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.

Suspenseful and absorbing UNRAVELING OF MERCY LOUIS examines a community and a girl under pressure

Unraveling-of-Mercy-Louis-hcc-226x342   Keija_Parssinen_-_credit_Shane_Epping

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis

By Keija Parssinen

Harper: March 10, 2015

$25.99, 336 pages

Seventeen-year-old high school senior Mercy Louis is a star in her hometown of Port Sabine, Texas. She is the best basketball player in the school’s history and one of the best in the state. She is popular despite being a quiet and serious young lady with little social life. For, as much as she may be admired, everyone knows her story: her teenager mother, Charmaine Boudreaux, abandoned her and ended up a drug addict in Houston; her father is a ne’er do well named Witness Louis who has had nothing to do with her beyond her creation.

Mercy has been raised by her grandmother, Evelia Boudreaux, a dour, single-minded fundamentalist who has made it her mission to prevent Mercy from repeating the humiliating sins of her mother.

Mercy has been shaped by the dual (and dueling) visions of her grandmother and her ambitious basketball coach, Jodi Martin, who recognizes that Mercy is a once-in-a-lifetime player who can bring the coach, the school, and the town great acclaim while earning herself a Division I scholarship and the chance to escape the hothouse of Port Sabine, a ragged, oil refinery-dominated town on the Gulf Coast.

Mercy has been under their full-court pressure for so long that her unraveling is inevitable; the only questions are when and how. The Unraveling of Mercy Louis answers those questions in a probing and suspenseful story that has been described as a cross between Friday Night Lights and The Crucible.

The story is told through dual narratives: Mercy tells her story in 1st person, while basketball team manager and secret admirer Illa Stark narrates her chapters in a close 3rd person, giving us an inside and outside view of Mercy and her circumstances.

Illa is a short, quiet girl who loves to watch the girls play, admiring the skills she knows she will never possess. She virtually worships Mercy, who, besides being one of the best players in the state, is also disciplined, kind, humble, and physically striking with her black hair and blue eyes.

As Mercy begins her senior year in August 1999, she is haunted by her poor performance in the previous year’s state basketball semifinal and feeling the pressure to lead her team to the championship. At the same time, Evelia’s evangelical fervor has reached a fever pitch due to her belief that the Rapture is coming with the new millenium.

These complex characters and conflicts would be enough for one book. But Parssinen is not done turning up the heat in Port Sabine. A refinery explosion a few years earlier killed several employees and left Illa’s mother, Meg, with two permanently damaged legs and a deep depression. Mercy’s best friend, Annie, is the daughter of the calculating and politically ambitious refinery manager, Beau Putnam, a man who is willing to sacrifice his wife and daughter for power and prestige.

The catalyst that sets all these conflicts in motion is the discovery of an aborted fetus in a dumpster behind a local convenience store. The police and citizens are obsessed with determining who “murdered” the baby, and suspicions run rampant. Beau Putnam uses the situation to complain about the police investigation and lack of leadership in Port Sabine. Tensions from the refinery explosion and fears that the town’s major employer is polluting their air and water make Port Sabine’s residents even more fractious.

Then Mercy receives a short letter from her mother apologizing and asking to meet. Evelia has told Mercy nothing but horror stories about her sinful mother; not surprisingly, Mercy has no desire to meet this woman who has played no part in her life. Yet she can’t help but be curious about what kind of person she was, and is.

Under the relentless pressure to maintain good grades, guard her purity, and increase her athletic accomplishments, Mercy has no social life other than her friendship with the unpredictable and spoiled teammate, Annie. Despite Mercy’s religious upbringing and her coach’s warnings to avoid romantic entanglements, she is eventually won over by a musical free spirit named Travis, who offers her temporary relief from her tightly wound life.

The shadow of Arthur Miller’s classic play about the Salem witch hunts, The Crucible, looms over The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, giving a sense of additional gravitas to the search for the person who abandoned the baby. Parssinen has dropped lots of hints in the names of several characters: Beau Putnam, like the greedy landowner George Putnam in The Crucible, takes advantage of a local controversy to further his own ambitions. Annie Putnam was one of the girls in Salem who confessed to witchcraft. Mercy’s classmates Abby Williams and Marilee Warren are similarly named for key characters in Miller’s play, Abigail Williams and Merry Warren. And Mercy’s church is led by Pastor Parris, who is not so different from The Crucible’s fearful Reverend Parris.

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis probes many timely issues: an abandoned fetus; an investigation centering on high school girls that results in widespread suspicions; a teen mother who years later wants to have a relationship with her daughter; a refinery that is the town’s economic engine yet constitutes an ominous presence; the role of religious faith as a source of inspiration, guidance, and control in a small, economically depressed town; and cynical local politics and power struggles.

At the same time, it also explores several timeless issues: a coming of age story involving a complex female friendship, a secret admirer, a first boyfriend, burgeoning sexuality, jealousy, and secrets long buried that are at last being uncovered.

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis is as sweltering and humid as a summer day in south Texas. The coiled tension is palpable, and the characters are compelling. We want Mercy to find her way through the obstacle course of her life. We hope that Illa will be able to develop a friendship with Mercy. We wonder what will happen to Evelia when the Rapture fails to take place. While one could argue that Evelia Boudreaux, Coach Martin, and Beau Putnam are stock characters, in Parssinen’s capable hands they are made fully human through their multiple and plausible motivations. Even the “bad guys” are mostly believable people.

The quality of Parssinen’s writing keeps The Unraveling of Mercy Louis from turning into an overstuffed melodrama. She keeps the two narratives moving and she weaves the various plotlines together adroitly. Parssinen does an especially impressive job of capturing a young woman’s yearning heart and blossoming desire, for the most part avoiding clichés and romance novel shortcuts. Clunky sentences stand out to me like a flashing neon sign, and I didn’t spot a single one in The Unraveling of Mercy Louis. I suppose it’s possible I missed a few while I was being carried along by the novel’s propulsive plot.

The Unraveling of Mercy Louis captures the adolescent experience of being pushed and pulled in several directions at once. Keija Parssinen reminds us that growing up is a uniquely fraught experience for young people just getting their emotional, intellectual, and psychological bearings in a complex and confusing world. Ultimately, many secrets are revealed about the adults in Mercy and Illa’s lives, which are variously shocking, disappointing, and reassuring. The result is a satisfying and literary Texas Gothic novel that will leave you pondering the many social, cultural, and personal issues it explores.

A Tree Born Crooked author Steph Post: Writing Under Fire

steph-post  A Tree Born Crooked

Steph Post is the author of the recently published novel A Tree Born Crooked. She lives, writes, and teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida. Connect with her at http://www.stephpostfiction.com. 

BOOK GIVEAWAY! To win a SIGNED COPY of A Tree Born Crooked, share the link to this post on Facebook or Twitter (by using the links at the bottom of this post) and leave a comment below with your Twitter handle or email so I can contact you if you win. The winner will be chosen randomly on Friday, November 7. You can also use this short link in your share/tweet: http://wp.me/p3EtWm-nH

 THIS CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED. The lucky winner is Courtney Whisenant of Lacey’s Spring, Alabama. Thanks to everyone who participated! 11/8/14

For me, the dreaded question of “What’s your book about?” has always been paralyzing. Most people who ask are looking for about a ten-second synopsis, even shorter than an elevator pitch, and I find it challenging to sum up an entire novel, an entire year’s worth of work, in the amount of time it takes a person to unwrap and start chewing a stick of gum. Or check a text message. Or look over my shoulder at something more interesting. All of which that person is most likely doing while I’m trying to explain one of the most important things I’ve ever created in my entire life.

I’ll admit that I’ve gotten better at it. I’ve distilled my novel down into short, easy to manage, 21st century sound bites that hopefully catch a spark in the listener’s eyes, depending on what he or she is into. Southern. Literary. When the eyes start to drift, I ramp it up. Thriller. Crime. Guns. Then I narrow it down, hone in on what the reader is really looking for. I’m getting somewhere. Florida. Dirty Motels. Alcohol. Road Trips. Banana Moon Pies. I sold a book last week just because the woman had a huge crush on Timothy Olyphant (well, who wouldn’t?). She had no idea what my book was about, but she hauled out the cash as soon as she saw the word “Justified” on the cover.

So I thought I was nailing it with the sales pitch. I was feeling pretty good about it. And then I had a true deer-in-the-headlights moment the other day. The question was the same as always — “what’s your book about” — but I froze. “Um. Er. Stuff. And then some stuff happens. To these people. In this place. And then some more stuff. There’s all kinds of stuff in the book. Yep. That’s right. Lots of stuff.” I don’t have to tell you that I lost that sale…. But it wasn’t because I didn’t know how to pitch my novel. It’s because I suddenly couldn’t remember which novel I was talking about. And now an entirely new author challenge has been thrown my way: how to balance promoting a novel, shopping a second, and writing a third. All without losing my mind.

I have always thought of writing as a war. In addition to being an author and editor, I teach high school students how to write. When we get ready for the state writing test, my students have their battle faces on. During writing boot camp, we plot out sneak attacks, counterattacks, revision strategies, grammar arsenals, weapons of diction, hand-cramping survival tactics, and the ultimate ways to blow up the enemy (the state-appointed essay scorer) and win the war (be eligible to graduate). Some of my students look at me warily and edge away, some roll their eyes, but those who struggle with writing get it. Those who struggle and those who have the demon of a novice writer stirring deep inside of them.

Whenever I’m in the middle of writing a novel, I always feel like I’m deep in the trenches. I’m slogging away, looking out over no-man’s land, wondering if I’ll ever see daylight again. It’s messy and can be disheartening, though filled with explosions of brilliance and moments of adrenaline-fueled panic and triumph. I sit in front of my notebook or computer and imagine what people out in the “real world” are doing. Having fun. Going to parties. Interacting with other human beings. But I’m stuck in the trenches with gritted teeth, banging out chapters because the characters won’t let me sleep until I’m finished. Sounds like fun, right?

Now, I’d give anything to be back, safely ensconced in my trench, shutting the rest of the world out with only my notebooks and my keyboard, my music and my dogs for company. But there’s no going back. I’m running across the field now, grenades being lobbed in my direction from all angles, bullets whizzing past my head, the ground on fire. I thought writing was a battle. No. Writing is a walk in the park on a summer day. Being an author is a battle. Being an author is a fight to death.

Instead of being able to focus, with blissfully intense tunnel-vision, on one story, I have three jostling around in my head at all times. My debut novel, A Tree Born Crooked, was just published in September. I had moved on from the story and its characters in the year’s time from writing to publishing, but now the world of Crystal Springs and its bedraggled inhabitants are right back in the forefront again (and being packaged into ten-second pitch-bites). During this past year, I wrote another novel, so on top of promoting one book to readers, I’m promoting a second book to agents and editors. And then I’ve spent the last three months working hard on research for my third novel, which I hope to begin writing this month.

So when the unassuming reader asked me what my book was about and I provided the elegant response of “stuff,” what was really going through my head was a frantic moment of trying to remember which book they were asking about. The one with the crazy Pentecostal preacher or the one with the Alligator Mafia? Or the tattooed snake charmer? The one set in rural Florida or in a traveling carnival? Wait, is there mythology in this one or is that the one I’m working on now? Literary, noir, Southern Gothic? It must have all shown on my face, because the potential buyer of A Tree Born Crooked carefully set the copy down and backed away slowly.

Three books, one part-time job as an editor, one full-time job as a high school writing coach, occasional forays into book reviewing and short story writing. I’m not claiming to be a multi-tasking soccer mom, but I do have a lot of writing- and reading-related activity going on. I’m taking fire on all sides, so it’s time I created a new battle plan. Hunkering down in the trenches just isn’t going to cut it anymore. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • Reserve the weekends for working on the new novel. It’s the most important thing, and will always be the most important thing, because writing is, well, the point of being a writer. Period.
  • Do everything else (promoting, querying, blogging, tweeting, editing, reviewing, teaching, living) during the week.

Also:

  • Stop sleeping.
  • Forget about ever having a clean house.
  • Teach my five dogs how to take themselves for a walk.
  • Tell my husband that I’ll see him sometime. Maybe in the next year. Possibly.
  • Ditto to all my friends.
  • Hold off on having kids.
  • Pretend holidays don’t exist. (Plus side: save money to buy wine)
  • Sell the television.
  • Buy a wine cellar. Fully stocked.
  • Remind myself over and over that I’m an author not because I have to be, but because I want to be. I’m doing this because I love it. It’s frustrating and irritating and painful and heart-wrenching and has completely ruined my social life forever. But I love it.

And I’m open to suggestions. For now, I’m suiting up, checking my ammo, and heading into battle.