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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.