Over the course of a life hard lived, the minder and the town and the mountain became as one, and no one ever left Harlan alive.
Country noir fits easily with horror. What is scarier than a long, dark shaft in an abandoned coal mine? Might our greed for the black stuff cause us to dig too deep? Might the violence on the surface go beyond the natural into the supernatural?
I was delighted to learn that Apex released a collection of short horror stories set in Harlan County, Kentucky (originally famous for the coal mine labor strife featured in Harlan County, USA and more recently famous as the setting for neo-Western Justified).
You can’t write just any sort of horror story in a place like Harlan, although you can write a whole hell of a lot of different sorts, just the same. I was gratified by the collection on that particular. The stories by and large have that country noir atmosphere and voice. You have aliens and monsters and vampires, but these are not aliens and monsters and vampires who would fit the same into stories told elsewhere. Our grand, hillbilly folklore tradition is a necessary component of a collection like this; Adkins bookends the collection with two stories, The Power of Moonlight and The Witch of Black Mountain, that draw heavily from that folklore.
I won’t cover each story. The quality, overall, is good. Not every story is going to be a homerun or even a single in a collection like this, but the overall hit rate is pretty good. This was my introduction to each of the writers here, with the exception of Maurice Broaddus and Steven L. Shrewsbury. It makes a lot of sense to bookend the collection with two folklore-heavy stories. More curious is the decision to follow Hiding Mountain: Our Future in Apples with Psychomachia. The stories are quite similar, but Psychomachia benefits from being more concrete than the earlier story (including by using coal) and is in every way one of the better stories. It might be the standout in the collection. Hiding Mountain isn’t bad, but it looks it right next to Psychomachia. The next story, Yellow Warblers, is another standout. The Thing on the Side of the Road is a simple monster story, but I highly enjoyable one just the same.
I like this collection plenty. The one thing holding it back is several of the stories have very confused endings. One or maybe even two I might put down to user error. There were too many for that.
The Power of Moonlight by Debbie Kuhn
Hiding Mountain: Our Future in Apples by Earl P. Dean
Psychomachia by Geoffrey Girard
Yellow Warblers by Jason Sizemore
Kingdom Come by Jeremy C. Shipp
Trouble Among the Yearlings by Maurice Broaddus
Spirit Fire by Robby Sparks
The Thing at the Side of the Road by Ronald Kelly
Inheritance by Stephanie Lenz
Greater of Two Evils by Steven L. Shrewsbury
Harlan Moon by T.L. Travaskis
The Witch of Black Mountain by Alethea Kontis
3.5 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: Apex sent me a review copy of Harlan County Horrors for their September backlist promotion and here I am only getting around to posting about it in mid-October.