MONSTERS IN APPALACHIA: a compelling contemporary take on Southern Gothic desire, temptation, and elusive salvation

Monsters in Appalachia: Stories

By Sheryl Monks

Vandalia Press/West Virginia University Press

$16.99, 168 pages

As someone who has lived in California for all but two years of his life and feels a powerful attachment to this place — its weather, light, ocean, mountains, valleys, flora, and fauna – I am fascinated by writing that conveys the power of other places. I feel as though I know some of these locales so intimately, it’s almost as if I’d lived there. As a result, stories and novels with a sense of place so palpable that it’s almost a character remain indelibly etched in my mind.

After reading Sheryl Monks’ impressive debut collection, Monsters in Appalachia, I feel as though I have walked the mountains and valleys of West Virginia and North Carolina with her characters. The fifteen stories here are distinguished by a range of narrative voices that are as undiluted as a bottle of moonshine from the most hidden of hollers. Monks examines the lives of these hard-living and hard-learning people with an unrelenting, knowing stare that sees through the lies they tell each other and themselves.

Monks is concerned with good and evil as it plays out in the lives of the invisible people of Appalachia and similar economically struggling communities. Her stories are rich with biblical allusions from Exodus to Revelation. Desire and temptation are ever present, and salvation is just out of reach. It’s hot, humid, and dusty during the day and dark as coal at night. There is an almost claustrophobic intensity to most of these stories, whether the monsters are real or imagined. This is Southern Gothic storytelling at its finest.

In the opening “Burning Slag,” we meet a mother whose children have been taken away after she kills her abusive husband. She is so infuriated by the loss of her kids to a foster family in the area that she is driven to desperation again. “Robbing Pillars” is less than six pages long, but it’s more than enough to convey the lives – and deaths — of miners doing the dangerous work of pulling out pillars to collapse a nearly empty mine so they can mine the roofs. “That’s money standing there, supporting the roof, and the company wants every square inch.”

“Rasputin’s Remarkable Sleight of Hand” makes us a spectator at the county fair performance of an illusionist running a con that even the audience senses. But they, and we, can’t quite nail down what he’s doing or how. Is it possible he’s the real deal or the devil incarnate? Everything changes when a “fat girl with yellow eyes,” spellbound by Rasputin’s charisma, volunteers to participate in his act, and his show takes an unexpected turn that leaves us flabbergasted.

“Run, Little Girl” finds Brother Harpy, an elderly snake-handler, visiting the home of the minister of Lick Branch, whose wife is a sexy woman who has backslid six times. His young daughter is “his charismatic little angel, reaching into the burlap sack and drawing out copperheads and diamondbacks. Her child’s faith convinced the sinners of Lick Branch that God would protect any who sought Him. She had saved many souls.” She is fascinated with Brother Harpy and soon decides that she has her own powers that only he can appreciate.

“Merope” probes the conflicting impulses surrounding adolescent love and lust, with devastating results. “Crazy Checks” concerns two textile factory workers trying to figure out a way to game the system to qualify for disability payments, the “crazy checks” of the title. As in many of these stories, the unexpected can be counted on to do damage in a dozen different ways.

In “Justice Boys,” a mining strike has forced the men to find other ways to make money. “That’s what started things with the Justice boys. Arjay and Jimbo had been driving up and down hollers looking for pieces of scrap to sell to Luther Linny over in Mile Branch.” They trespass on the boys’ property, setting off a small-time gang war that climaxes on a night when the guys are gone and only Rita and the kids are at home.

According to those who know better than I, Monks accurately depicts the Appalachian dialect, attitudes, and beliefs, and she has created more than a dozen small worlds full of mesmerizing characters and startling conflicts. This is a dark and darkly humorous collection that heralds the arrival of a gifted “new” writer (Monks has been publishing stories for more than a dozen years).

Ron Rash has been the troubadour of the Appalachians for the past decade, but with Monsters in Appalachia, Sheryl Monks has joined him as a teller of twisted stories about a uniquely American place and culture.

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Novel-in-stories OUT OF PEEL TREE brings Appalachian diaspora to life with memorable prose-poetry

Out of Peel Tree   Laura Long

Out of Peel Tree

By Laura Long

Vandalia Press/WVU Press, 2014

$16.99, 148 pages

Fans of fiction set in Appalachia or similar rocky, rural environments will take quiet pleasure in Laura Long’s novel in stories, Out of Peel Tree. Long, who has published two collections of poetry, Imagine a Door and The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems, brings a compassionate heart and a remarkable set of senses to her debut novel.

Out of Peel Tree follows one working class family in West Virginia over three generations as they struggle to find their individual paths, make marriages work, raise children, and make sense of a confusing, uncooperative world. Long vividly depicts the lives of the seven main characters: matriarch Essie, her daughters Eva and Darlene, Eva’s children, Billie and Hector, and Darlene’s children, Corina and Joshua. Long’s narrative moves back and forth in time and among characters, creating a fragmented but compelling narrative that slowly comes together into a richly textured mosaic of distinctly American lives.

While Long breaks no new ground in characters or plot, each story has a specific sense of place and a narrative voice both direct and sensitive. Over the three sections (Postcards, Childhoods, and Roads), the fourteen stories cover the entire spectrum of moods, from desperate and determined to poignant and resigned, and a wide range of locations, from Peel Tree, a speck of a town, to Atlanta and Austin, where some of the younger characters attempt to build new lives.

Long is particularly adept at capturing the world through children’s eyes, as when she describes the young lives of the two sets of siblings. In “Who’s in the Kitchen with Dinah?” a very young Billie describes her father returning home. “’Hello, sweetie,’ my father said. His voice was low and calm, the voice a tree would have.” Later in the story, when her Uncle Ray comes by to babysit Billie and her little brother Hector, she observes, “As he stood up, I realized Uncle Ray was like other adults. He wanted to boss me around and put me somewhere out of his way.”

Billie comes to the realization that her parents’ impending divorce and the unpredictable changes to come are a malign force that she sense but can’t understand. “I knew what was under my bed but didn’t know how to explain it to anyone: there was a darkness deeper and blacker than in the corners of the room or in the trees outside, blacker than the shiny, horribly big spider I had once seen. That darkness was always there, waiting, even in the daytime. Now I felt it seeping up and covering me. I needed a hat with a flashlight. Maybe it would keep me safe.”

But much of the pleasure in reading Out of Peel Tree comes from Long’s inspired use of telling details and her ability to immerse the reader in sensory images. In one of the early stories, “What to Keep, What to Toss,” Corina, from the third generation, is caught in a frustrating relationship with Ruben when she discovers a secret from Ruben’s past.

“Corina clenched her fists and paced. She concentrated on not opening the fridge, taking out its packages and stabbing them to redirect her anger. When she got really mad – about twice a year – she took packages out of the fridge and stabbed them. She favored cream cheese and chicken breasts. She also brought home single servings of grape jelly from the restaurant. She lined them up on the table and smashed them with her fist. They popped and spewed purple sugar.” A pair of lovers wakes up in the morning and the man observes “the curl of her legs around him in the morning, pretzel of love.’

The narrator, describing Corina, writes, “Her childhood was long over, but sometimes, like now, scenes passed through her mind like the cars of an unscheduled train.”

In “No Souvenirs,” a restless Corina considers taking a bus to Texas. In the middle of the night, she walks to the nearby park and stretches out under an oak tree. “I press my face hard into the earth’s damp warmth, and its rich smell promises that anything is possible. Yes, I answer. And what part of anything is for me?”

In the title story, 60-year-old Essie visits an old friend in Florida to distract herself from her husband’s recent death. As she lay on her bed, “wonder[ing] if the voices of her mother and husband would return,” she dreamed. “Slowly and without grief, the train whistle called out, one by one, the names of the dead. The enormous night opened its mouth and let the train run along its teeth.”

In the closing story, “Heavy Mirror,” Corina touches the fingertips of Billie’s “fuzzy-headed baby. His eyes soak up light, dreamy as a lake at dawn. Overhead, hemlocks whisper that I, too, will be buried here. Torn clouds slide fast across the blue sky and ask, what does it matter? I wave and drive off with a map where everything connects under fading coffee stains.”

Long also displays a droll sense of humor. In “Parole,” Ruben tells a previous lover, “You must be from California. You think you can make yourself up as you go along.”

In the same story, another character leaves her husband and stops in Las Vegas on the way to Mexico. “Where I come from,” she says, “everybody commits suicide by the age of twenty-nine. Then they walk around for fifty more years.”

In “Before Bliss Minimum,” Corina’s younger brother, Joshua, explains that “the mines had shut down all over the state, and a lot of people worked odd jobs. That should be in the fact books, he thought. ‘West Virginia, Main Industries: 1. Coal, 2. Odd jobs.’”

Although the frequent shifts among characters and time frames can occasionally result in momentary confusion, requiring one to back up mentally in order to recall who is who and where one is in the overall narrative, Out of Peel Tree overcomes these small matters with its flesh-and-blood characters, universal conflicts, and evocative writing.

Laura Long has written a small novel with a big heart.