived in the “lower depths” of London. Perhaps it still does.

In the opening of the novel, Simmons’ narrator, William Wilkie Collins, announces that although he has written the manuscript, Drood, which he claims to have completed in 1889, he has postponed its publication for 120 years — until 2009. This “precaution,” says Wilkie, means that all of the novel’s hapless characters will not be harmed by (or held accountable for) the author’s revelations.

However, before the reader progresses very far in this “Grand Guignol” of a tale, it becomes evident that the narrator of Drood is not a trustworthy reporter. Wilkie not only lies frequently, he has difficulty in perceiving the difference between fantasy and reality. In addition to being bitter, devious, sensual, arrogant and cowardly, he suffers from lurid and terrifying hallucinations. (He is also an oddly appealing character.)

Did he and Charles Dickens really find an entrance to a place called “Undertown,” where legions of thieves, drug addicts and homeless children exist in unimaginable squalor? Somewhere in those labyrinthine depths, did they really meet a near-supernatural creature named Drood, an Egyptian magician and mesmerist who has legions of fanatical followers and plans to establish a dark kingdom on Earth (with the unwitting assistance of Dickens and Wilkie)? And finally, is it possible that Wilkie’s terrifying descent into a Victorian Inferno complete with putrid rivers, murderous oriental thugs and cannibalistic children is either an opium dream or a hypnotic trance ... or both?

Drood is a cunningly constructed tale that has been “surgically implanted” into Victorian London like an alien heart. Historic personages, as well as colorful characters from Dickens’ novels move effortlessly from a vibrantly “real” London into Simmons’ fabricated land of darkness and terror. It is difficult to find a clearly marked boundary between the two worlds since the interface appears to be seamless.

The most exciting sections of Drood evoke a wondrous era in which the arts thrived. Thousands of patrons packed lecture halls in English (and American) cities to hear Dickens lecture, act or read from his own works. In the 19th century, the English theater enjoyed a kind of Renaissance in which actors and writers became outrageously wealthy and powerful (Several Victorian playwrights actually “rewrote” Shakespeare’s tragedies as comedies!). The privileged classes ate, drank and reveled in sumptuous decadence. (One of Dickens’ admirers actually purchased a Swiss chalet and had it transported and reassembled on Dickens’ property – a birthday present). And yet, according to Wilkie, just beneath those cobbled streets or under the hundreds of London’s evil-smelling cemeteries, the legions of darkness were waiting.

I have simplified Drood’s plot out of necessity. Wilkie Collins’ character is much too complex to discuss here. Suffice it to say that I will never forget his “doppelganger” that visits him at night; or the green-skinned woman with yellow tusks who sometimes attacks him as he goes up the stairs to his bedroom; or the unspeakable horror that shuffles up and down a dark, locked stairway in his home. Space limitations make it impossible to talk about a host of bizarre characters that become Collins’ companions in his quest for Drood. Finally, I haven’t mentioned Collins’ plans to murder his best friend, Charles Dickens ... or his Faustian pact with Drood.

In conclusion, it seems appropriate to mention a link between Simmons’ previous work The Terror and his new novel, Drood. The latter opens with Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins celebrating the success of their latest play, “The Frozen Deep,” which is a dramatic account of a lost expedition to Antarctica. Yes, their play is a dramatic enactment of The Terror’s doomed “Franklin crew” — the expedition that allegedly perished due to cannibalism and starvation, just a few years prior to the play’s premiere.

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Under the Dome by Stephen King. Scribner, 2009. 1,074 pages

Before I had read 20 pages of Stephen King’s new opus, I found myself thinking about Thornton Wilder’s Our Town — not because the small town, Chester’s Mill in Under the Dome resembles Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, but because ... it doesn’t. Although Chester’s Mill is small (less than 3,000 people), provincial and — like Wilder’s classic small town — it has a generous number of eccentrics, misfits and delightful young people; however, appearances are deceptive. There is an underlying darkness and a raw, cynical attitude that never surfaced in Wilder’s Our Town. It is as though Chester’s Mill represents Grover’s Corner’s 50 years later.

Chester’s Mill has become a tarnished, corrupt little town in which the superficial veneer of civilized behavior strains to hold the town together. All that is needed is a catalyst — an unforeseen crisis that will test the town’s moral and spiritual resources (or reveal their absence). That catalyst is the Dome.

The Dome appears on a beautiful summer day when the inhabitants of “the Mill” are pursuing the innocent pleasures of any all-American town. Kids are fishing in the Prehistle Stream; a Seneca V drones over the town and an old woodchuck scampers along the shoulder of Highway 119 checking out the tidbits of fast food. Then, in an instant, an invisible barrier crashes down, causing a number of instant fatalities (including the old woodchuck).

The Dome encapsulates Chester’s Mill like an inverted bowl. Nothing can penetrate it, including birds, planes, cars and ballistic missiles. In a short time, the town’s boundaries are marked by a litter of corpses (human and animal) as well as the wreckage of crashed planes, cars and trucks. All attempts by the “outside world” (military and scientific) to breach the Dome fail. Eventually, the town is faced with life-threatening issues: lawlessness and the depletion of food, water and clean air.

In a sense, the plot of Under the Dome resembles the description of an inhuman laboratory experiment. As the inhabitants of Chester’s Mill struggle to survive, they begin to resemble a microscopic life forms in a petri dish. Within a week, the town government undergoes some radical changes: incompetent, mildly corrupt officials become increasingly oppressive. The police force begins to “beef up” by employing young men with a penchant for blue uniforms and approval of political leaders who readily endorse brutality. As a pleasant village morphs into a fascist nightmare, the violent and unethical changes are orchestrated by Jim Rennie, a scripture-spouting used car dealer (“You’ll be Wheeling, if Big Jim is dealing!”). Rennie is also one of the three Selectman (the New England equivalent of a governing board), and he is in total control. He also perceives the Dome as an opportunity for a personal kingdom.

If King’s message were not obvious enough, he makes numerous references to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, an English novel noted for its depiction of a group of English schoolboys who revert to savagery when they are marooned on a desert island. In addition, King occasionally paraphrases writers noted for their grim appraisal of mankind’s inherently brutal and godless nature. (T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, for example). Under the Dome also resembles Albert Camus’ The Plague, a novel, in which the inhabitants of a beleaguered town discover the similarities between a plague-ridden city and a civilization that is afflicted with an inner decay.

King presents Chester’s Mill as a microcosm of America. Although he acknowledges the courage and nobility of a small number of characters who struggle against the tides of lawless, it becomes increasingly obvious that their little town is doomed — primarily because their essential goodness makes them incapable of understanding the nature of their enemy or the crimes they are willing to commit to accomplish their ends. In a sense, Chester’s Mill’s week-long ordeal is a holocaust in miniature. All of the evils of the Third Reich, including the bigotry, the lust for power and the willingness to crush all resistance, blossoms and flourishes under the Dome.

Since Under the Dome contains more than 60 characters (and three memorable dogs), any discussion of personalities and their interaction becomes a daunting challenge. In addition, there are at least a dozen sub-plots that wind their way through this dark tale. A few of the most intense include: a serial murderer with a brain tumor; a newspaper editor who finds herself reduced to distributing photocopies when her office is burned; a minister who addresses her prayers to a deity she calls “Not There;” a veteran of the war in Iraq who finds his worst nightmares resurrected in Chester’s Mill; a Jesus-haunted fundamentalist minister who struggles to reconcile his conflicted roles in crack mill industry with his fervent religious beliefs; a town Selectman who becomes increasingly inept due to an Oxycontin addiction; a lecherous academic who finds a kind of redemption in the Chester’s Mill hospital, and a brutalized rape victim who decides to seek her own justice.

Under the Dome is vintage King. The novel’s tension builds slowly like a train that chugs out of the station and then gradually accelerates until it reaches a dizzying speed. Although this novel’s awesome number of characters makes it hard to keep track, King has provided his readers with a complete cast (along with a map of Chester’s Mill) in the book’s preface. The dialogue is brisk and colored with an assortment of dialects (including a misplaced New Orleans denizen) and a whole gaggle of teenage skateboarders who speak a delightful but bewildering jargon. This is a hell of a book.

What’s not to like? Well, yeah, there is one thing. The weakest link in the whole novel is ... the Dome. King’s final revelation ... it came from outer space! The somewhat whimsical departure of the Dome at the end of the book lacks credibility. Frankly, I don’t think this is a significant flaw. King’s raw and gritty tale of a small town going to hell needs a catalyst so that all of his bells, whistles and sirens could be launched. Any King reader knows that he is expected to “willingly suspend his disbelief.” In this case, that includes the acceptance of the Dome as being created by juvenile delinquents from outer space. Sounds reasonable to me!

(Gary Carden is a writer and storyteller who lives in Sylva. His most recent writings can be found on his blog, hollernotes.blogspot.com.)

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The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell. Saint Martin’s Press, 1997.

I was probably 10 years old when I discovered King Arthur in the local library. I never got over it. That battered copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology was filled with illustrations of armored knights with noble countenances, sad maidens trapped in dark towers and bloody duels on lonely roads. I was hooked. As the years passed, other writers took up this wonderful story and I found every new version even more appealing. From Thomas Mallory to Alfred Lord Tennyson and from The Once and Future King to the musical, “Camelot,” I remained a devout fan. Like millions of other disciples, I read Mary Stewart’s epic series, and I especially remember a beautiful John Boorman film, “Excaliber,” that came out in 1981. I never cared for the comical and irreverent versions like Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as well as the hundreds of “sword and fantasy” romances packed with dragons and Druids. No, I wanted my Arthur to be either serious, fierce and doomed, or “not yet born” (Evangeline Walton’s Mabinogion Tetralogy).

Now comes The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell, the first novel in an Arthurian trilogy. This is not a work to be undertaken lightly, for it comes freighted with issues that demand careful reading. First, the cast of characters is intimidating with over 100 lords, nobles, heartless villains, Druids and enchanting (in every sense of the word) women. Second, the names of people and places represent a minor challenge due to the fact that they have Celtic, Irish and Welsh origins. The reader must become accustomed to proper names that have a generous supply of double dd’s and yy’s as in King Gorfyddyd (pronounced Gor-vith-id), who is an especially nasty, one-armed fellow who hates Arthur with some cause ... Arthur cut his arm off in an earlier battle, and then added insult to injury by leaving Gorfyddyd’s daughter, Ceinwyn, at the altar.

However, this enthralling tale quickly renders these textural problems irrelevant. Cornwell’s “refurbishing” of the King Arthur myth is both original and captivating. Instead of a Christ-like figure intent on Christianizing the heathen, Arthur is an exceedingly ambitious (and deeply flawed) leader who is only saved from being a heedless tyrant by his conscience. In addition, the majority of the “Christians” in The Winter King are vain dissemblers who are intent on their own vision of power. Although Cornwell’s world is filled with the trappings of magic, he is careful to make the distinction between the belief in spells, curses and divinations and any subsequent event that could be termed “miraculous.” (Sorry, no “sword in the stone” this time.)

Cornwell’s warlords and soldiers fear the curse of the Druids who march in the enemy’s frontlines behaving like demented epileptics, but there is little indication that their powers are real. Everyone in The Winter King is constantly on the alert for omens and portents: the flight of a bird, the sound of thunder and the death agonies of a sacrificial lamb can fill the bravest warrior with apprehensions and even the most elegant lady will spit in the direction of the enemy when she encounters an omen. (Everybody spits a lot in this novel.)

The narrator of The Winter King, Derfel Cadarn, is a Saxon orphan who grew up in the household of the High Druid Merlin; later, he became a soldier in Arthur’s army, advances to the status of warlord and ends his days as a monastery monk devoted to recording all that he has witnessed in his life. It is through Derfel’s eyes that we see such legendary figures as Arthur, Guinevere, Galahad and Lancelot. The consequences are definitely provocative. Here are a few brief examples.

In this first novel, Guinevere is a vain, ambitious and materialistic woman who despises the Druids, dabbles in paganism (she claims to be a follower of Isis and spends much of her time acquiring art). However, her initial attraction to Arthur has all of the trappings of true love/lust. Although she has been “bespoke” to a war chief named Valerin, and despite the fact that Arthur is in the midst of wedding Gorfyddyd’s daughter Ceinwyn, both become victims of “love at first sight.” Heedless of the consequences, the two lovers bring havoc and the death of thousands. (Remember, Lancelot hasn’t even seen Guinevere yet!) In the eyes of their followers, their love is both fated and doomed.

As for Arthur, in this introductory novel he is not even a king, but the illegitimate son of King Uther who has renounced him and proclaimed his heir to be a crippled child (grandson) named Mordred. (No, not that one! There are three Mordreds so far!). Arthur readily accepts Uther’s decree and pledges himself to be the guardian of a maimed “child king.” His motives are suspect from the beginning, and after the scandal attending his abandonment of Ceinwyn on her wedding day, he is condemned by the majority of England’s warlords — yet he steadfastly insists that he will be the leader that will bring unity to a land that is hopelessly divided between Saxons, Franks, Druids and Irish warlords.

Lancelot easily qualifies as The Winter King’s most despicable, vain and devious character (even though he has been perceived by other writers as the darling of Arthurian legend for centuries). Cornwell presents Lancelot’s undeserved reputation for bravery, loyalty and virtue as the direct result of an extremely effective publicity campaign conducted by poets and bards. Indeed, the narrator, Derfel, perceives the versifiers and singers who spend their time composing fictional accounts of Lancelot’s adventures to be nothing more than parasitic sycophants and he takes ill-concealed delight in their massacre in the palace of King Ban, Lancelot’s father. Lancelot’s brother, Galahad, emerges as the prince who actually possesses the virtues attributed to his brother.

The Winter King contains some of the most vivid descriptive passages of suspense and bloodshed that I have encountered in Arthurian literature. Derfel’s journey to the Isle of the Dead to rescue Merlin’s mistress, Nimue, is unforgettable (as is Nimue, who manages to be crazed, bizarre and captivating. She has a golden eye, too!). The destruction of King Ban and his kingdom, the murder of Norenna, Mordred’s mother, and Arthur’s final battle with his arch-enemy, Gorfyddyd, deserve to be described as riveting. They had me grinding my dentures and holding my breath. However, all of this slaughter and tension is interspersed with marvelous descriptive passages that conjure up those Victorian paintings with Arthurian settings: flowery bowers, crystalline streams, lush gardens, silken garments and impossibly beautiful women.

The reader may end up like the doomed lovers Arthur and Guinevere, Merlin and Nimue and poor Derfel and Ceinwyn (no kidding! All it took was the touch of her finger on the back of his hand!). Yes, the reader may also be fated (like me) to go and find a copy of the second novel, Enemy of God. Expect another review shortly.

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For some 30 years now, Bernard Cornwell has been one of the most prolific writers in the western hemisphere. With over 40 books to his credit, he has settled comfortably into the “historic fiction” genre and has become famous for his “Sharpe series” that follows the adventures of his protagonist, Richard Sharpe, during the Napoleonic Wars (24 novels). The entire series is being filmed by BBC and suddenly, American readers are struggling to read and/or view the film versions in their correct order.

In addition, Cornwell has a “Starbuck series” that deals with the American Civil War. There are also additional series, including a King Arthur trilogy, a Holy Grail series and a “Saxon series” set in 9th century England (not to mention a few bestselling “thrillers” and the adventures of a protagonist named Captain Rideout Sandman who lives a precarious but exciting life in 19th century London).

Considering Cornwell’s impressive list of works, this reviewer decided to select a work at random. (I found Gallows Thief in the “used book section” at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva.) I immediately found myself totally engrossed in the daily life of Captain Rideout Sandman, a colorful survivor of the Napoleonic Wars, an honored soldier who has fallen on hard times. When Sandman’s father is forced to declare bankruptcy, the subsequent shame brings ruin to the family. After the father commits suicide, honorable Sandman sells his commission in order to pay some of his father’s debts; however, the resulting scandal eventually results in the cancellation of Sandman’s wedding to Lady Eleanor Forrest.

Within a short time, Rideout has serious financial problems and is attempting to eke out a living by playing cricket. When some of Rideout’s friends recommend him for employment with the government, he is suddenly offered a “temporary position” by Viscount Sidmouth, a high-placed official of the Royal Court. Specifically, Sandman is asked to investigate the recent murder of the Countess of Avebury, even though the alleged killer has been arrested tried, found guilty and is awaiting execution at London’s notorious Newgate Prison. It seems that the Queen of England has expressed a personal interest in the affair, and the Viscount has been instructed to submit an official report regarding the specific details of the crime — a duty he readily delegates to Sandman.

At first, Rideout thinks that the “investigation” is merely a rubber stamp procedure to satisfy the Queen; consequently, he mistakenly believes that his official duties will be over in a few hours — especially since everyone assures him that the condemned felon, a painter named Charles Corday, had raped and stabbed the Countess of Avebury in the studio where she had recently posed for a commissioned (nude) portrait. However, when Captain Sandman visits Corday in prison, the accused turns out to be a frail “ pixie,” 19th century London jargon for a homosexual. (Gallows Thief is permeated with street jargon.)

Rideout’s subsequent encounter with the bloated and offensive Sir George Phillips, Corday’s “mentor/employer,” suggests that Corday is not only innocent but is a “stand-in” for someone else. In addition, a witness to the murder, a house servant named Meg, has mysteriously vanished. Finally, if matters were not complicated enough, Captain Sandman finds himself at odds with a “gentlemen’s club” called the Seraphim. The membership of Seraphim consists of wealthy, arrogant young men who spend their time in gambling, drunkenness and “carnal indiscretions” (much like London’s Hellfire Clubs of the early 1700s). One of the Seraphim’s current hobbies is collecting nude paintings of notable aristocratic ladies ... like the Countess of Avebury (who is not what she seems).

As Captain Sandman searches for Meg, he finds himself dealing with a daunting number of additional problems, including assassins and debtors. His morale is somewhat improved when he discovers that the Lady Eleanor not only still loves him, but has even suggested a future elopement to Scotland! A man sent by the Seraphim Club to kill Rideout turns out to be Sgt. Berrigan, another veteran of Waterloo. When Berrigan decides to cast his lot with Capt. Sandman, the two become friends and set off on a nerve-racking journey to prove Corday’s innocence. It is an odyssey that will end with the two friends (and Robin Hood) standing before a scaffold at Newgate Prison, surrounded by a raving mob.

Much of the appeal of Bernard Cornwell’s novels is due to the amazing depths of his research. For example, some of the most harrowing passages in Gallows Thief contain graphic descriptions of Newgate’s stench and squalor with particular emphasis on its notorious public executions. Indeed, the novel’s Prologue gives a surreal (and historically accurate) account of the bizarre practice of allowing aristocrats the privilege of being seated on the scaffold so that they may witness the death struggles of the condemned. The carnival-like atmosphere, the casual cruelties and the inept methods employed by the hangman are described with meticulous accuracy.

Thankfully, Cornwell’s penchant for detail is also evident throughout the novel. As Capt. Sandman attends cricket matches, drinks with his friends in the Wheatsheaf Tavern or watches a musical extravaganza at the Covent Gardens Theater, the pages of Gallows Thief exude the smells, sounds and sights of London in the 1820s. In one scene, Cornwell captures the image of a louse crawling in a gentleman’s powdered wig at the theater; the raucous laughter of the audience when a pickpocket’s fingers are snared by the fishhooks in his would-be victim’s coat. Amid the flicker of gaslights, he notes the sheen of sweat on the powdered faces of elderly aristocrats — and the pervasive smell of unwashed bodies.

Gallows Thief contains an impressive assortment of vibrant characters, including the earthy and decidedly sexy Sally Hood, sister of the notorious Robin Hood (who manages to pursue his career as a master highwayman while occasionally assisting Capt. Sandman in his quest for justice); an assortment of venal, privileged lords, ministers and lawyers — all captured in true-to-life portraits. In addition, Cornwell’s minor characters: beggars, doxies, and posturing nobles, all become vividly alive as they move through the varied scenes: ornate and often abandoned mansions, taverns, slums, prisons and rural farms.

Cornwell’s appeal can be summed up by a recent quote from the Washington Post: “The strength that have come to characterize (Cornwell’s) fiction — immaculate historical reconstruction and the ability to tell a ripping yarn.” Perhaps that also means that Cornwell will launch yet another series: the adventures of Capt. Rideout Sandman, late of the King’s army.

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The Turnaround by George Pelecanos. Little, Brown and Company, 2009. 320 pages

 

On a sweltering summer night in 1972, three white teenagers in Washington, D. C., decide to cruise through a black neighborhood called Heathrow Heights. On a dare, the driver, Billy Cachoris, yells a few racial slurs at three black teenagers while his companion, Pete Whitten, throws a cherry pie. Alex Pappas, the third teenager, is in the back seat and does not participate in this dangerous prank. Belatedly, Cachoris discovers that he is in a turnaround with no exit. His only choice is to turn around and go back to where three very angry blacks stand in the middle of the street waiting. Billy stops the car, gets out and attempts to apologize. He is sucker-punched and while he is lying in the street, he is shot in the back. Pete jumps from the car and runs. Alex is badly beaten and scarred for life.

George Pelecanos, who calls The Turnaround his most autobiographical novel, provides extensive information about the three black teenagers. James and Raymond Monroe are brothers and both have recently heard their mother describe how she had been subjected to racial slurs by some white teenagers just a few nights earlier. Charles Baker, several years older than the Monroe brothers, has a reputation for violence and drugs. He strikes Billy Cachoris and attacks Alex Pappas, leaving him with mutilated eye (Alex says that he looks as though his damaged eyes is perpetually weeping.) A witness later testifies that one of the Monroe brothers fired the fatal hot. Eventually, James Monroe confesses and is charged with murder.

The Turnaround is about consequences. When Pelecanos moves the action forward 35 years, we discover that the lives of all of the participants in that tragic night in 1972 have been altered; the lives of numerous others (children, wives, relatives, etc.) are affected in varying degrees. The central character, Alex Pappas, had once planned to go to college, but ends up operating his father’s Greek diner. Alex is haunted by that night in Heathrow Heights, and he often wonders if he could have changed the outcome. He sees his role in the tragedy as an example of his role in life. He is “the guy in the backseat,” someone who is not really involved in the action, but sanctioning it with his silence.

Recently, his sense of being powerless to shape his life has been intensified by the death of his own son in Iraq. James Monroe does not fare well in prison and ends up serving a total of 20 years. Out of prison, he drinks too much and ekes out a living as an underpaid mechanic. Charles Baker, who had testified against James Monroe in the trial in exchange for a light sentence, has become a hardened petty criminal who preys on the weak. Only Pete Whitten, a local WASP from a privileged family, and now a local lawyer; and Ray Monroe, who works in a military rehabilitation center assisting maimed veterans; and Alex Pappas have managed to create meaningful and economically secure lives complete with wives and children.

When a chance meeting between Alex Pappas and Ray Monroe occurs, Pelecanos handles this confrontation as a kind of moral “turnaround.” Thirty-five years after the tragedy of Heathrow Heights, all of the survivors find themselves facing a personal crisis. Alex feels that he has sacrificed his personal dreams for the benefit of his family; Ray Monroe has lead a fulfilling life of service to others, but is haunted by guilt (he harbors a secret about the death of Billy Cachoris); James Monroe, trapped in a dead-end job, a tendency to drink too much and an inability to make friends, has unwittingly become involved with Charles Baker in an extortion scheme. Finally, there is Charles Baker, who bitterly resents the material wealth of everyone and spends much of his time developing schemes to take advantage of others. Unfortunately, one of his plans involves taking control if a lucrative drug operation run by a syndicate of ruthless dealers.

The Turnaround represents yet another example of a “new theme” in the recent works of George Pelecanos. Many of his earlier novels (Down Where the Dead Men Go, Shoedog, A Firing Offense) although skillfully written are noted for their darkness and brutality. In recent years, a new theme has emerged in works such as The Night Gardener, Drama City and Hard Revolution: the theme of redemption. In recent works, Pelecanos develops characters who find meaningful lives through family, sacrifice and work. Indeed, this is the trinity that dominates in The Turnaround.

In the latter part of The Turnaround, there are two significant confrontations: the chance meeting between Raymond Monroe and Alex Pappas, which evolves into a series of meetings in which these two men strive to find a way to bring closure to the bitterness and resentment that both parties have harbored for 35 years. It is through the initiative of Pappas that the two factions finally merge in the creation of “a project” that will redeem them all. The second significant confrontation is between Charles Baker and Pete Whitten (and later repeated between Baker and Alex Pappas) and is tainted by Baker’s use of threat and intimidation. In the final analysis Baker’s schemes are counterproductive, and, produce yet another tragedy.

What is interesting about this change in themes in Pelecanos’ novels is his passionate presentation of the redeeming aspects of family, work and sacrifice. In The Turnaround, Alex Pappas and Raymond Monroe survive because of them. Characters (like Charles Baker), who are without family or meaningful work are often doomed. For several years now, Pelecanos has been active in book-signing circuit, and he frequently delivers lectures to his fans that resemble fervent sermons. (See Pelecanos on YouTube.)

No review of a Pelecanos novel would be complete without acknowledging the author’s remarkable ability to capture and/or encapsulate the atmosphere of a specific time and place. With Pelecanos, it is Washington, D. C., and the area around Dupont Circle, circa 1970. The Turnaround resonates with crisp dialogue that contains vivid references to that era’s music, sports, radio personalities and popular cars. Many reader may relish the feeling of cruising through D.C. in a Monte Carlo listening to Wilson Pickett do “In the Midnight Hour” on WOL. I agree with Alex that, compared to what is now on the radio, those were good times.

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My Mountain Granny by Matthew Link Baker. Catch the Spirit of Appalachia, Inc., 2010.

In the opening pages of My Mountain Granny, author Matthew Link Baker announces his intention of producing a book that would embody a kind of memorial to the memory of Evelyn Howell Beck, a mountain woman that he encountered in Whittier on Dec. 10, 1998. This meeting was the consequence of Baker’s life long desire to discover the “real Appalachia” and the character of the people who lived there. An associate had assured him that he could learn all he wished to know by talking to Evelyn Howell Beck.

Over a four-year period (1998-2002), Baker would visit Evelyn 20 times. Part of Baker’s book is based on these recorded conversations.

In actual fact, although Baker’s book is a moving tribute to Evelyn, it also qualifies as a homage to the town of Whittier, which once had a “boom town” reputation. The narrative (which manages to be disjointed, pleasant and informative) combines Evelyn’s memories with a collection of remarkable photographs, historical sketches and a generous amount of oral history.

Founded in 1885 by Clarke Whittier, a relative of the poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, this village quickly grew into a robust community that thrived on profits from timber and the commercial advantages of having a newly constructed railroad running through it.

Because the founder’s promotion of the region as a place destined to become “the cynosure of eastern America,” investors and settlers flocked to the new town. (Robert Lee Madison, who would become the founder of Western Carolina University, and his brother Monro were among the first arrivals.) Suddenly, Whittier was filled with excitement, visionaries and hucksters (the most infamous being a fellow named James Latimore Hemrod who fleeced the town and quietly departed). For a short time, sawmills, churches, hotels and boarding houses sprang up like toad stools.

Some of the most fascinating information in My Mountain Granny concerns Whittier’s “salad days” — that brief period when the town thrived. Baker gives an entertaining account of the years when Whittier became a center of old camp meetings. Beginning in August, families camped out in and around the town, attending revivals and singings. These events, sometimes called “arbor meetings,” frequently lasted for six weeks. Popular quartets performed and regional ministers preached services that culminated in “alter calls.” Medicine shows, sponsored by major medicine companies, provided hours of entertainments (Bill Monroe and the Grand Old Opry star, Grandpappy) that were interspersed with “doctors” who gave sales pitches for elixirs that cured everything from hair loss to warts and the common cold.

According Baker, Whittier became the Little League baseball center for the region in the 1920s — a title that the town held until the 1970’s. One of the memorable teams was the Whittier Orioles which was composed of Cherokee and white youngsters from the area.

Baker also recounts a famous “Whittier story,” which has become a part of this region’s history/folklore. It concerns Col. Raymond Robbins, a noted public figure in the 1930’s who had become wealthy in the Gold Rush of 1898. Using his money to finance his social work, Robbins became a leading prohibitionist. When the Colonel mysteriously vanished in September 1932, President Hoover, fearing that Robbins had been murdered by political enemies, launched an investigation. Several days later, a man calling himself Reynolds Rogers appeared in Whittier and immediately became an active citizen, attending civic meetings throughout the region, including the Cherokee tribal council.

However, to everyone’s astonishment, a local youth finally recognized him from his photograph in the Grit! Rogers turned out to be the missing Colonel. Did he have amnesia, or did he simply grow weary of his stressful life? (Wilma Ashe, a young Whittier resident, befriended Robbins during his sojourn in Whittier and often told colorful stories about her conversations with him in later years.) After Robbins returned to his estate in south Florida, he often told his friends about the little community that was situated in the fork of two rivers — a place where he had been happy for a short time.

Baker gives a lively account of Whittier during the periods when the town struggled to survive.  Especially interesting are the sections that deal with the years when 25 percent of America’s workforce was unemployed. During the 1930s, thanks to Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) with camps at Smokemont — coupled with the community’s reliance home-grown food — Whittier managed well. Evelyn Howell Beck’s memories of those days harkens back to a time when survival required community effort.

“We helped each other,” she said.

The bright economic promise of Whittier was dashed by a combination of unforeseen events: the Great Depression, the creation of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (which terminated the thriving, but unregulated timber industry), and the devastating flood of 1940. The photographs of this disaster are especially memorable.

Today, Whittier is a quiet village. The railroad, the land speculators and the medicine shows are gone and this little settlement on the Tuckaseigee now attracts people for a different reason. It is, as Clarke Whittier once described it, a kind of pastoral Eden like that perceived by another poet where “peace comes dropping slow.” In the distance, the local residents can hear the thunder of the interstate and the hurry and bustle of progress. However, in Whittier, life has adjusted to a slower pace — there, as in Grey’s famous “Elegy,” the natives treasure the “noiseless tenor of their day.”

In view of this little book’s numerous fine points, it is unfortunate that the text is marred by a number of flaws. For example, the references to Charleston, the old name of Bryson City, are not clarified. The book’s layout is confusing because often, the wonderful photographs and the text are not correlated. Photographs of Robbins are haphazardly placed. Evelyn’s recorded memories are frequently repetitious. Baker occasionally inserts personal observations about the “good old days” that are heartfelt and well-written, but they are not always clearly distinguished from Evelyn’s personal recollections.

All in all, the book’s value as a tribute to a bygone time and the resilience of mountain people certainly outweigh its technical flaws.

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Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell. Saint Martins Press, 1998. 397 pages

Several years ago, when I was reading everything I could find about mythical figures such as King Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Tristan, Iseult and Galahad, I blundered on the works of a Romanian philosopher named Mircea Eliade. Eliade was also obsessed with mythology and one of his most famous essays, “The Eternal Return,” entertained the idea that all of the stories of legendary heroes and tragic lovers are still with us.

However, the story’s basic elements (culture, physical characteristics, sex, etc.) are constantly changing. For example, the story of Tristan and Iseult could have been repeated last week in a Greek fishing village where Iseult is a waitress in a local cafe, Tristan might be an African fisherman and King Mark may operate a local grocery. Eliade thought that all of the great myths served as “ eternal templates” that were repeated endlessly throughout all time.

Bernard Cornwell has an interesting variation on Eliade’s theory. Instead of creating colorful alternative versions in different times and places, Cornwell radically alters the original story. In Enemy of God, not only is Arthur not a king, he has no desire to become one. Sir Lancelot, instead of being a courageous warrior and Queen Guinevere’s devoted lover, is a cowardly, vain and devious snake who plots Arthur’s death. Cornwell’s Guinevere is arrogant, ruthless and selfish — almost the opposite of the traditional virtuous wife who regrets her adultery, but is incapable of giving up Lancelot.

As a consequence, Cornwell’s treatment of the Arthurian legend is filled with unpleasant surprises and revelations. There is no round table, nor does Arthur preside over a kind of parliament of courageous and devoted warriors. Instead, England is ruled by a multitude of contentious warlords, each with their own petty holdings. Although there are alliances and blood-oaths, they are frequently broken as the warlords shift positions and loyalties in order to increase their own power and holdings.

Enemy of God, like The Winter King, is narrated by Derfel Cadarn, an aging monk who was once Arthur’s favored warrior. In fact, Derfel not only emerges as Arthur’s biographer, but quickly becomes a dominant character in this complex and violent epic. Also, it is through the narrator’s eyes that 5th century England comes alive. At this point, England is a land filled with the relics of the old Druid culture, nearly destroyed by the Romans who had built marble temples, impressive roads and stone buildings. Now, the Romans have vanished and roving bands of Saxons, Irish warlords, Druids and fanatical Christians struggle to claim the war-torn country.

Enemy of God contains (at least) six major themes. (1) Merlin’s quest for a mythical Cauldron that will enable him to summons the “Old Gods of England” and re-establish the ancient order that existed before the Romans came; (2) Derfel’s love for Ceinwyn, Princess of Powes, who has been promised to King Lancelot, who becomes Derfel’s most hated enemy); (3) the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult, two lovers who flee King Mark’s kingdom (Mark is Tristan’s father in this version); they seek refuge with Arthur; (4) the growing treachery of Lancelot, including his plot to kill Arthur; (5) Arthur’s prolonged attempt to make Mordred, the crippled grandson of King Uther, the rightful King of Camelot; and (6) the rise of the fanatical Christians who have branded Arthur as the “Enemy of God” and are dedicated to purging England of pagans.

As these varied episodes unfold, Cornwell does a masterful job of creating an atmosphere fraught with superstitious omens and prophecy.

Although there is little magic in Cornwell’s ancient England, the little that remains is impressive. Early in the novel, Merlin and his assistant, the one-eyed Nimue, announce the following harbingers of disaster: a sword shall rest on the neck of a child; a king who is not a king shall rule; the living shall marry the dead; and the lost shall come to light. With a growing sense of dread, Derfel moves from revelation to revelation, knowing that one or more of these prophecies will alter his own fate.

Cornwell’s second novel presents Arthur’s “united” kingdoms as a deception. Beneath the surface of brotherhood and love lies a tangled knot of lies and betrayal. What gradually becomes apparent is that each of the major factions (Merlin, Arthur and the Christians) has a hidden agenda. The struggle for control of England will be between Merlin of Avalon who is committed to the ancient and mystical world of the Druids; Arthur’s dream of a reign of peace which will unify England under a single ruler (Mordred); and the Christians who believe that paganism will be driven out of England and their God and the church will be established after Christ’s anticipated return (500 A. D.).

Although Arthur’s proposed “Camelot” appears to be winning in Enemy of God, Derfel perceives the inner corruption that is undermining everything and repeatedly attempts to warn Arthur. He only succeeds in alienating his family and himself from Arthur’s protection. The prophecy regarding “a sword resting on the neck of a child” presages a treacherous attack on Derfel’s family, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Mordred, the devious, crippled child/king, will prove to be “a king who is not a king.” Certainly, the most bizarre prediction proves to be the one involving Lancelot’s “marriage” to the corpse of Mordred’s mother in order to become the “rightful heir to the throne.”

Between the rituals involving Merlin’s legendary Cauldron, the sexual orgies associated with Guinevere’s cult of Isis and the Christian ceremonies that promote self-flagellation and maniac seizures, The Enemy of God presents a disturbing picture of a country moving towards the total collapse of all order (religious, political and cultural). By the conclusion of this novel, Arthur is definitely showing signs of disillusionment and resignation.

The reader may be subject to the same feelings. Certainly, those of us who have loved the story of Tristan and Iseult may find it difficult to accept

Cornwell’s reduction of this tragic love story to the young prince’s somewhat abrupt death (killed in a duel) and Iseult’s execution by burning at the stake. None of the trappings of the traditional story are here. No love potion accidentally shared, no courtly love affair and no “ship with a white sail.” Instead, Cornwell gives us two helpless teenage lovers, whose lives are brutally extinguished before they have hardly begun to live.

Cornwell’s reduction of romantic myths to grim fables that are devoid of magic and/or grandeur is disturbing. Enemy of God contains a basic cynicism that may be the downfall of both the legendary Arthur and Bernard Cornwell’s trilogy.

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Horns by Joe Hill. William Morrow Publishers, 2010. 370 pages.

Ignatius William Perrish (“Iggy” to his friends) awoke one morning to find that, in addition to a headache, he had a very tangible set of horns sprouting from his forehead. Alarmed by his new acquisitions, Iggy takes himself to his family doctor’s office where he makes an alarming discovery. When other people (the receptionist, his current girl friend, etc.) focus on the horns, they not only have an uncontrollable desire to confess their secret sins, they ask for advice and assurance. Should they push their Alzheimer’s-striken mother down the basement steps? Should they continue embezzling funds? Is it time to break off a sleazy affair with a neighbor’s wife? Also, as soon as Iggy becomes distressed by the shocking sins of the people he meets and turns away in horror, the sinners forget what they have just confessed. In fact, they forget Iggy was ever there.

What follows is a nightmarish series of encounters in which Iggy visits those near and dear to him: his mother, his father, his grandmother and his celebrity brother. Poor Iggy learns that most of his family harbors an intense dislike for him. His mother is ashamed of him and is reluctant to attend social events where people know she is Iggy’s mother. His father hopes that he will move out and his grandmother considers him a loathsome pervert. Stunned by this information, Iggy reluctantly confronts his brother Terry, dreading to hear that even the person he admires most in the world probably despises him too.

By this point in Horns, the reader suspects that Iggy is suppressing a few dark secrets of his own; for example, he is a murder suspect. A year has lapsed since Merrin Williams, Iggy’s girlfriend, was raped and murdered on the eve of their departure for college. Merrin’s body is found in a favorite local hangout for courting couples — an abandoned foundry. Iggy is a primary suspect, but the evidence against his is circumstantial; he is never charged with the crime. However, it soon becomes evident that everyone, including Father Mould, the local Catholic priest (who has some pretty loathsome confessions of his own), and Iggy’s family thinks he is guilty. When Iggy finally reveals his new horns to his brother, he braces himself to hear yet another confession of hidden enmity. Instead, Terry reveals that he knows that his brother is innocent; but has failed to give evidence that would clear Iggy’s name because certain details of the crime would destroy Terry’s career (he is a popular TV personality).

Now, admittedly, a novel about a protagonist who has a set of horns on his head is a little bizarre, but this fact is rendered irrelevant by what follows: Horns contains two wildly divergent themes: (1) a deeply moving and poignant love story (Iggy and Merrin) and (2) a dark meditation on the nature of Good and Evil (God and the Devil). Although the novel is essentially a story about a group of teenagers in a small New Hampshire town, it gradually morphs into a morality tale that poses a number of disturbing questions. Is the majority of mankind essentially evil? In our secret hearts, are we all more comfortable with Satan than with God? Do we all nurse bitter resentments, anger and lust even as he communicate with our friends and family?

In addition to confirming Iggy’s innocence, Terry reveals the identity of the real murderer — Lee Tourneau, an enigmatic, handsome young man who just happens to be Iggy’s “best friend.” Now, in the aftermath of Merrin’s death, Iggy learns that Lee’s friendship is a carefully contrived mask to hide Lee’s profound envy and hatred for everyone who is blessed with comfortable lives, material goods and family ties.

It is especially interesting that the only character in Horns who is immune to the strange power of Iggy’s horns is Lee Tourneau. Raised in poverty by parents who are incapable of affection, Tourneau structures an existence designed to “get even” with his privileged peers — all the people he despises for real or imagined slights. When Lee launches a kind of secret war of deceit and betrayal on all of his alleged friends, Iggy and Merrin are fated to suffer the most.

Horns becomes a disturbing study of guilt, envy and suffering. At times, Lee Tourneau’s bitter envy resembles other infamous masters of deceit: Iago, who hated Othello because the Moor’s life had a beauty “that makes me ugly.” Then, there is Claggart’s hatred of Melville’s Billy Budd. Lee burns with a rage to destroy both Iggy and Merrin, simply because they exist.

Joe Hill is definitely his father’s (Stephen King) son. Horns, like his previous bestseller, The Heart-shaped Box, is filled with passages and imagery that causes the reader’s skin to prickle. Especially memorable are a series of scenes in the abandoned foundry where Iggy hides while he attempts to develop a way to defend himself against Tourneau.

As Iggy broods on the injustice of his situation, he begins to change, acquiring all of the traditional trappings of a demon. He discovers that he can mimic the voices of others and has the power to summons them to his hideout. Eventually, he notices that he has attracted visitors — hundreds (possibly thousands) of snakes gather around Iggy like adoring disciples.

There is, of course, a final conflict and it has dark grandeur which needs to be read. Consequently, this review will not steal any of Joe Hill’s thunder but merely note that the author does a masterful job of orchestrating an ending filled with drama, thunder and a strange kind of cosmic justice.

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Requiem by Fire by Wayne Caldwell. Random House, 2009. 335 pages

Dear readers, if you have some slight respect for my opinions about Appalachian literature, I hope you will believe me when I say that Wayne Caldwell has written a remarkable novel — one that we will be talking about for many years. Requiem by Fire, Caldwell’s second work in what may well be a series of novels, is rooted in the history, folkways and culture of a vanquished place: Cataloochee. Whereas the first novel gave breath, blood and passion to the early settlers of that place, this sequel attempts to capture the lives of those same settlers and their descendants (some 1,100 in all) when they are faced with eviction.

If you have ever wondered how the federal government and the U.S. Park Service orchestrated the removal the households in Big and Little Cataloochee, here is a detailed and sometimes heartbreaking account. At its worst, the “presence of the Park” in Cataloochee and elsewhere sometimes resembled occupation by a conquering army, since uniformed and armed officials took up residence in the designated area and began issuing mandates — regulations that stipulated everything from reimbursement for land to deadlines for final departure. From the beginning, the Park stressed a singular dismal fact: This land now belongs to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You must leave.

For many of the aged residents such as Silas Wright, the coming of the Park was a death notice. In response to petitions from landowners who refused governmental reimbursement and requested permission to stay, the Park relented but issued restrictions that were so rigorous most landowners felt that they could not comply. No hunting, no cutting of trees (firewood was restricted to deadfalls) and severe limits on gardens and fishing. Although there was considerable dissatisfaction with the Park and its dictates, the majority of the people finally loaded their belongings and left. Silas Wright, the oldest member of the community, chose to stay.

Many of the elderly “exiles” did not survive for long. Like some of the plants many of the families attempted to transplant to their new homes in Saunook, Maggie Valley or Waynesville, these displaced souls faded and died — as though they had been deprived of some vital nutrient that could only be found in the soil of Cataloochee. There were suicides and many suffered psychological damage. There were exceptions, like the family that moved to Saunook, bought an old garage and converted it into a mercantile store that specialized in “mountain crafts.”

Noting that their customers were fascinated by such antiquated items as sun bonnets, quilts, corncob pipes and rustic chairs, they quickly became “real mountaineers” (or at least what the visiting public perceived them to be), and in the process provided an income for other Cataloochans who could whittle, sew, hew and weave.

Much of Requiem by Fire deals with the trials and tribulations of Jim Hawkins, a young native of Cataloochee who readily accepts the job of warden for the Park. In essence, Jim must enforce the unpopular rules and regulations devised by the Park. Hawkins accepts his job with a sort of religious fervor. His love for Cataloochee and its people motivates him to see if he can ease the pains of their transition. Since the Park authorities have quickly developed a reputation for insensitivity and arrogance, the local residents accept Hawkins who is “one of their own” and who has a talent for acting as a buffer between the Park and the disenfranchised residents.

Certainly, he has a knack for defusing explosive situations. He also knows when to look the other way.

However, Hawkins has made one serious mistake that causes him considerable suffering. He has married a “town girl.” Born in West Asheville, Nell comes with Jim to Cataloochee and is immediately distressed. No telephone. No movie theater. No restaurants or social life. Although she endures several years of discomfort and boredom, she does not adjust but becomes increasingly resentful. Where Jim sees beauty and solitude, Nell sees discomfort and isolation. Nell’s departure is inevitable and comes at a time when Hawkins is beset with serious problems ... one of which is a pyromaniac.

Willie McPeters is an unforgettable character. Although he has much in common with other mentally deranged characters in southern fiction, such as Flannery O’Conner’s Hazel Motes or Faulkner’s degenerate Snopes family, McPeters is more elemental, a kind of embodiment of mindless and bestial destruction. McPeters begins to burn abandoned buildings in a sexual frenzy and as his destruction in Cataloochee increases, Jim Hawkins finds evidence of Willie’s presence near his home (McPeters leaves an acrid stench where ever he goes).

Ironically, as Hawkins struggles to save his marriage and track down the elusive firebug, the Park announces its new edict. All of the vacated buildings in Cataloochee are to be burned. Nothing is to be left that would detract from the Park’s mission: to return Cattaloochee to a wilderness state. Consequently, this sets the scene for the most heartrending section of Requiem by Fire — Hawkins is ordered to officiate at the burning of the place where he was born:

Destroying the place where as a baby he had padded in knitted booties. The place he’d learned fire burns and ice is cold, and that nothing is better for the sniffles than a mother’s love and warm VapoRub.The place he’d broken windows with homemade baseballs.The place that had kept him dry during storms and wet in the tub on Saturday night. The place where his father had read the Bible out loud every night and where Jim had learned about alcohol when he was caught sneaking from Mack’s jug and where his punishment had been to keep drinking until he retched. His place.

As Hawkins stands watching the inferno destroy even the boxwoods and the maple tree in the front yard, he is joined by the lonely and stubborn Silas Wright, who now believes that Cataloochee is truly gone. Silas also encounters a group of campers from the flatlands and their behavior and opinions presage the coming of vast hordes who will perceive Cataloochee as a “vast outdoor playground.” Silas senses that it is time for him to go as well.

Requiem by Fire begins and ends with dreams — Silas Wright’s dreams. The first fire is one that Silas and his friends deliberately set when Silas was a young man. They had burned the old Cataloochee school because they believed that the only way they would get an adequate school for their children was to burn the old one. Now, at the end of his life, Silas dreams of fire again. However, this time the fire is multi-faceted. It both cleanses and obliterates, destroys and renews. In Cataloochee, a way of life has perished, but a new world is approaching by a paved road. The tourists are coming.

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The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Penguin Books, 2005. 487 pages

Let’s begin with a marvelous story — one of those timeless fables that is charged with mystery and magic — the kind that provides the basis for great novels. Somewhere on a dark and lonely street in Barcelona, there is an ancient, locked building called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. If you know the password, or if you have a friend who is willing to take you as his “guest,” you may gain entrance and wander through a labyrinth of echoing corridors of abandoned books until you become lost like the legendary Theseus. When you are finally rescued (if you are!), then you will be allowed to select a single volume with the understanding that you will return it some day — perhaps, after it has altered your life in significant ways. When Daniel Sempere, the protagonist of The Shadow of the Wind, comes to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books with his father, the 10-year-old boy takes a book entitled ... The Shadow of the Wind.

So begins an incredible journey that carries Daniel through a strange city, filled with abandoned mansions, exotic cafes, fantastic bookstores, spirit-haunted graveyards and sinister prisons from which no inmate ever returns. Zafon’s novel is populated with a cast of characters that resemble the tortured, guilt-ridden lovers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the obsessed killers of Jorge Luis Borges and the doomed and solitary eccentrics of Charles Dickens. The Shadow of the Wind is an epic tale that alternately reads like Dante’s nightmarish descent into the underworld and Candide’s trek through a venal, corrupt and cruel world. In short, this is a hell of a book!

Daniel’s most memorable encounters include an infatuation with Clara Barcelo, a beautiful blind girl who plays the piano ineptly (her rendition of Mozart sounds like a macaw randomly pecking piano keys); Don Federico, a watchmaker with a penchant for dressing like female opera stars; Javier Francisco Fumero,a deranged policeman, who in addition to murdering his own mother has devoted his life to tracking down Julian Carax, the author of The Shadow of the Wind — a mission that amounts to a terrifying obsession (much like another “relentless policeman,” Javert in Les Miserables).

Lain Courbert, a ghostly figure with a leather mask that hides a face burned beyond recognition, proves to be another deranged creature. Courbert has devoted his life to finding ... and burning every existing copy of The Shadow of the Wind. (Is it possible that he might really be the Julian Carax? If so, why?)

In addition, there are multitudes of minor characters, including “La Pepita,” an elderly matron with a gift for pistol-shot flatulence that is rumored to be so deadly it stuns sparrows on her balcony and sends them plummeting, senseless, to the pavement below; a horny, dying octogenarian who bargains with Daniel for one last lusty encounter, and a host of saintly nuns who devote their lives to protecting Zafon’s most foolish and/or helpless characters, including Bea Aguiler, the love of Daniel’s life.

The most remarkable character in the book, Fermin Romero de Torres, embodies the traits of both Cyrano de Bergerac (romantic and linguistic excesses), and Don Quixote (the man with the “impossible dream”). Saved from poverty and almost certain death by Daniel Sempere, Fermin becomes Daniel’s protector, advisor and confidante. In addition, much of The Shadow of the Wind’s wit and charm is the result of Fermin’s outrageous pronouncements on art, human frailty and sex. Fermin’s enthusiasm for American movies and stars such as Cary Grant, Veronica Lake and Carol Lombard prompts him to mimic the “noir” movies that he adores. In fact, the irrepressible Fermin sometimes comes dangerously close to dominating this novel!

Beneath the novel’s colorful facade is a touching story of Daniel’s relationship with his father, the proprietor of a highly respected bookstore that is barely surviving in a world where readers are decreasing at an alarming rate. When Daniel finds a copy of The Shadow of the Wind, he becomes fascinated by the book’s mysterious author, Julian Carax. Daniel begins a search to find Carax only to make the disquieting discovery that the author’s life bears an eerie resemblance to his own. In addition, as he meets Carax’s former lovers, enemies and acquaintances, he also encounters not only a marked resistance to his search, but a growing hostility. Time and time again, he is told to abandon his search or he may uncover a horrifying truth.

An increasing amount of evidence indicates that Carax is dead but Daniel comes to believe that the author has achieved a kind of immortality in his novels. When the warehouse in which the remaindered copies of The Shadow of the Wind are stored mysteriously burns, Daniel suspects that someone is determined to extinguish this last vestige of Carax’s memory. Is it possible that Carax is not truly dead as long as copies of his novels exist? Could it be that Lain Courbert, the man who has devoted his life to burning all of Carax’s novels, believes that he is carrying out a kind of “cleansing?” What is the basis for Javert Francisco Fumero’s hatred of Corax? Why is that hatred eventually transferred to Daniel Sempere?

Before all of these questions are answered, Daniel will learn the truth about Carax’s love with a young woman named Penelope Aldaya. When The Shadow of the Wind begins a descent into madness, vengeance and murder, all of the disparate pieces of this epic (and highly sensual) novel converge into a thundering, blood-drenched denouement. This is a marvelous book that will provide fodder for your fantasies for months to come.

(Gary Carden is a writer, playwright and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and maintains a blog at www.tannerywhistle.net/books.)

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eoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales: a Retelling by Peter Ackroyd. Viking Press, 2009. 436 pages

Being an old English teacher, I am aware of a literary tradition regarding classical works of literature: every generation of so, “masterpieces,” such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, the plays of Sophocles and Euripides and ancient epics such as Gilgamesh and The Decameron are translated (again) by a new group of prominent scholars. The purpose of these translations, according to the translators, is to make the classics more “relevant” to modern readers. For example, a careful translation of “Antigone” may reveal subtle similarities between King Creon’s military policy and Germany’s Third Reich. Recently, a new “interpretation” of Gilgamesh uncovered marked similarities between the fate of an arrogant tyrant 3,000 years ago and the invasion of Iraq during George Bush’s presidency. No doubt, similar reasons were given for a new translation of the Greek Bacchae during the height of San Francisco’s “hippie movement” when Timothy Leary’s fans ran amuck.

However, this time out, we have a modern translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by Peter Ackroyd - a translation designed to make this venerable 14th century literary work relevant to “the audience of today.” Ackroyd tells us Chaucer’s poetic (but archaic) language has rendered this marvelous collection of stories obscure and/or meaningless to the modern reader. Why not “translate” the entire work into conventional modern language? To illustrate his point, Ackroyd “retells” the passage that introduces this review (“The Prologue”) as follows:

“When the soft, sweet showers of April reach the roots of all things, refreshing the parched earth, nourishing every saplings and every seedling, then humankind rises up in joy and expectations. The west wind blows away the stench of the city and crops flourish in the fields beyond the walls. After the waste of winter, it is delightful to hear birdsong once more in the streets. The trees themselves are bathed in song. It is a time of general renewal and restoration. The sun has passed midway through the sign of the Ram, a good time for the sinews and the heart. This is the best season of the year for travelers. That is why good folk then long to go on pilgrimages.

Now, admittedly, Ackroyd’s passage is much easier to read since he has removed all of the archaic words and spelling. However, he has also removed Chaucer’s poetry (his meter and rimes) which has been replaced by... conventional prose. Is it better?

When I encountered The Canterbury Tales in my sophomore year at WCU (with my Cliff Notes firmly in hand), I discovered that there were 28 pilgrims who intended to make a leisurely journey from London to Canterbury to the tomb of Thomas a’Becket, and that Chaucer originally intended for each of them to tell four stories — two going and two coming back — a total of 112 tales. In actual fact, Chaucer only completed 24 tales. However, it is am amazingly varied collection, which ranges from bawdy fabliaux (dirty joke) to anti-Semitic rants and high-minded moral sermons.

Despite the fact that it has been over fifty years since I read Chaucer for the first time, it is amazing how vividly many of these characters live in my memory. Both the gap-toothed Wife of Bath, with her obsession with sex and the sleazy Pardoner with his jar of “pig bones” (which he sells as holy relics along with his “papal indulgences”) are morally corrupt - yet Chaucer’s descriptions of them give them a kind of literary immortality. In addition, despite the repulsive nature of speaker, “The Pardoner’s Tale” remains one of the great cautionary tales of literature.

Ackroyd’s “retelling” of such ribald classics as “The Miller’s Tale.” “The Reeve’s Tale” and “The Summoner’s Tale” are probably the original prototypes, of the 20th century “traveling salesmen” jokes since they all deal with cuckoldry, sexual misadventures and flatulence, and all are examples of low comedy. Ackroyd retells all of Chaucer’s “dirty jokes” with a sort gleeful zest that definitely adds to their humor. For example, the college students in both “The Summoner’s Tale” and the “The Miller’s Tale” speak in modern-day “cockney” and use many of the current, four-letter, sexual idioms. This is equally true of the Nun’s Priest’s tale, which gives an earthy account of the barnyard adventures of Chanticleer, the lusty rooster!

Many of the stories are boring (“The Knight’s Tale”), pretentious and/or ridiculous (“The Clerk’s Tale” of the “patient Griselda”), or moral tales filled with religious hypocrisy and anti-Semitism (“The Prioress’ Tale” of how Little Saint Hugh was slain by the Jews and “The Second Nun’s Tale” of Saint Cecilia’s martyrdom). Ironically, Chaucer is not responsible for the literary shortcomings of the tales, for each stands as an insight into the personality of the speaker. For example, Chaucer’s Knight is noble, honest and poor, but he is unable to tell an interesting story. One can imagine the pilgrims nodding off in the saddle as the poor Knight drones on and on. It is interesting that the most morally offensive tales are told by religious personages such as the Nun, the Prioress and the Clerk - all of which unwittingly reveal their own ethical shortcomings.

It well may be that Ackroyd’s retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may actually create a revival of interest in this 14th century classic. The low humor is still hilarious and Chaucer has a marvelous talent for revealing the pompous self-importance of corrupt 14th century church officials. It is especially important to remember that the opinions expressed by Chaucer’s pilgrims are not Chaucer’s — especially with stories like “The Clerk’s Tale” which is easily the yarn most likely to infuriate a modern feminist. I believe that Chaucer would share her outrage.

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The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Doubleday, 2009. 470 pages.

A few days after completing The Shadow of the Wind, I discovered a copy of Carlos Zafon’s new novel, The Angel’s Game. When I sampled a few pages to see if it had the same extraordinary imagery and cadence of its predecessor, I found that its setting was the same: Barcelona in the ‘20s, a visit to the “Cemetery of Forgotten Books,” treks through fog-shrouded graveyards, and the wonderful Sempere Bookstore, the place where star-crossed love, madness and murder converge.

However, The Angel’s Game is not a sequel. Daniel Sempere, the protagonist in The Shadow of the Wind is relegated to the role of a minor character in this tale of unholy alliances, paranoia and obsession. It is as though while Daniel Sempere’s anguished tale of love and redemption was unfolding, another doomed protagonist, David Martin (who just happens to lives nearby) is also beginning his own dark journey through “the city of the damned.” Although the two men are friends, they have very little in common ... except a love of books.

Zafon, a master of provocative beginnings, lets David tell his own story which begins with a badly beaten child who enters the Sempere Bookstore clutching a blood-stained copy of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. The child (David Martin) begs Sempere Senior to keep the book safe since Martin’s abusive father intends to destroy it. Sempere not only hides the book; he also becomes David’s protector and advisor, assisting the boy in achieving his wish to become a writer.

In time, David Martin becomes a journalist and a successful writer of a series of blood-and-thunder pot-boilers, The City of the Damned. Although the books are extremely popular, David feels that they are cheap melodramas and dreams of writing a work that will win the respect of the literary world. David confides his dream to his friend, Pedro Vidal, a highly successful journalist, and in time, he begins work on his great opus, The Steps of Heaven. When he meets Christina, the daughter of Vidal’s chauffeur, David feels that he has an established career. He decides to terminate his contract with the shady publishing firm that distributes The City of the Damned and devote himself to his new friends and his writing. It is at this point that something goes terribly wrong with David’s life.

Within a few short weeks, David discovers the following: he is entangled in a lawsuit with his former publishers, Barrido and Escobillas; he learns that Christina is involved with his best friend, Pedro Vidal, and when his new novel is published, the critics judge it to be a hopeless, amateurish work. At the same time, Vidal publishes a novel (written by David) and it is declared a literary masterpiece. Finally, when recurring headaches and nausea force David to consult a doctor, he is told that he has a brain tumor which will kill him in a few months.

When David Martin is at his lowest point, he meets Andreas Corelli, a mysterious publisher “of religious texts,” who offers to solve all of David’s problems if he will agree to write a book in accordance to Corelli’s dictates. Martin agrees and suddenly, miraculously, the deadly tumor is gone. Corelli gives David 100,000 francs “as a starter.” Shortly afterwards, David learns that the lives of Barrido and Escobillas have been snuffed out in a mysterious fire which had also destroyed all documents and contracts. David moves into an abandoned but luxurious mansion in the heart of Barcelona ... a house that he has always coveted, and begins work on Corelli’s book.

Obviously, David Martin has made a Faustian bargain, and although there is much in Corelli’s demeanor to suggest the demonic (he appears to be ageless and his eyes are reptilian), the division between Good and Evil wavers and changes frequently. In time, Martin discovers that he is only the latest of Corelli’s “authors for hire,” and that each of his predecessors has died tragically — in fact, one of them lived in the same house that Martin now occupies. Nor are the authors the only victims. All that they love, including wives, lovers and children are doomed.

But what about the book? What is the subject? The strange mythical tale that David creates is a kind of religious fable; the kind of “folk tale” that can serve as the basis for a religious belief that has the power to capture the imagination of millions. As David writes, he often appears to be a conduit, a mere instrument for verbalizing a fiendish tale that is being dictated by Andreas Corelli. At other times, Zafon suggests that perhaps Corelli exists only as projection of David Martin’s own corrupt soul. Regardless, David senses that the book he is writing may have the power to plunge the world into an apocalyptic war.

Regardless of who is responsible, someone is definitely creating havoc in David Martin’s world. The Angel’s Game is filled with hapless victims who are driven mad or die in random accidents. In addition, as the action of this novel accelerates, the narrative is littered with corpses: murdered policemen, mutilated lawyers, drowned paraplegics and lovers. As this Grand Guignol of a novel winds down, the reader is left with a singular suspicion. Is it possible that David Martin and Andreas Corelli are one and the same? If not, is it possible that the protagonist is “becoming” Corelli?

Without a doubt, The Angel’s Game contains one of the most remarkable “poetic chapters” that I have encountered in recent literature. This one deals with the death of Sempere Senior, the bookstore owner who is a major character in both The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. As Sempere’s friends gather (mostly patrons of his bookstore), the funeral service turns into a kind of eulogy for all book lovers... those people who avoid churches and religious cant, but treat books with the kind of respect and awe that is normally expended in churches. Sempere is buried with David’s copy of Great Expectations beneath his clasped hands.

Although I liked this book tremendously, I was occasionally distressed by melodramatic passages characterized by a kind of hysterical rant that appears at odds with Zafon’s usually superb style. David Martin frequently shreds the scenery like a ham actor, posturing and proclaiming cliches. I was especially distressed by his constant use of the words “venomous” and “poisonous,” and the tremendous number of unpleasant waiters, desk clerks, and government officials that populate Barcelona. Given the remarkable quality of Zafon’s writing in The Shadow of the Wind, I can only conclude that the patches of bad writing in The Angel’s Game are the result of a bad translation. I learned recently that The Angel’s Game will be reissued with a new translation this year. I sincerely hope that is true.

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During my first year at Western Carolina Teachers College (now Western Carolina University) in 1953, I managed to offend my grandfather so severely that he banished me. “Out of my sight!” he said, and sent me to Brevard to spend the summer with Uncle Albert. Albert was the bookkeeper for the Silverstein Tannery and got me a job there. “Good,” said my grandfather. “Maybe he will develop a sense of what it means to earn a livelihood.”

I worked in the “buffing room” which was next to the “green hide room,” a place where decaying (green) flesh was stripped from hides; the hides were then hung up to season. The resulting stink hung like an evil fog over the whole place, including the Green Fly Cafe (also owned by the Silverstein Tannery) where we all ate each day. Eventually, I became inured to the smell that permeated everything near the tannery; I even reached the point where I could eat the Green Fly’s diet of collard greens, pintos and cornbread with a reasonable amount of gusto.

The buffing room was in the loft of a large, barn-like structure, and its purpose was to convert inferior hides into acceptable shoe leather. This was done by placing hides (which were spotted with holes and possessed areas that were so thin they were semi-transparent) on a great table and coating them with a nauseous, yellow gunk. Four workers stood at each table with huge brushes strapped to their forearms and alternately dipped the brushes in the yellow gunk and then spread it, like lemon cake icing, over the hide.This process was repeated several times, and then huge metal rollers beat the gunk into the hide until it was absorbed. This was repeated until the hides acquired an acceptable thickness.

A bucket of water set by each table and when the brushes became clogged, we would clean them in the bucket. The water level in the bucket was always a little over half-full, because the buffing machines actually caused the floor to shift beneath our feet, like the deck of a ship. The water sloshed n the bucket in rhythm with the buffing machines. The deafening noise of the buffers rendered conversation impossible, and we learned to communicate with a kind of “buffing room mime.”

It was mind-numbing work, and we quickly fell into a repetitive routine that lasted for two hours. We received a 15-minute break — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — between each shift (which was deducted from our pay). During break, workers would go to the toilet, go smoke on the loading dock, or sit on the floor next to their work station. One colorful fellow would climb on the idle buffing machine and preach to his fellow workers to “find Jesus.”

In addition to me, my work station consisted of Lil, a gigantic blond woman who resembled Boris Karloff; a small man named Westley who hummed country-and-western songs, and a fellow named Manard who talked constantly about hunting, fights and epic drunks. During the breaks, Lil laid on the floor and slept while Westley, Manard and I fled to the loading dock. While Westley yodeled and did a passing imitation of Eddie Arnold’s standards (“Cattle Call,” and “ A Big Bouquet of Roses”), Manard talked about his Saturday nights which he spent driving around Brevard with a bottle of John Paul Jones whiskey and a paper sack full of cherry bombs. His greatest joy in life consisted of lighting cherry bombs and pitching them out the window when he passed a crowd in front of a church or theater.

Sometimes when the buffing room was going full blast, the owner paid us a visit. He wore riding pants, carried one of those little jockey whips and was usually accompanied by two white poodles. Sometimes, he would stop and watch us spread gunk. He would say something like “Faster, faster,” and the dogs would bark at us. Then he would pop his whip against his pants’ leg and walk away.

I lasted two months at the Silverstein Tannery. When I received word my grandfather would let me return home, I collected my last check ($12) and boarded a Trailways bus to Sylva. During my last week, Manard broke the buffing room monotony by taking two days of “sick leave” and then showing up with the lower part of his face encased in adhesive tape.

During our break, I followed Manard to the dock and watched while he carefully poked a cigarette in a slit above his lip and lit up. “So what happened to you?” I said. It was a little hard to understand Manard because he had lost most of his teeth, but this is the gist of what he said:

“Well, last Saturday after drawin’ my pay, I drove down to the South Caroliny line whar I bought a fifth of JPJ and a sack of cherry bums. I come on back to Brevard, cause I knowed that there was a big church revival down on Carver Street. I set outside that church til almost midnight, sipping JPJ and listenin’ to WNOX in Knoxville. Drunk that whole fifth and it was close to midnight afore them folks come pouring out of that church. Then, I rolled a winder down, and using my cigarette, I lit one of them cherry bums, and I throwed my cigarette out the winder and put that cherry bum in my mouth.”

Recently, I read that a historical society in Brevard was soliciting personal reminisces from former employees. Suddenly, it all came back: The Green Fly, the buffing machines, the white poodles and Lil asleep by her work station. I have serious doubts as to if the historical society really wants to know how I feel about the old Silverstein Tannery. However, I will admit that every time I think of Manard with a cherry bomb in his mouth, I laugh.

(Gary Carden can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, by Nadine Cohodas. Pantheon Books, 2010. 449 pages.

The first time I ever heard Nina Simone sing, I was in one of those pretentious “high fi” stores in Atlanta back in the early ’60’s where all of the clerks wore lab coats, which suggested that they were trained specialists who had access to highly arcane knowledge. They used terms like “woofers” and “tweeters” and were constantly adjusting the “decibel levels” on a row of gigantic speakers. In order to demonstrate the merits of the speakers, one of the “specialists” picked up a Nina Simone record and dropped it on the turntable, saying, “Listen to this.”

The recording was “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” and it is still one of my favorites. Suddenly, the speakers vibrated, and Nina Simone’s deep, dark contralto literally made the hair stand up on my neck. I had never heard a voice like that before, and I was fairly certain that all of the high tech equipment wasn’t responsible for the aching, near-painful beauty of this woman’s voice. I became an instant fan.

In all of the years that I listened to Nina Simone sing (1960-2000), I knew very little about her personal life except what I gleaned from liner notes and album covers. I knew that she had been born in Tryon, N.C., and had been proclaimed a “musical prodigy” by the time she was nine. I saw references to Carnegie Hall concerts,and I knew that she had marched with Martin Luther King. I knew that she had become a kind of deified goddess in Europe as she blazed a trail that was both inspiring and troubling due to her bizarre and unpredictable behavior on stage. There were magazine articles about her confrontations with her fans and promoters in the concert halls of London, Paris and Nassau where she frequently refused to perform because of imagined slights and repeatedly walked out of performances.

I received something of a shock when I read her autobiography several years ago (I Put a Spell on You), for it revealed the troubled life of a woman who readily acknowledged her mental instability but seemed incapable of accepting the blame for conduct that wrecked her marriages and alienated her friends, family and fans. However, Nadine Cohodas has now published a painfully detailed biography, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, that finally reveals all of the bitterness, vanity, fears and guilt that haunted this gifted and tragic woman.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933. Eunice’s mother was a minister and musician, and although the family was poor, J. D. Waymon provided for his family by operating both a barbershop and laundry. Although most of the region remained segregated for another 25 years, Tryon’s artistic and cultural community proved to be exceptionally tolerant. In fact, when Eunice’s musical talents became common knowledge (she was playing hymns at the age of 3), some of the town’s prominent residents established the “Eunice Waymon Fund” to pay for her music lessons. In addition, a noted musician, Muriel Mazzanovich who had retired to Tryon, taught the budding prodigy, training her to be a classical concert pianist.

Nina Simone’s biographer, Nadine Cohodas, provides significant evidence that the obsession to be a black classical pianist was the seed of discontent that would provide the basis for Nina’s mental illness. Subjecting herself to rigorous training, Eunice attended the Allen School of Music in Asheville (1949) and was given a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York with the goal of being eventually accepted at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Throughout these years of training, Eunice Waymon developed a reputation as a solitary young woman who denied herself any distraction (no boyfriends, no parties, etc.). Indeed, many felt that her determination and fervor were detrimental to her character.

When the Curtis Institute rejected Eunice’s application, the blow was devastating. In later years, Nina often noted that the Institute’s rejection was motivated by racism. The broken-hearted girl vowed to apply again, but in the meanwhile, she needed to make a living. Then, one of her friends recommended that she apply for a position in one of the numerous bars or nightclubs in Atlantic City where many young musicians found summer work.

It was at this point that Nina Simone was born.

When the owner of the Midtown Bar asked her for her “stage name,” Eunice told him to call her Nina Simone. “I always liked the name Nina, and I saw the name Simone on a movie poster” (probably the French actress Simone Signoret).

For many years, Nina told her friends that her work as a jazz and blues pianist was temporary. However, within a few months she had developed an ardent following. Her audiences were fascinated by the unusual blend of classics like Bach and contemporary jazz. At first, Nina resisted singing, but when the club owners insisted, she began to sing in the dark, dramatic contralto that would make her famous. When she became a sensation in New York, she finally stopped her strenuous training sessions and gave up her dream of being admitted to the Curtis.

However, her nightclub performances were the beginning of Nina’s conflict with her audiences. She refused to sing if there disturbances (laughter and talking) in the club, and would often stand staring resentfully at the crowd until she had total silence. “I expect and deserve respect,” she often told them. Other times she was more direct. “Shut up!” she would say, pointing at the offending party.

When fame came to Nina Simone, it was both disconcerting and exhilarating. An early bad marriage left her embittered. In addition, a series of relationships with unethical recording companies — which had issued many of her records illegally — had cheated her out of millions of dollars. Her subsequent financial problems produced a growing sense of paranoia and the feeling that she was being victimized by everyone.

Although her career flourished during the next 40 years, Nina’s mental illness grew steadily worse. She was finally diagnosed as schizophrenic, but due to her mounting debts and lavish lifestyle, she continued to perform in folk festivals, Carnegie Hall concerts and the performance centers of Europe and Africa. Even when she began arriving late for concerts and initiating shouting matches with irate audiences, her performance would frequently turn the tide and the same audiences that booed her tardiness and provocative speeches would end up give her standing ovations.

During the civil rights movement, Nina marched with Martin Luther King, writing and singing hundreds of protest songs. Among her best friends who rallied to her side during her tumultuous final years were the writer James Baldwin; Lorraine Hansbury, the playwright who wrote “Raisin in the Sun;” and the poet, Langston Hughes. When she died on April 20, 2003, she was living in a small seaside village in France where a group of devoted friends tended to her every need.

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The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell. Plume/Penguin Group, 2008. 196 pages.

Several years ago, I read an amazing novel by Daniel Woodrell entitled Winter’s Bone, and after the review was published, I found that Woodrell’s narrative style lingered in my memory. Perhaps it was because the plot of Winter’s Bone resembled another favorite of mine, Charles Portis’s True Grit, except instead of a western setting, Woodrell’s tale took place in the Ozarks. The protagonist in both tales — a spunky teenage girl — goes on a daunting search for her missing father.

Last month, I discovered that Winter’s Bone has been made into a movie and has recently won considerable praise at the Sundance Festival. The film is also receiving impressive endorsements from a growing number of Appalachian writers who invariably comment on the fact that Winter’s Bone depicts Appalachian culture without resorting to the traditional stereotypes (moonshine, feuds and inbreeding).

After reading a series of glowing reviews for Winter’s Bone, I decided to track down other Woodrell novels (there are six) in the hope of finding yet another Appalachian novel that treated our culture and its people with authenticity and integrity. That brings me to The Death of Sweet Mister, Woodrell’s novel that precedes Winter’s Bone.

The narrator of The Death of Sweet Mister is an overweight, 13-year-old boy called Shug who speaks in a strangely poetic manner about the natural world that surrounds him. He and his mother, Glenda, live in a house in the center of a cemetery. Glenda is a graveyard caretaker, but Shug does most of the physical labor (cutting grass, weeding and planting flowers). However, this peaceful existence is often disturbed by Red, Glenda’s husband, an inept criminal just home from prison, who abuses both Shug and his mother; as Shug describes their relationship, “He had a variety of ugly tones to speak in and used them all at me most days.”

Red and his criminal cohort, Basil, spend most days in a drunken stupor; however they have also a scheme for stealing prescription drugs which requires the assistance of Shug. The hapless boy is forced to break into doctor’s offices while Red and Basil wait in the car. Frequently, they force the boy to pose as a Grit salesman, a ruse that gets Shug into homes where he steals drugs directly from the bedside of victims. Initially, Shug develops confidence and manages to talk himself out of a series of bizarre dilemmas. When he is finally caught, he learns that Red and Basil have impressive criminal records.

The Death of Sweet Mister is “country noir” at its best. There is a grim inevitability about the gradual corruption of Shug, a sensitive, intelligent boy who is powerless to save himself. Certainly, the threat posed by Red is powerful, but the greatest danger is deceptive. Shug is “a momma’s boy,” and his total devotion to Glenda may be the most destructive influence in his life. Like the “femmes fatales” in the novels of James Cain and Raymond Chandler, Glenda, a compulsive flirt, is adept at using her greatest weapon — her feigned helplessness. Addicted to “sipping tea” (rum and coke) that she carries in a silver thermos, she stumbles about in sexy disarray, a flashing beacon to any amoral male that passes by.

In this instance, the vigilant male is Jimmy Vin, a man with a job (chef), a taste for expensive things, money ... and a Thunderbird! He encounters Glenda and Shug when they are in desperate straits. Glenda calls him after she and Shug have been abandoned by Red on a lonely, rain-swept road. When Jimmy Vin comes to the rescue, the stage is set for sensual encounters, passion and danger. This heady brew of theft, love, hate and deception reads like the best of modern crime fiction. However, there is more going on here than heart-pounding drama.

In the final analysis, this little dark and twisted tale is about Shug. Woodrell sets the stage for a confrontation. What is going to happen when Red discovers the Thunderbird parked in Glenda’s driveway? When Red, the psycho, meets Vin, the gourmand, who will survive? And what about Basil? However, the real issue is what will become of Shug?

Perhaps the best insight into this novel is given by commenting on the title. “Sweet mister” is the affectionate nickname that Glenda gives to Shug. When she calls him “sweet mister,” she is acknowledging Shug’s best qualities: his childlike devotion and his constant striving to please. However, at the end of this tale, things have changed. Shug has watched his mother entice other men, and as he matures, his devotion is colored by rage and resentment. Glenda’s veiled suggestions that Red is not Shug’s father leaves the boy with a sense of “being excluded” from a “more significant” place in her affections.

The Death of Sweet Mister, then, is not a literal death. It is the death of everything that is innocent and wholesome in Shug. That probably explains why one major critic (London Times Supplement) called The Death of Sweet Mister “an Oedipal noir.” Although Shug’s tragedy does not have the redemptive conclusion of Winter’s Bone, it is consistent with Woodrell’s chosen themes. The author has staked a claim to a specific topic: the resilience of adolescents who find themselves trapped in a menacing environment.

(Gary Carden is a writer, playwright and storyteller who lives in Sylva. He can be reached This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and maintains a blog at www.tannerywhistle.net/books.)

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The Memory of Gills by Catherine Carter. Louisiana State University Press, 2006. 59 pages.

Recently, when Catherine Carter was asked for a bit of biographical information that could be used to publicize her appearance as a participant in the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series at the Jackson County Library, Carter gave her impressive credentials and added that she was “raised by wolves and vultures.” This response should not be dismissed as merely a bit of imaginative whimsy since it provides a key to a dominant theme that runs through the poet’s collection, The Memory of Gills.

Frequently, Carter’s empathy with the natural world (and her yearning to be absorbed by it) strikes a familiar chord. Robinson Jeffers, the poet who spent much of his life along the (then) isolated coastline of Big Sur, Calif., so that he might observe the “red with tooth and claw” existence of wolves and vultures, shared the same attitude. In his need to feel and see the world as animals do, he sometimes expressed a yearning to be literally consumed by them. So, too, does Catherine Carter in “Evidence of Angels:”

teases the buzzards – lying very still

to make them circle and look;

Carter’s fanciful comparison of a buzzard’s descent to an angelic/divine visitation becomes a recurring theme in her other poems. For example in “The Stingray,” she notes that the gods “have a certain passion for feathers and hair” and tend to visit/ravish selected females in the guise of bulls and swans. Carter wonders why the divine never arrives from the depths of the ocean where the “brown silken wings and the diaphanous mouth” of the stingray are well-suited for a rapturous union with earthly flesh.

As the title of this collection suggest, Carter perceives the ocean as her “original element.” In the poem, “In the Mountains an Occasional,” she describes an encounter with a wayward osprey. The presence of this sea bird in a land of rocks, suggests that the bird and the poet are both a long way from home. The bird’s cry is a summons:

remember,

it may say though you stab

down roots like claws

into these long levels

and planes of granite, remember

the cormorants fishing, the realm

of water.

To Carter, it is a call to come home. And again, in “The Other Story,” Carter uses the ancient myth of the silkie (“the seal wife) as a fulfillment of the yearning to return to our natural home.

The folding web below,

my thumb is growing. Other

skin slackens and creases,

bristles spring from my chin.

The fisherman’s wife (the silkie) is preparing to go home!

However, “In the Room Where the Words Are,”when the poet makes a fanciful descent into the ocean, searching the sandy floor for a memory of home, she finds only a sense of irrevocable loss.

In “Raised by Wolves,” Carter fantasizes about living in both worlds:

When I visit the den,

we nuzzle and scratch each other

(that opposable thumb so handy),

Ask why humans live in pieces,

Why they use air machines

on such cool nights; if we are the last

wolves since the new strip mall,

we’ve seen no more.

But Carter’s yearning to belong to another (or perhaps all) species is different from Jeffers; not only does Carter’s quest embody everything from microbes to the stars (and the world of Cthulhu), it mingles fantasy and humor. In “A History of a Lost Colony,” a microscopic culture that lives in the recesses of a refrigerator, dares to launch a mission to a sister colony living in “the outer grill,” only to suffer devastation and ruin (wiped out by ammonia cleansing!). Carter records their tragedy as though it were the collapse of a “Star Wars” colony in a distant galaxy... and, indeed, it is!

Carter perceives a link between herself and all things, but it is often expressed as an imprint or a refrain so faint, it resembles a palimpsest — a message that has faded or eroded. Running through many of these poems, there is the unspoken regret that humanity has lost a vital link with the natural world. In “Hearing Things” Carter observes the world around her, and senses a silent, blind striving that finally takes the form of faint voices that ask — not just to live, but to be allowed to fulfill their preordained destiny: garbage (“Don’t embalm us in the landfill”), vegetation (“Keep the backhoe from the land” and stray dogs at the shelter (“Leave the gate unlatched”).

Not all of the poems in A Memory of Gills deal with a desire to renew an ancient tie with the natural world. Indeed, there are a number of poignant poems about love and love’s loss — and a wonder poem about a brassiere!

However, the primary themes in this marvelous collection evolve around our loss of touch with the natural world.

A native of the tidewater of Maryland, Catherine Carter now lives in Cullowhee, where she is an assistant professor of English at Western Carolina University.

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On a hot July night in 1935, a young Wise County, Virginia, school teacher named Edith Maxwell came home late. Her father Trigg, who did not approve of his daughter’s late hours, confronted her and a violent argument (which turned into scuffle) developed. Some 15 minutes later, Trigg lay dying on the floor.

A doctor was summonsed, several neighbors arrived and finally the local sheriff conducted a brief investigation. The following day, Edith and her mother were arrested and charged with Trigg’s murder. The alleged weapon that killed Trigg was identified as Edith’s high-heeled shoe. Later testimony would indicate that Trigg died from a blow to the head by an axe, an iron or a skillet, but the shoe would win the hearts of the journalists.

Thus began one of the nation’s most sensational murder trials — a minor domestic tragedy that became a kind of media circus. Within days, a swarm of journalists and writers descended on Wise County, quickly dubbing Edith as the “Hillbilly Girl of the Lonesome Pine” (a reference to the John Fox novel which has its setting in Wise County).  Many of the journalists belonged to that somewhat sleazy school of writers that are referred as “colorists” or “yellow journalists” because they were adept at inventing sensational details that had little or no relationship to facts. In addition, the most disreputable writers were employed by Hearst-controlled newspapers — all noted for gossip, distortion and sensationalism.

Suddenly, grotesque images of Edith, her family and her neighbors began to appear in major newspapers. Like the heroine in Trail of the Lonesome Pine, Edith was described as a “golden haired” (she wasn’t) innocent who was a victim of a tyrannical father who enforced a harsh curfew that required Edith to go to bed so early she “had never seen the moon.” A photograph of a cow strolling down the street in Wise County conveyed the impression that Edith’s neighbors lived in rustic ignorance.

Much was made of a grim tradition called “mountain justice,” which required the nearest relative of a murder victim to avenge the crime by killing the murderer. Although the tradition only existed only in the imaginative minds of journalists, such distortions implied that Edith would be killed by her brother, Earl.

Ironically, Earl, who had moved to New York where he “lost” his mountain accent, immediately returned to Wise County and became Edith’s champion and most devoted defender. Within a matter of days, Earl found capable lawyers to defend his mother and sister. In time, he would conduct fundraising efforts on her behalf and launch a vigorous public relations campaign. Earl also engineered a contract with Hearst papers, giving them exclusive rights to Edith’s story. However, despite his best efforts, Edith (who was tried separately from her mother) was found guilty and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

During the next two years, Edith Maxwell became something of a national celebrity. After the verdict was appealed, she was transferred to the Jonesville, Va., jail (which had more “humane facilities”). Within a few weeks, both letters and visitors increased to several hundred each day. Newspapers such as the Washington Post and the Washington Herald expanded their coverage by aggressively soliciting funds for Edith’s defense. Two major national women’s organizations, the National Women’s Party (NWP) and the National American Women’s Suffrage Association (NAWSA), decided that Edith’s trial would be an excellent sounding board for current issues such as the Equal Rights Amendment. Certainly, the fact that Edith was found guilty by an all-male jury indicated that she had been denied her rights to a jury “of her peers.”

Before the media circus was over, Edith’s defense would be taken over by some of America’s most prominent (and controversial) attorneys. In addition, a host of “missionaries” would arrive to offer cultural and educational assistance to the citizens of Wise County as they ventured reluctantly into the 20th Century. Journalists continued to refer to the locals as “bumpkins, local primates, hillbillies and half-wits.” As one cynical reader put it, “It would cause us to wonder why our social, welfare, missionary and religious organizations spend so much in all years past soliciting funds and workers for the uplift of the heathen of the Orient or the savages of Africa, when for less effort and expense, they could have gone to Wise County, Va. and found a country full of them.”

Although the unrelenting journalistic distortions left the people of Wise County (and much of Appalachia) smarting from the depictions of their region, their culture and their people, there was some objective coverage. Sympathetic writers such as Ernie Pyle and James Thurber did their best to correct the distortions. Of course, what seemed to have gotten lost in this extravagant spectacle was ... did Edith Maxwell murder her father? In fact, her guilt or innocence seemed to become irrelevant as the warring factions collided: journalists, “sob sister” writers, lawyers, social critics and angry Appalachian advocates engaged in verbal battles that dominated the news for five years (1935-1940). 

After two trials and the denial of a hearing before the Virginia Supreme Court, Edith’s defense, conducted by “outlanders” (eastern lawyers) and funded by activist organizations, began to collapse. Weakened by flawed research, contradictory testimony and hysteria, the atmosphere in Wise County began to resemble the infamous Snopes Trial in Dayton, Tenn. In desperate need of money, Edith and her brother entered into an ill-advised contract with a Hollywood studio and gave her endorsement for a film entitled “Mountain Justice.” In addition, the former teacher seemed to become despondent and wrote a letter to her wealthy benefactors in Washington and New York stating that she wished to withdraw from any association with the NWP and the NAWSA.

When it was finally over, Gov. James H. Price granted Edith Maxwell a pardon and she quietly departed the Goochland Penitentiary in Richmond with $10 and an assumed name. After serving six years of a 20-year sentence, she received a pardon because of a letter written on her behalf by Eleanor Roosevelt. Upon learning of Price’s decision, Edith asked that Price wait for one day before officially announcing her pardon. It was her wish to vanish. She said that she wanted to avoid journalists and hoped to live in obscurity for the rest of her life. She got her wish.

Living as Ann Grayson, she later married, had two children, allegedly lived happily and died at the age of 65 in 1979. She never returned to Wise County.

This is a fantastic story and I highly recommend it.

Note: Sharyn McCrumb’s new novel, The Devil Among the Lawyers, is based on Edith Maxwell’s trial. It will be reviewed in this column at some future date.

Never Seen the Moon: The Trials of Edith Maxwell by Sharon Hatfield. University of Illinois Press, 2005. 286 pages.

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The design of this book’s cover, in addition to being visually attractive, quite possibly serves as an inadvertent assessment of this book’s contents:

Judaculla Rock, in all of its ancient splendor, serves as a backdrop for a diverse collection of objects - a dulcimer, a collection of wild flowers in glass containers, an ancient (fossil) stone displayed on a blue towel, an electric guitar and a laptop computer. The diversity of the objects suggests the eclectic (and possibly incompatible) nature of this book’s contents.

Appalachian Roots has two authors: Dave Waldrop and Michael Revere. Consequently, this book consists of two sections — an autobiographical account of Waldrop’s life, followed by a kind of miscellany of Michael Revere’s writings (essays, poetry, journals, etc.). Aside from a common cultural bond and friendship that these two authors apparently enjoy, Waldrop and Revere seem to have little in common.

Waldrop reveals a profound love for his family, a reverence for American values and all things “Appalachian,” especially music. Revere alternates between heartfelt homages to people and topics that he admires (Wilma Dykeman, the Church of God, and rock and roll) to bitter denunciations of consumerism, the wealthy landowners in Highlands, and America’s obsession with materialistic values. In addition, he condemns what he perceives as a moral/political betrayal of this country in a rash of vitriolic poems and essays attacking topics as diverse as academia, Richard Nixon, and James Dickey.

The heart of Waldrop’s autobiography stresses three themes: love, family and forgiveness. The author celebrates his abiding love for his mother and gives a painful account of the numerous indignities that she suffered as the wife of an alcoholic. Much of Waldrop’s account of his childhood depicts a family that is often precariously balanced on the brink of ruin — where love, survival and shelter are dependent on the whims of a drunken, perverse father who is capable of shockingly brutal attacks on his wife, often beating her into unconsciousness. Time and time again, young Dave and his brothers (and single sister) are forced to flee the Waldrop home in order to take shelter with relatives. Invariably, the family returns with the vain hope that the unstable father and husband will repent.

Although the primary focus of Waldrop’s story concerns his father’s tragic addiction and demise, Waldrop has vivid memories of humorous and joyful events. There is a wonderful account of a midnight ride in a car with half-deflated tires down a Jackson County railroad track. Then, there is Chuckie, a groundhog that became a household pet. At another point in his life, young Waldrop discovers a cure for chiggers: a plunge into the black, toxic waters of Tuckaseigee River (toxic because of the extract released into the creek by Mead Paper) would kill fleas, ticks and chiggers.

Waldrop also found a number of opportunities to excel in school, sports and part-time employment. Rejected by his father, Waldrop found the acknowledgment that he desperately craved elsewhere. Eventually, this same yearning for acceptance and approval would lead him to success in the military service and in his employment in the Jackson County schools system as a counselor, coach and bus driver.

Michael Revere’s contribution to Appalachian Roots comes under the heading, “Soul Harvest.” It is difficult to describe and/or evaluate Revere’s writing. It runs the gamut from doggerel verse and haiku to journalistic accounts of his personal encounters with “spirit lights” and extraterrestrials. In addition, Revere also gives a description of his ability to compel Air Force jets and the CIA to do his bidding. Michael readily admits that an early experience with LSD brought about a drastic change in his personality. Following this drug experience, Revere receives an honorary discharge on the grounds that he had developed “unsuppressable  (sic) nomadic tendencies” that compel him to travel. For almost 40 years, Revere has been a rootless wanderer, living briefly in Oregon, Chapel Hill, Brevard, Montana, West Virginia and numerous small towns in between.

“Soul Harvest” contains more than 130 poems, journal entries and essays. At times, many of the poems contain a kernel of insight into human suffering love and joy.However, a considerable number of the poems and prose pieces are either angry, incoherent or offensive. Frequently, Revere appears to relish an “in your face” approach which is designed to shock his readers, as in “The Fried Baby Hillbilly Brain Vision,” “Carolina Hog Slaughter,” and “The Deliverance Vision.” Revere seems to have a compulsion to confront “famous” folks such as the folksinger Pete Seeger, the poet John Beecher and the novelist James Dickey.

One of the most provocative sections in “Soul Harvest” deals with a series of journal entries titled “Sky/Space Journal.” Revere believes that he can communicate with the “spirit lights” which pulse, move and dance in the night skies above Cullowhee. According to Revere’s journal, he monitors the night sky for months, both in North Carolina and other locations, and feels that he can establish direct contact with a host of alien beings.

At times, Revere has a disarming honesty about his own frailties and is perfectly willing to concede the fact that he is mentally unstable. He readily admits that his erratic home life (parents who were CIA agents, mother’s alcoholism, his confused identity due to changing his name, etc.) and his belief that he is an unwitting pawn in a covert CIA experiment — all have contributed to his confused and contradictory response to life. One thing is certain. This footloose, Church of God, drummer/rock-and-roller, poet and UFO fan is an original.

Does Appalachian Roots have problems? Yes, it does. Although this book is deeply moving at times, it could have used some serious editing and revision. It also needs a preface! There is no attempt to define this book’s purpose. Why did Waldrop and Revere join forces? What did they set out to accomplish?

There is also a lot of repetition. Waldrop repeatedly catalogues all the trees growing around his home; he repeatedly names all of the vegetables in the family garden, and he repeatedly proclaims his intent to never drink alcohol or judge his fellow man. On the other hand, he does not tell the reader enough about some of the book’s most provocative episodes. Waldrop avoids giving descriptive details. Specifically, what did his father say and/or do that was unforgivable? What are the physical characteristics of his brothers and his sister? The family’s three horses? All of these characters and creatures simply beg to be developed.

However, in spite of the absence of descriptive details, Appalachian Roots captures the essential facts in two very different (but equally daunting) journeys to adulthood in Appalachia. I would like to think that there will be a sequel to this book — an autobiography that tells us all of the details that were absent in this one.

 

Appalachian Roots, by Dave Waldrop and Michael Revere. R&R Publishing, 2010. 244 pages.

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For the past few years, internet literary critics of fantasy/supernatural novels have been raving about about a writer of “punk rock prose” named Caitlin Kiernan. The praise has been excessive, comparing her to H. P. Lovecraft, Poe and Clive Barker. However, if the endorsements of Peter Straub, Neil Gaiman and Garrison Keillor (no kidding!) should move you to find one of her seven novels — and if you live in a small town in Western North Carolina — you may have a problem. Neither the libraries nor the bookstores stock “the poet and bard of the wasted lost.” There is a reason for that.

Kiernan’s work certainly falls within the boundaries of what is called horror, fantasy and the supernatural — but these are classifications that the author steadfastly rejects. She has a point. Although the novel Silk is packed with otherworldly creatures that live by night, imbibe a mix of pot, mushrooms, Ramen noodles and bourbon while exhibiting sexual behavior that is, by mainstream standards, “aberrant,” the cast of characters are quite definitely ... human. They are young, homeless and frequently mentally unstable. Although some are gifted, they are invariably impaired in some fatal or tragic manner. All of them are painfully alienated and lonely creatures, who, in order to survive, huddle together, attempting to create “families.” Often living in unheated tenement slums, they emerge at night, to congregate in back-alley nightspots with names like Dr. Jekyll, the Cave or Dante’s where drug addicts and acid-head musicians and prostitutes dance and drink and make out until daylight.

Mainstream America is horrified by Kiernan’s world (Silk is set in drab and bleak slums of Birmingham, Ala.), and if morbid curiosity tempts the average reader to sample a few pages in something like Daughter of Hounds, they will probably close the book as though they feared contamination or infection and quickly return it to the shelf.

Such reactions delight Kiernan, who notes that she does not write for “the office monkeys” — her contemptuous label for people who live a 9 to 5 existence in a “politically correct” world. Kiernan’s protagonists flip burgers, wash dishes in coffeehouses, work in garages, peddle drugs or eke out a minimal existence in the uncertain world of music (punk rock, goth, grrrl, etc.) and outsider art. Kiernan captures their world with a grim and gritty prose that frequently has a dark and lyric beauty — especially the dialogue which has been called “poetically nasty.”

The characters are unforgettable: Daria Parker is an intense, chain-smoking young woman who dyes her hair with cherry Koolaid and works in the Fidgety Bean, a local coffeehouse, using her wages to keep her band, Stiff Kitten, up and running. Her lover, Keith Barry is a talented musician with a hopeless drug addiction. Spyder Baxter functions as a kind of den mother for a dozen wrecked and lost outcasts (lesbians, transsexuals and drug addicts) who gather each night in her ramshackle house to listen as Spyder weave dark stories about fallen angels and ... spiders (a topic that she knows a great deal about). Niki Ky, a haunted young Vietnamese fleeing from the memory of a suicidal lover, finds herself in Birmingham where she first befriends Daria, but finds herself drawn to white-haired Spyder and her court of “shrikes.”

Although there are terrifying scenes in Silk, scenes in which Kiernan’s characters find themselves at the mercy of a nameless evil that skitters through the dark alleys of Birmingham, thumps on the walls (and whispers in Spyder’s basement), it is finally an evil that originates in the tormented minds of Spyder and her followers. A foolish, drug-induced ritual in Spyder’s basement (lots of mushrooms and an occult mantra) leaves the participants haunted by the belief that they had summonsed “something” and now it follows them relentlessly.

Despite all of its bleakness and obscenity, Silk contains descriptive passages that glow and pulse with sensory details: a thunderous and nightmarish band festival in Atlanta in which the Stiff Kitten performs (and fails) is especially notable. Then, the massive snowfall that buries Birmingham during the novel’s conclusion reads like a frozen tableau in Hell. She may be “nasty,” but this weird woman can write!


•••

Kiernan’s latest novel, The Red Tree, chronicles the psychological disintegration of a single character named Sarah Crowe, an author, who flees a wrecked life in Atlanta and rents the Wight Farm in rural Rhode Island in order to complete her latest novel. The farm turns out to be the infamous site of supernatural events dating back 300 years, including demonic possessions, suicides and human sacrifice. When Sarah discovers a battered manuscript in the basement — a kind of journal composed by the last occupant of the house, Dr. Charles Harvey — a renter who committed suicide, she becomes obsessed with the manuscript, especially after reading about “the red tree” which is located a short distance from the house. Eventually, she gives up all pretense of completing her novel and devotes all of her time researching the history of the great oak, which has played a prominent role in the region’s occult history.

When an artist named Constance Hopkins rents the attic of the house, Sarah gains both a roommate and a lover. However, in time, the two women begin to bicker. Both develop a dread of the “red tree,” and begin to suspect that they are helpless pawns of the tree. Attempts to visit the tree turn into nightmarish treks (It takes you hours to walk a few hundred feet, and even a longer time to return to the house). As Sarah continues to read the manuscript, (which she shares with Constance), this novel gradually turns into a terrifying story of compulsive possession. Eventually, Sarah comes to doubt the world around her, a doubt that is substantiated when she visits Constance in the attic and discovers that no one lives there.

The Red Tree takes the form of a journal in which Sarah Crowe provides a daily record of events. After Sarah discovers the manuscript in the basement, she begins to record passages from it. As a consequence, Sarah’s journal is interspersed with passages that were typed on a manual Royal typewriter with a worn ribbon. Like the faulty typewriter in Stephen King’s Misery, these typed passages (just as they appear in the original manuscript) give the narrative a disturbing quality.

Caitlin Kiernan’s novels give abundant evidence of the author’s impressive research and learning. Within a single chapter, the reader may find references to sources as varied as Seneca, Nina Simone, Thoreau, Tom Waits, Joseph Campbell and H. P. Lovecraft. Kiernan often wields her impressive learning like a bludgeon and seems to take considerable satisfaction in doing so. The reader may feel both taunted and intimidated by this amazing author. However, discerning readers will probably forgive this author for her occasional outbursts of unabashed arrogance and vulgarity. Caitlin Kiernan has a rare talent.


Silk by Caitlin R. Kiernan. RoC Books, 2002. 353 pages.

The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan. New American Library, 2009. 385 pages

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Muse of Fire by Dan Simmons. Subterranean Press, 2008. 105 page


In recent years, it has become fashionable for writers who have “cult followings” to issue limited editions of handsomely packaged and extravagantly priced short works. Somebody like Stephen King, William Gay and Caitlin Kiernan can get away with this. In addition, these “collector’s editions” frequently end up on eBay where they are sold for astonishing sums. (At the present, limited “rare” editions of Kiernan’s Tales of Pain and Wonder are being sold for $900 to $l,000 each!)

Dan Simmons is no stranger to the glitzy field of special editions. Most of his epic novels (which usually run over 600 pages) are customarily issued in both a standard format and a collector’s edition which invariably sells out. However, last year, Subterranean Press issued the slender Muse of Fire (actually a novella) with much fanfare and a price tag of $35. A half-dozen critics began their reviews, “Worth every penny!” The first edition sold out, and the second edition is still doing well. Is it worth it?

Yes, it is, simply because the author remains one of the most gifted writers of “speculative fiction” around. Epic works such as The Terror, Drood and Hyperion demonstrate Simmons’ skill in blending exhaustive research with stunning imaginative narrative. Muse of Fire has the same characteristics, plus this brilliant gem is actually a homage to William Shakespeare.

The narrator of Muse of Fire, a young actor named Wilbr, belongs to a Shakespearean troupe called the Earth Men. (One of the names for Shakespeare’s original troupe was “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.”) The 30-some members of the troupe travel on a great spaceship, the Muse, performing the complete works of the bard for the inhabitants of 10,000 inhabited planets; in fact, the number of worlds is so vast, explorers have stopped giving them names. Numbers will suffice, says Wilbr who notes that the Earth Men have just completed a production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” for planet 25-25-261B where the seas are composed of sulphuric acid and the days are 18 hours long.

According to Wilbr, the Earth is but a faint memory — a dead planet with its natural resources depleted and its oceans drained. All humankind has been enslaved and is scattered through other galaxies where they work in mining camps. Their conquerors, the Archons are a highly advanced (and totally non-human) race devoid of sensory perception. Consequently, they only experience and understand “human” feeling by attaching themselves to another species, the dragomen. Each dragoman possesses hundreds of filaments and tentacles which can convey sensations (emotion, music and human speech) to the Archons. The dragomen hang over their hosts like great squid, their dangling tentacles attached to Archon brains — a decidedly creepy image.

When Muse of Fire opens, Wilbr’s troupe of actors find themselves performing in a mind-boggling setting. The silent Archons — the usually invisible members of the ruling caste — sit in a massive theater encircling the Earth Men and their makeshift acting area. Their only response to the conclusion of the play is a whirring of their great insect-like wings. Eventually, the troupe learns that their last performance was a test to determine if the Muse and the Earth Men should be exterminated or allowed to travel to other worlds and perform for other species that are even more advanced than the Archons — the Poimen, the Demiurgos (the original creators of the “failed” earth) and perhaps even a semblance of a supreme being called Arbaxas.

At this point, when the troupe learns that they will not be destroyed, they are given a new name: the Heresiarch’s Men. They also discover that they are no longer capable of determining the destination of the Muse (which had previously been controlled by a mummified woman, floating in a cylinder of water — a kind of guiding spirit). When control passes to an unseen power, the mummified body of the Muse is rejuvenated and acquires the features of a beautiful woman.

The troupe begins a series of performances — each more demanding than the last — which includes “Macbeth” (a play traditionally associated with bad luck), “Hamlet” and “King Lear.” Key passages from all of these plays are interspersed with Wilbr’s account of the troupe’s exhaustion as they move from one full production to another with only an hour and 10 minutes to rest between performances. The actors become increasingly frustrated since they are dependent on a badly impaired dragoman to interpret and explain their dilemma.

What gradually emerges in this extravagant “space drama” concerns the significance of Shakespeare’s plays — not merely as literature, but as some ultimate moral and spiritual guide. When the Earth was subdued, highly advanced species such as the Archons, Poimen and the Demiurgos became the caretakers of Earth’s art, culture and religion. The discovery of Shakespeare’s plays and their possible significance led to the creation of a kind of cosmic philosophy. Although thousands of years have lapsed, Wilbr and his fellow actors still meditate on the sacred teachings of Jesus, Saint Jung and Shakespearean drama. All of the actors know all the speeches in all the plays.  However, for all of their advancement, the meaning of “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” and “Macbeth” cannot be fully comprehended by the conquerers. As the dragman finally tells the troupe of actors, “You have been allowed to live only because of Shakespeare.” Slowly, painfully, the “great powers” of the universe are receiving spiritual and moral guidance from the Earth’s Men’s performances.

There is much more here, of course. Muse of Fire contains beautifully contrived scenes of advanced cities on planets with numerous moons — all wrapped in impossible scenes of stellar beauty. There is even a sensual enactment of “Romeo and Juliet,” for the Demiurgos in which simulated sex becomes real. One member of the troupe turns out to be a kind of galactic terrorist, intent on bringing it all down, and he nearly succeeds. However, beneath it all is Simmons’ lavish narrative that glitters with mythical, Gnostic and poetic images that are reminiscent of the best of Ray Bradbury’s science fiction. Muse of Fire is definitely a “collector’s item.”

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