Over the last decade, Sheldon Lee Compton has published numerous short stories ranging from magical realism to gritty, working-class fiction—and everything in between. What connects most of them is their poetic prose and their rootedness in Appalachia—and more specifically, Eastern Kentucky, where the author hails from—even when they don’t explicitly allude to a setting. The latter by no means confines them to quaint literary categories like “regional fiction,” since Compton’s idiosyncratic voice could perfectly have broader appeal thanks to the strength of its particularity, as is the case with other authors associated with place, like Michigan’s Bonnie Jo Campbell or Kentucky’s Chris Offutt.
While many of Compton’s stories can be found online, a novel like Dysphoria: An Appalachian Gothic—his second after Brown Bottle (2016)—is a rarer treat. In spite of the book’s title, dysphoria, which is typically defined as a state of dissatisfaction and unease with life, is not the prevailing mood of the story. It is, however, what motivates its protagonist, Paul Shannon, to leave his life in Philadelphia behind and move to his native Red Knife, Kentucky, to solve a mystery that has haunted him all his life.
The novel opens with Paul attending the funeral of his father, David, in Red Knife. After a short stay at his grandparents’ house, Paul leaves for the airport and hires one of those cars that often operate as cabs in rural areas except that they typically carry more than one passenger. Like it also often happens in small rural areas, everyone seems to know everyone, and the passenger who fatefully shares a ride with Paul turns out to know a lot about David Shannon’s past. As the passenger gets off the car, he tells Paul: “I’m sorry to hear about your father! Truth is, he died a long time ago.”
The passenger is one John Harper, a reclusive member of a local family that made a fortune off a coal seam found in their property. Their brief encounter prompts Paul to get to the bottom of that cryptic remark and ask the driver to take him back to Red Knife. Through haunting flashbacks, we find out about Paul’s tormented relationship with his father and David’s own dysphoric behavior throughout his life, apparently stemming from a traumatic episode in his childhood. This incident is recalled by Compton in a brutal chapter that brings to mind the grotesquerie of William Faulkner’s Sanctuary and the novels of Erskine Caldwell. As Paul sheds light on what happened to his father, the thread connects other characters in the story, like the damaged Larry Fenner, a childhood friend of David’s, and Harper himself.
On the Perimeter
What’s not revealed by the novel’s impactful ending is alluded to in a letter David “stuffed inside a Mason jar during some lonely moment amid an ocean of lonely moments.” The letter helps Paul understand how his own recollections have been marked by the presence of his father, “… a shade somewhere on the perimeter of these memories, a shadow as flighty as a dust mote in the corner of the eye and then gone.”
Compton is currently working on a book about one of West Virginia’s most revered and original writers, Breece D’J Pancake. It’s hard not to see a connection between the stark beauty of Pancake’s short stories and Compton’s own work. Dysphoria is a testament to the rich literary tradition that has influenced Compton but also a novel by a writer skilled at evoking the emotional subtleties of struggling through life in lovingly-rendered, yet hardscrabble places.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in Boulevard, Goliad, and The Texas Review, among others.