A Chicago native, author Timothy J. Hillegonds stepped foot in Shepherdstown for the first time in 2012, and found himself smitten from the start. Seven years later, he readily calls Shepherdstown his second home, and by getting to know West Virginia’s oldest town as intimately as he has, he’s also become familiar with the Mountain State’s unfortunate connection to the nationwide opioid epidemic.
The Observer showcases poetry, fiction, romance, thrillers, horror, non-fiction, memoirs and other literature about Appalachia and by Appalachian authors.
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.
The opioid epidemic has been described as “one of the greatest mistakes of modern medicine.” But calling it a mistake is a generous rewriting of the history of greed, corruption, and indifference that pushed the U.S. into consuming more than 80 percent of the world’s opioid painkillers.
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.
When Joseph Goss and his wife, Lynne, purchased an old farmhouse outside of Shepherdstown, the retired engineer never dreamed the acquisition would lead to many countless, happy hours of research and, eventually, a book.
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.
Andrea Fekete’s first novel Waters Run Wild was originally published in 2010. Even though it garnered rave reviews and the author’s work has been widely anthologized, the book suffered the fate of many independent press titles, and has long been out of print. Fortunately, this powerful novel of a family’s struggles during the West Virginia Mine Wars is back in an enhanced edition that introduces new readers to an outstanding voice and allows those who enjoyed its earlier version to reacquaint themselves with its elegant language and compelling characters.
Award-winning journalist Beth Macy’s Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America comes as a timely, in-depth look at America’s opioid crisis that tells the stories of its victims and traces the social and economic roots of the epidemic.
In White’s latest novel, In the House of Wilderness (Swallow Press, 2018), a mercurial drifter known as Wolf dumps a dead body in the river and then sits down to watch “the complicated patterning of water.”
If Country Dark as a title is not enough of a harbinger of what’s in store for readers, the novel itself doesn’t take long to introduce us to a gritty rural Kentucky landscape as experienced by Tucker, a young Korean War veteran who’s returning home. Hitchhiking through the countryside and camping in the woods, his brief interlude of peace is interrupted when he sees a woman running along a dirt road.
Rick Taylor’s poems can’t be pigeonholed. In his first book, Never Alone in a Cemetery, his words burst out in multiple directions, although the general theme could probably be defined as endings. There are cemeteries, bloody battlefields, suicides, massacres, lovers’ tragic deaths, and musings on aging. But he also looks at life—family, relationships, animals, birds, and even insects.
Local author and entrepreneur, Alan B. Gibson, has a lot going on. He and his partner were recognized for years as the owner/operators of the popular Ridgefield Farm & Orchard located just outside of Shepherdstown—known for its apples, pumpkins, vegetables, Christmas trees, corn maze, and much more. But they sold it, officially, last September (2017), and since then, Gibson has been on a dream-chasing tear, particularly as an author, though he’s quickly making inroads into film, while also continuing to grow a tech startup.
Appalachia comes and goes as a national conversation topic as pundits discover the region every few years and propose solutions to its problems, real and imagined. Rarely do they paint a picture of people with agency or delve into the subject deeply enough to question their own preconceptions. One recent example is mainstream media coverage of the teachers’ work stoppage in West Virginia, as many commentators seemed surprised that it could happen in so-called “Trump country” and denoted their obliviousness to the state’s history of labor struggles.