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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thomas E. Douglass brings Grubb back from literary oblivion in his comprehensive biography Voice of Glory: The Life and Work of Davis Grubb. The Moundsville-born Grubb occupied a distinctive place in American letters primarily during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and in a career that comprised ten novels and numerous short stories, he garnered acclaim only to be forgotten in recent years.
Wiley Cash’s new novel The Last Ballad falls into an entirely separate category, presenting a multi-layered and lyrical portrayal of the strike and the travails of mill worker Ella May Wiggins. The Last Ballad introduces Wiggins struggling to feed her four children as a single mother in the sole white household of an impoverished African-American settlement known as Stumptown.