When it comes to judging a book, titles can be just as deceitful as covers. With a title like F*ckface, one might expect Leah Hampton’s short story collection to be a brash set of tales rooted in hardscrabble Appalachia.
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.
Ron Rash (1953) started out as a poet and short story writer in the ‘90s before he published his first novel, One Foot in Eden (2002) and the novel that catapulted him to national literary prominence, Serena (2008), later adapted into film. In his newest work, In the Valley, Rash returns to the short story form as well as to the characters of Serena in the novella that gives name to this collection.
The cover of John Woods’ debut novel Lady Chevy portrays a mountain landscape against an orange-hued backdrop. The colors may depict an oddly-tinted sunset or, more likely, the fiery, sulfurous sky of a land ravaged by the fracking industry, where flares emerging from giant towers light the horizon and tainted aquifers, flammable tap water, and earthquakes have become a normal occurrence.
Reading a book on addiction recovery is not as daunting as recovery itself, but it can be a difficult task for numerous reasons…
In one of the most searing dialogues of Chris McGinley’s debut short story collection Coal Black, an eastern Kentucky drug dealer known as Hellbender asks a sheriff who’s been pursuing him: “Why do you think people around here are so addicted to drugs?” He answers his own question: “It’s because of depression. There is a streak of fatalism in Coal Black that is not just informed by the trappings of the crime fiction genre, but by the socioeconomic devastation of its rural Kentucky setting. The survivalist outlook of the characters in these stories is its inevitable consequence.
Short story collections can rise and fall by something as simple as the order in which its stories are presented to the reader. A punchy opening tale or an evocative closing yarn can compel the audience to read further or leave an impression that makes up for the weaker stories within its pages. The stakes are even higher when the stories are interconnected like in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a standard bearer of this subgenre, where a fictional Midwest town is the canvas upon which the characters’ lives unfold, or Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, where its main character and his drug-addled perception of the world serve as the collection’s connecting tissue.
In Tim Westover’s novel The Winter Sisters, the hills of antebellum northern Georgia are the setting for a clash between science and magic in a story that treads nimbly between fantasy, picaresque, and historical fiction. In 1822, Savannah doctor Aubrey Waycross is invited to Lawrenceville, a remote town that, thanks to Westover’s evocative prose, seems to exist in a perpetual time warp where America is still new and tradition coexists with progress—a community that is as distant from cities as it is from the ripples of the Revolutionary War and the brewing tensions of the Civil War.
Fentanyl, Inc. opens with the story of eighteen-year-olds Bailey Henke and Kain Schwandt as they go on a road trip across the snowed plains of North Dakota. Henke and Schwain plan on visiting family, but they have an ulterior motive: they hope their time on the road will help them kick their addiction to fentanyl, a drug they once discovered by buying medical patches on the black market.
Timothy Dodd’s Fissures and Other Stories is a slim tome of 19 short stories that mostly take place in West Virginia, but whose range of themes and characters build a larger world, recognizable and yet intriguing.
As I read Timothy J. Hillegonds’ harrowing memoir of addiction and youthful rage, The Distance Between (University of Nebraska Press, 2019), I was reminded of a sentence written by one of my favorite fiction authors, Richard Lange: “We can only, all of us, run so far before what we really are and what is meant to be catch up to us.”
The idea of going “back to the land” tends to evoke picturesque images of a nurturing earth and a supposed return to an uncorrupted, self-sufficient lifestyle. These beliefs are swiftly shattered for the characters of Madeline ffitch’s outstanding first novel, Stay and Fight (Farrar, Starus and Giroux, 2019). Narrated through the alternating points of view of its four protagonists, the novel introduces us to Helen, who at 31, is tired of “waiting for my life the whole time.” She decides to leave Seattle with her boyfriend Shane and, thanks to an inheritance from Helen’s deceased uncle, they buy 20 acres of land in Appalachian Ohio.
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.
In spite of West Virginia’s rich folklore and modern myths like the Mothman and the Flatwoods Monster, the state’s literature—or even that of Appalachia as a whole—is not typically associated with horror and the supernatural. Nevertheless, West Virginian writers have created several fine exponents of literary fantasy, ranging from Pinckney Benedict’s outstanding magical realist short stories to Ron Houchin’s young adult horror novel The Devil’s Trill, and Victor Depta’s vampire gothic House of the Moon.
Fantasy writer Harlan Ellison once said that “a continent is no thicker than a membrane when one carries the misery inside.” He was talking about the tormented life of another author, Herbert Kastle, who had moved from New York to Los Angeles in an attempt to restart his life after a failed marriage, running from ghosts that he couldn’t escape from since they were a part of himself.
In the Amber Chamber (Brighthorse Books, 2018) is an eclectic short story collection by Carrie Messenger, Associate Professor of English at Shepherd University, that manages the rare feat of being consistent in quality while navigating through widely diverse genres and styles. Its stories range from speculative fiction to whimsical fables drawing from an idiosyncratic mix of fantasy and Eastern European lore all the way to historical fiction. Messenger’s skilled weaving of myth and fact brings to mind the stories of Argentinean fantasist Jorge Luis Borges and the genre-bending fiction of Kelly Link.