Fiction: Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

Cold Mountain begins with Inman, a confederate soldier, laid up convalescing in a military hospital.  As he heals, his dread of returning to the fighting grows and he eventually decides to strike out for home and his left love—in the shadows of Cold Mountain (near Brevard in modern-day western North Carolina).  That left love, Ada, a preacher’s daughter originally from Charleston, meanwhile, is trying to cope with the loss of her father and her newfound destitution.  She may not have survived but for a partnership with a mountain woman, Ruby, her complete opposite in almost every way and her likeness in every other.

I grew up in this part of the country, with roots in the area that go back to well before the Civil War, and the language rings truer than any I have read elsewhere, whether written by Ron Rash, Cormac McCarthy, or whoever.  And Frazier does it without resorting to phonetic spelling.  It really does read like it’s a story your grandfather is telling you by the fireplace after Sunday dinner.  One that was passed down to him from his grandfather.  There are so many sort of random details that just feel right.  It’s the sort of book I wanted to read at my desk with a notebook beside me but that I couldn’t bear to read so slowly the first time through.  The prose is beautiful by any measure.

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SF: Who Fears the Devil? by Manly Wade Wellman

I went to a panel at the WorldCon in San Antonio a few years back on Texas Pulp SF.  Apart from the 800-lb. gorilla in the room, Texans were grossly underrepresented in the pulps.  The consensus was that they were writing speculative fiction, and good speculative fiction, but that it was getting published as folklore.  That struck close to home.  I sometimes say I didn’t discover speculative fiction until my mom forced The Hobbit on me, but that isn’t quite true.  Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, I grew up with ghost stories.  Much like that Texas “folklore.”  The difference, of course, merely being one of perceptive.

You can imagine my interest then, when I discovered that an Appendix N and Weird Tales stalwart, Manly Wade Wellman, wrote an entire series of short stories very much rooted in the lore of my people.  About John.  At least that’s the only way his name is given in the stories.  He is more usually known as John the Balladeer or Silver John.  He may also be a parallel universe Johnny Cash.  Or maybe John the Baptist.  Or maybe both.

I picked up a copy of Paizo’s Hidden Worlds and Ancient Mysteries Planet Stories, The Complete Tales of Silver John, Who Fears the Devil?, presented by (and with an introduction from) Mike Resnick (2010).  Unfortunately, it is now out of print and offered at an obscene price every time lately I’ve checked on Amazon.  This is billed as a complete collection of the Silver John short stories, but Wellman also wrote five novels about John.  Haffner Press’ upcoming The Complete John the Balladeer.  The two-volume edition will contain all five novels and is available for pre-order now.

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Fiction: Houston Noir, edited by Gwendolyn Zepeda

I had the intense pleasure of living in Houston for four years this past decade.  But my fondness for my time there did not prevent my pleasure reading this collection of noir tales exploring Houston’s fetid underbelly.

I loved it there, and Houston has a better crime rate than, say, Chicago or New Orleans, but this is still a place where the old-fashioned burglar bars on our house were a good idea, where a man was shot in an drive-by a block away from my house, where a body was found in nice, new apartments under construction that marked my neighborhood as “transitioning,” where bodies were occasionally fished out of the bayou that ran a block from our house (sometimes closer).

The copy and intro both include a wonderful, vicious Hunter S. Thompson quote describing Houston as a “cruel, crazy town on a filthy river in East Texas with no zoning laws and a culture of sex, money, and violence. It’s a shabby, sprawling metropolis ruled by brazen women, crooked cops, and super-rich pansexual cowboys who live by the code of the West—which can mean just about anything you need it to mean, in a pinch.”  It says something about Texas that the immediate response is to say “hell yeah!” and adopt the quote as a point of pride.

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Country Noir: Like Lions by Brian Panowich

“Like most of the people who lived in the foothills of McFalls County, the dogwood tree did whatever it damn well pleased.”

In Like Lions, the sequel to his sprawling, multigenerational crime drama Bull Mountain, Panowich not only manages to exceed his first work but also to produce new and shocking Burroughs family revelations without undercutting Bull Mountain.

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Country Noir: Bearskin by James McLaughlin

Rick Morton is caretaker and science tech for over seven thousand acres of private nature preserve, a large chunk of which is old-growth forest.  He is also Rice Moore, an ex-con on the run from the Cartel.

Bearskin is gorgeously written but understated.  It’s literary without sacrificing plot.  It’s bloody without being mindless.  It contains a touch of the supernatural (maybe) and a touch of the surreal.  It walks a fine line between the people and the place of the mountains of Virginia.

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Country Noir: Bull Mountain by Brian Panowich

With Bull Mountain, Brian Panowich has given us a sprawling, multigenerational crime saga.  A hillbilly Godfather.  You know what you’re in for when you see the family tree.  Country noir novels should have family trees like fantasy novels have maps.

Bull Mountain starts with one fratricide.  It won’t be the last.

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Country Noir: Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown

With Gods of Howl Mountain, Brown has given us a book that is right up the Hillbilly Highways alley gravel backroad.  It’s got granny women, moonshine, revenuers, moonshine runners, early stock car racing (with an appearance by Junior Johnson), end-of-the-road roadhouses and whorehouses, snake handlers, and an entire valley lost to the hillbillies so a dam could power the mills where the former farmers work for another man.  All nestled up in the mountains of northwest North Carolina where heading to civilization means Boone or Wilkesboro.

And all described by Brown with prose that is beautiful and powerful without being inaccessible or overly literary.  The prose reminds me a lot of another great country noir that I will be talking about in the nearish future, Bearskin by James McLaughlin; more so than, say, Daniel Woodrell or especially Cormac McCarthy.

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