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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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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Country Noir: Burning Bright: Stories by Ron Rash

Burning Bright is another collection of short stories set in and around rural Western North Carolina by the master, Ron Rash.  I think I would rank it third among the collections I’ve read, behind Chemistry and Other Stories and then Nothing Gold Can Stay, but that’s sainting with faint criticism.  There is nothing quite so good as Blackberries in June or Speckled Trout, but there also isn’t a truly weak story.

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Country Noir: The Line That Held Us by David Joy

Like most books, The Line That Held Us is a book about choices.  The choice that Darl makes to hunt on private land while the owner is out of town.  The choice he makes to shoot at what he thinks is a feral hog.  The choice he makes to pull his best friend Calvin into things when he discovers that it was a person, not a hog, he shot.  The choices that man’s brother, Dwayne, makes in reaction to his brother’s killing.

David Joy writes in Ron Rash’s territory—The Line That Held Us is set in Jackson County, North Carolina; Rash is a professor at a school in Jackson County—so the comparison is inevitable.  Joy writes brilliantly, and I was almost ready to proclaim that he has exceeded Rash early in the book, but I was ultimately let down a bit.

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Fiction: Last Girl Gone by J.G. Hetherton

Is the evil done to us irreparable?  Are we doomed to pay it forward?

Last Girl Gone is an assured debut, as much a thriller as a mystery (certainly effective as the former).  Young girls are starting to go missing in the small town of Hillsborough, North Carolina—just like they did decades before—and disgraced journalist Laura Chambers sees her way back out of her hometown.

Historic Occoneechee Speedway – not my pic

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Can’t-Wait Wednesday: Books by J.G. Hetherton, David Joy, and Stephen Markley

These three recently released books are deep in the Hillbilly Highways wheelhouse.  Last Girl Gone is set in my home state of North Carolina, a thriller featuring a journalist who returns to the small town she grew up in.  David Joy is walking in the mighty footprints left by Ron Rash, and The Line That Held Us is a tale about one deadly accident setting off a cycle of violence set in my old stomping grounds in the NC mountains.  Ohio is set in, well, Ohio, but I’m a Midwesterner now, and I can’t resist a book that gets compared favorably to Friday Night Lights.

I’ve been crazy busy, but a busy travel month has finally given me some reading time.  I finished Last Girl Gone by J.G. Hetherton and The Line That Held Us by David Joy during my last two trips.  I started Ohio by Stephen Markley on my last trip and should finish it on my next one.  I’m a little iffy on Ohio right now, but Last Girl Gone and The Line That Held Us are solid 4-star books.

You can expect reviews of all three books over the next month or so.  All are out now in one format or another and available at Amazon (click on the cover pics for an affiliate link).

Can’t-Wait Wednesdays is hosted by Wishful Endings.

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