Michael Wehunt: A Review of Greener Pastures

There’s something sad and melancholy in these stories, a slow burn from the deep loam of rich Georgian earth, a cast of blue shadows from the Appalachian Blue Ridge’s hovering round the edges of the Northern childhood dreams of Michael Wehunt’s early night haunts. These are stories of loss and grief, of worlds situated in-between heaven and hell if one still believed in such things. There’s something old in Michael’s soul, something both peculiar and uncanny. It’s as if the deep black earth of his homelands were speaking through him, singing there way out of those dark guttural sounds of some ancient music. A sense of loneliness and gray shadows, twilights and imponderable winds in the pines. Silences and long open stretches of highways, spaces of regret and pity for an American that has slowly decayed into ruins. People who seem to haunt landscapes that sink into the hidden spaces around us, only opening up their dark tombs when the sun and moon orient themselves to the sad tunes of some solitary traveler whose inner sense of doom matches that of the darkest ponds and rivers. This is a world lost to time where one can hear the old world and new seeping into each other with strange tales of horror that grasp you like an old comforter full of feathers falling from an unknown dimension of heartache.

Whether it’s the bond of sisters in the depths of a dark cave, their blood marriage of minds shadowing the mutant madness of a town’s poverty and derangements, and their quest for the eternal blood of salvation and eternal life in a pool of death; or the honeyed laughter of first love, of a mother’s insect dreams, the rituals of old Europe springing up in the new world like the humming of bees in a summer’s cavalcade; or a lonely trucker caught in a realm just in-between nothing and nothing, listening to the dreams of an old man’s haunted life; else the music of angels or swans, low and distant, sifting a widower’s life between two loves – a desperate attempt to recapture the circle of youth in a strange metamorphic shift among untimely memories and feathers; or and old Jazz-man telling a story to a young girl facing down her dark thoughts, and he on about a blue devil of rhythms and blues and harmonies of greatness, leavings of last memories before leave-taking for parts unknown; and, then a haunted docudrama – four friends plundering the backwoods of New Hampshire, shooting paranoid footage of a haunted landscape of doom and ghosts and nightmares come alive;  else  a flight of women or angels falling into time and a puddle of trailers in a patchwork world of sin and mad preachers, seen through a young boy’s innocence: a world of bittersweet truths about a rag-tagged bunch of fools and liars and clowns;  and, more tales that sweep you down a world of pain and nostalgia, dark truth forged in twilight worlds and landscapes of visible hell that could be your own back yard or town…

Michael’s tales have that natural appeal of a deeply felt lived life of a man who sees into things. His tales have the seduction of folk lore and strange days, of the voice of story rising out of the black loam of a hidden America that is riddled with the lost souls,  misfits, eccentrics, and broken keepers of our darkening and decaying country of forgotten dreams and terrible secrets. And, yet, there is deep and abiding love and emotion in his utterance of our worst nightmares, a desperate quest for transformation and change, and an openness to the unknown wonders of a frail universe that does not frighten so much as seduce us to enter its dark harmonies. Then there’s the grief of the inconsolable that follows one’s days like a dead woman who will not go away but haunts one’s flesh like the “slow drip of living” in a world in which the “nights black and the days flat and you can hardly care”.

These are tales of fatalist acceptance and the inevitable dammed, awaiting neither judgment day nor some dark Jesus to carry them away into the cold black night haunts of the desperate void, but rather a singular country boy’s early and late dreams of that bleak cosmos where humans meet the mystery that awaits us all in the great indifference that is. And, yet, even in the blackest abysses of time and space there is something that keeps his characters going, something that makes them quest after some indefinable answer, a yearning for more life even in the midst of destruction and consumation; a need to continue in inexistence where the “harbinger with green grace, of yellow mouths opening somewhere now closer above…” resides this side of the tormented lands. A sense of those mysteries that surround us on all sides, the secret rendezvous with darkness and stars and the emptiness in-between, where in the silences of the empty sky full of black music of endless night something lures us onward and outward toward the inexplicable.


Author Bio:

Michael Wehunt grew up in North Georgia, close enough to the Appalachians to feel them but not quite easily see them. There were woods, and woodsmoke, and warmth. He did not make it far when he left, falling sixty miles south to the lost city of Atlanta, where there are fewer woods but still many trees. He lives with his partner and his dog and too many books, among which Robert Aickman fidgets next to Flannery O’Connor on his favorite bookshelf.

His fiction has appeared in various places, such as The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, The Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu. This is his first collection.


Visit Michael Wehunt as his site: https://michaelwehunt.com/
Buy Greener Pastures from links at Apex Publishers

Let The Shadows Sing: Flannery O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal”

Well I’ll be dammed… have to thank Michael Wehunt author of Greener Pastures for turning me onto Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal… I thought I’d read everything of hers and then some…

Already into it (a short journal) and discovered the dark honesty I’ve always trusted:

“Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that I will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing.”

She always did speak from the shadows… you can feel it in her stories and her longer works. A sense of mystery, shock, and violence that digs deep into you like an old worm gnawing at your innards. Her stories were nightmares come alive and have stayed with me my whole life. The misfits and scoundrels, idiots and savants, the whole lot have about them the doom that lives in the soul of the South like a darkness that spreads and never lets up. I may have left the swamps of Louisiana, and she from Georgia… but the swamps still pervade my dark side like I’m sure the rolling hills of Georgia did hers.

Nathan Ballingrud: Southern Gothic Horror

Nick’s mother used to say that they’d lost his father to the horses.

—Nathan Ballingrud, North American Lake Monsters

Something speaks to me from the stories of Nathan Ballingrud. Having been raised on the likes of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Conner, Carson McCullers, and other notables of that southern mien one gets a feel for the genuine article, and Ballingrud is just that – the real deal, a writer with a voice of his own and a vision that is both distinct and hinged to the swamp infested riddles of a regional world where the darkness seems almost natural.

With the exception of Native American lore, folklore, like language and literature, came to this country as part of the cultural baggage of the various waves of its settlers. In the South, its sources are mainly British, African, and French, with important admixtures of Spanish and German and touches of almost everything else. Ballingrud invents a folklore that is hinted at rather than drawing from overt sources, a lore of the weird and strange that permeates the Louisiana bayous and City of Lights, New Orleans like black water seeping into the wells of some lonely southern night.

Ballingrud says of himself,

I was born in Massachusetts in 1970, but spent most of my life in the South. I studied literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at the University of New Orleans. Among other things, I’ve been a cook on oil rigs and barges, a waiter, and a bartender in New Orleans.

His first book of short stories, and the one I’m reading at present is North American Lake Monsters, from Small Beer Press. He has won two Shirley Jackson Awards, and been shortlisted for the World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Bram Stoker Awards. Not a small feat.

Reading him awakens the tremors below the belt, makes you remember things that might have been or will be. He has the touch, that ability to hit the nerve of strangeness in the natural that few of us even knew was there accept as an indefinable shadow surrounding our lives like the deadly eyeballs of a gator slinking out of the dark pools of some snake infested swamp.

Those of us who come from the south understand the  irony of lost causes and regrets for the loss of old ways. Southerners more than most feel this deep seated nostalgia for a world steeped in evil and mayhem, a realm where racism, war, and a sense of bitter-sweet history commingle with shame and guilt. Maybe its our dark history of racism that sticks to us like the stigmata of some ancient Biblical curse for which there are and can be no reparations. Some think we’re beyond redemption, while others still manifest the bullheaded pride of the old guard as if it were another country. Ballingrud seems to tap into this anxiety like a master marksman whose keen eyes know just where the target is but is subtle enough to take it slow and methodical rather than full-amped.

His writing is steeped in that colloquial speech that rings true, hinting at a certain pitch in the tongue and groove of southern style. A way of being and becoming that hints at things rather than revealing them in the stark light of a noon-day sun. If Flannery O’Conner could hit you over the head with an ideological sledgehammer filled with her own flavor of gnostic Catholicism, then Ballingrud takes the lower key and floats you in the swamps where you can meet death at eye level.

Now if you haven’t read Ballingrud yet then just stop right here for I’m going to reveal certain spoilers that are best left to the imagination…

S.S. – A Coming of Age Tale

Take his story S.S. which on the surface is a typical coming of age tale of a young man caught between familial romance and the surfeits of choosing his own way. Young Nick is scrawny and unkempt, lives with his broken down Mom who we discover by indirection is a woman with a very severe case of autosarcophagy  – a nice medical term for self-cannibalistic degradation. Of course Ballingrud handles this strange phenomenon with such delicacy and reserve that we only begin to understand just what is transpiring toward the end of the tale.

One can imagine a young man growing up in such an environment and what it might do to his psyche, the perversities of his world influenced by such horrorific nostrums. On the surface Nick seems to be as normal as Norma Bates seemed in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho. Yet, we know something sinister is brewing just under the surface of the boy’s flesh as the story progresses.

Nick’s father unable to stomach the proclivities of his wife abandon’s his son and her at the age of four. The mother unable or unwilling to accept the truth and relate it to her son invests in a folkloric explanation that carries with it a sinister shadow,

Nick’s mother used to say that they’d lost his father to the horses.

Throughout his childhood, Nick thought that meant that he’d been killed by them: trampled beneath a galloping herd, or thrown from the back of a bronco; when he was younger still, he imagined that they’d devoured him, dipping their great regal heads into the open bowl of his body, lifting them out again trailing bright ropes and jellies. At night, when the closet door in his bedroom swung silently open, the boogeyman wore an equine face, and the sound that spilled from its mouth was the dolorous melody of his mother’s sobs. Even now that he knew better, knew that his father had fled in part because of gambling debts incurred at the track, horses retained their sinister aspect.1

One begins to suspect things are not going to go well for young Nick, that his life with a cannibal and a missing father will lead to nowhere good. Luckily for our young Nick he meets a girl name Trixie, a young feisty girl at the edge of womanhood whose world is filled with racial dreams of purity and tattooed knights from the beleaguered realms of fascist nationalists. The story is bedeviled by such stereotypes of male figures full of macho hostility toward losers, gays, and blacks. Yet, the tale itself has no axe to grind, no message or moral. It’s just a part of the world this young boy has been thrown into, a world he does not fit into, nor even condones.

Being poor and white trash our young Nick has lived out his childhood in a realm in a realm of darkness, his mother having quit work early on leaving them bankrupt and only affording what Nick’s father’s alimony check subtends. Nick seems to have an inkling of his loser-hood, and yet he takes it all in stride. Even his relationship with Trixie is accepted as a piece of luck, not something he ever deserved in his own right. But like all modern Eve’s she has a temptation he must not refuse if he is to win her heart.

Trixie belongs to a white nationalist group of thugs, a group of young boys who tattooed like confederate throwbacks channel their primal aggression against the world in epithets of stupidity and beer. Young Nick is persuaded to meet Trixie’s new friends and become a part of their club. Nick goes out with the boys to a local bar and is introduced to the racial politics of this strand by a over-muscled goon name Derrick who points the way to his dark tribes vein glorious stigmata,

He touched his fingers to a swastika on his chest. “You see this here? That’s what it means. That’s why we wear it on our skin. All that German secret police shit, forget all that. That was just one manifestation. We’re the new manifestation.” He tapped the symbol. “White family. White brotherhood. Now, sometimes you gotta do ugly things for the family’s sake. Just like me and Matt had to do. And you know what? Niggers and fags might not be the brightest creatures on this earth, but they can take a message if you deliver it right. I ain’t seen that boy back here since.” (ibid.)

Ballingrud doesn’t pull any punches, he lets the full tilt power of this hateful world emerge from the twisted minds of these young men as if it were the most natural thing in the world. When Derrick taunts young Nick with sexual antics and his scrawniness, telling him how he’s fucked Nick’s chick, Trixie, trying to get a rise out of him. Nick does. He tells Derrick to “Fuck Off!” and proceeds to leave them to their own dark bullshit.

Ballingrud isn’t preaching to us, rather he presents this sordid world matter-of-factly as if it were just another natural thing one comes upon, neither good or evil; something that just is – not big deal. Like I said he has no axe to grind. He’s a story teller, not a preacher man.

The next time he sees Trixie she wants to come over to his house, wants to level with him, pull him in, seduce him, break him like a horse. And, yet, there’s something about young Nick that even Trixie doesn’t understand, something even darker and more solitary that this wild young woman would fear to know if she had an intelligent brain in her head. Brash and full of vivacity she is like a wild cat, untamed and fierce; and, yet, she is oblivious to the deep moral issues within which she has ensnared her self. It’s this in-betweenness, this traveling between the ruins of the past and the challenge of the supposed new south that both these young people seem to be entangled in. But Trixie is blind to it and its seductions believing it is leading her into extreme forms of freedom when it is actually driving her into a past that haunts us all with it’s racist daemonism. On the other hand the shadows that seem to expand from Nick in every direction offer him a path into nowhere and nowhen, an atopia of the weird where he might find a separate freedom, a realm of darkness and mayhem all of his own, built not of past shame but out of the malevolent truth of his own dark nature.

Without retelling the whole story we’ll cut to the chase. Young Nick wants a gun, wants to use it, and he gets Trixie to do his bidding by finding it for him. Once he has it he senses something in his life, a certain freedom. He and Trixie take off on a road trip where they are involved in a catastrophic wreck that awakens something in young Nick. He’s seen a truck careen into a BMW spilling a beautiful white horse across the rock hard pavement. It’s this confrontation with the violence of the white horse whose guts and blood are splattered across the white hot surface that moves something in young Nick.

He opened the passenger door and climbed out into a cold brace of air. The rain was a frozen weight, soaking his clothes instantly. A confused array of lights speared through the rain, giving the scene a freakish radiance. He noticed that he was casting several shadows.

The horse’s big body jerked as it tried to right itself, and Nick heard bones crack somewhere inside it. The horse screamed. It lay next to the overturned car, amidst a glittering galaxy of broken glass, its legs crooked and snapped, its blood spilling onto the asphalt and trailing away in diluted rivers. It was beautiful, even in these awful circumstances; its body seemed phosphorescent in the rain.

Nick knelt beside it and brushed his fingers against its skin. The flesh jumped, and he was overwhelmed by a powerful scent of urine and musk. Its eye rolled to look at him. Nick stared back, paralyzed. The horse’s blood pooled around his shoe. It seemed an astonishing end for this animal, that it should come to die on some hard ground its ancestors never knew, surrounded by machines they never dreamed. Its absurdity offended him. (ibid.)

This sense of ‘freakish radiance’ and young Nick’s realization that he was “casting several shadows” brings that pitch of sublime horror and the ridiculous absurdity of  violence between an ancient world of freedom and horses, and a modernity where machinic impersonalism and death have no meaning, into a realm of seductive revelation where apocalyptic desire melts with the annihilation of terror and dread. It’s just here, in a world outside the order of things, caught in a violent tremor in-between his past and his future that he makes a decision. Trixie worried about the gun, the police, the world around her crumbling wants to run, to leave it all behind. Nick instead chooses something else, chooses his own freedom, a freedom from Trixie and her world of thuggish racism, from his Mother’s entrapments in a cage world of self-cannibalistic desire, and a world where beauty and death on a sun scorched highway can co-exist:

The gun. Nick brushed roughly past her, nearly knocking her to her knees. He retrieved the gun from her glove compartment and headed back to the horse. Trixie intercepted him, tried to push him back. “No, no, are you fucking crazy? It’s gonna die anyway!”

He wrenched her aside, and this time she did fall. He walked over to the horse and the gun cracked twice, two bright flashes in the rain, and the horse was dead. A kind of peace settled over him then, a floating calm, and he stuffed the gun into his trousers, ignoring the heat of the barrel pressing into his flesh. Trixie had not bothered to get up from the pavement. She sat there, watching him, the rain sluicing over her head and down her body. Her face was inscrutable behind the curtain of rain, as was everything else about her. He left her there.

Behind her, the car was hopelessly ensnared in the traffic jam. He would have to walk home, to his mother, broken and beautiful, crashed in her own foreign landscape. Bewildered and terrified. Burning love like a gasoline. He started down the highway, walking along the edge of stopped traffic. He felt the weightlessness of mercy. He was a striding christ. Sounds filtered through to him: people yelling and pleading; footsteps splashing through the rain; a distant, stranded siren. From somewhere behind him a man’s sob, weird and ululating, rose above the wreckage and disappeared into the sky, a flaming rag.

One is almost tempted to think of another dark Messiah heading down a dirt road toward a city carrying a new gospel of redemption through violence, an echo of Flannery O’Conner’s ‘Francis Marion Tarwater’,

His singed eyes, black in their deep sockets, seemed already to envision the fate that awaited him but he moved steadily on, his face set toward the dark city, where the children of God lay sleeping.1

To know more about Nathan and his works visit his blog: https://nathanballingrud.com/


  1. Ballingrud, Nathan. North American Lake Monsters. Small Beer Press. (June 28, 2013)
  2. O’Connor, Flannery. The Violent Bear It Away (Kindle Locations 2454-2455). Macmillan. Kindle Edition.

The Knack

Baby, baby blue eyes,
Stay with me by my side;
‘Til the mornin’, through the night. (can’t get you out of my mind)
– Rocket to the Moon

Jolene Wilson was her name. Boy she had a pair of knocker’s on her I could’ve used for batting practice, instead of wasting my time sitting here with the ball dummy. Of course that’d been soft ball without the ball (if you know what I mean). I met her at Charley Devlin’s place out by Tipper Mill. He’d had a BBQ that Sunday week. Dam she had the prettiest baby blue eyes, and that smile of hers with those split front-ends was like watching a good Hollywood flick on a Friday night down at the Chief Drive-in.

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A Death in the Rain

Tears do not burn except in solitude.
—E. M. Cioran

Any death is sorrowful, but his death was worse, pitiless. No one came to the funeral. No one cared. No one knew he’d died. Even his children wouldn’t admit it, that he was their responsibility. They’d just bought the flowers, the hearse, and the preacher man. The rest was between the Old Man and whatever devils he was assured to meet on his journey.

I was the only bastard there that day. I wondered at times why I was. Hell he’d never given me any reason to care, but for whatever mad reason I still did. He’d come into our lives at a time when we’d needed him. All his lies, all his dreams, all his stories… somehow they’d given us hope again. That’s the funny thing about hope, it’s not what you think it is when you get it; it’s usually something quite deceptive and full of that cagey kind of laughter that lets you know that under its veneer is just another dark piece of rotten furniture waiting to turn to dust in your hands.

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Country Noir: On Writers That Sustain Me

In a world that disdains you the only reasonable response is stubborn disregard of contempt.
—Dorothy Allison

A friend of mine Arran James asked me a question about who the Southern Writers I most enjoy beyond the usual suspects of Edgar Allan Poe, Mark Twain,  Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Cormac McCarthy, Tennessee Williams (Playwright & Short Stories), Robert Penn Warren, A.R. Williams (Poet/Essayist), and Truman Capote. Good Reads has a good list to start with along with the specifics of Country noir, but it’s a toss up for the best – and, there are some missing on Good Reads I’d add. But that’s just it, matters of time, memory, and habit all seem to coalesce in this world; shift us to those writers that speak to us, that give us something we need, a dark gift of wisdom. The one’s I keep on reading and rereading, the one’s that give me pleasure or disturb and perturb me to change and wake up and help me get through the bleak days of my life and our century of idiocy are the one’s who spoke to me, lifted me out of my self-pity and gave me the power to find my own voice, my own way, my own truth in this world.

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Chicken, anyone? – A Grotesque Tale of the Macabre


** Warning: Vulgar Language Ahead! **


That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

—T.S. Eliot, The Burial of the Dead

“I’ll bet you won’t do it.” Fat Girl lisped triumphantly; her yellow buck teeth grinding away as she spit gumwad bubbles the size of watermelons out the passenger side of the pick-up truck window into the moon-lit summer’s night.

“I betcha I will.” Thin Boy laughed excitedly; his bone-cracked eyes, black and primed, drilled back hard on that Fat Girl like she was a fly he was ready to smack down. Then he thought better of it and decided he might be better off just poppin’ her cherry tonight like it was a freshly minted silver julep sprinkled with sugar and shaved ice, and coated in pure bourbon and topped off with slices of lemon and oranges: with a sprig of mint topper, just where his tongue could slip into that sweet crevice and taste all those fine juices. His mouth watered just thinking about it.

“Okay, there’s a car comin’ right there…” Fat Girl pointed at two lights blinking just over the ridge, past the clump of scrub oaks huddled in the middle of the highway.

Thin Boy, Fat Girl, and Joey – her little brother, had been drinking and slurping down mostly cheap shine and beer all night long. Jake’s brother had gotten it for them just past County line where they say the devil’s own still brew the poison that gives men screw hairs on their chests, twisted and steely. They’d watched the zombie flick at the Chief Drive-in three times before heading out to roam the byways looking for mischief.

Fat Girl gave good head, otherwise she was a freak, Jake thought to himself. They called him Thin Boy because he was so tall and skinny, and had those dang blamed freckles from his Maw. He looked at Fat Girl and said, “Shut the fuck up. You don’t know dip-shit or doodly-squat about nothing. So keep your flap shut, here me?”

She was about to yap back at him and give him all Billy Hell, but decided better on it after she saw that smile he always got when he was about to back hand her with a double-fisted whammy. So she shut up.

He smiled. “That’s more like it. Now, this is what we’re going to do…”

***

Chuck Bannerman was traveling home with his wife and two kids. It’s been an uneventful day, but most days seemed that way to him anymore. Especially days spent at Lucy’s Mom and Dad’s place. Everyone sitting around like knots on a log, jawing the shit, eating, watching the Friday night games on Channel 5. Sometimes they’d play cards till the wee hours of the morning. But not tonight, no tonight his daughter Lizzy had come down with something, sneezing, runny nose, fever… so they’d decided to call it an early night. “If one could call 11:00 o’clock pm early!” He thought.

His wife was asleep against the window. He peered in the rear-view and saw that the kids were doing the same, sound asleep. It was only a two hour drive back to the house, but everyone was tuckered out. He yawned and turned the radio up, moving the channel to his local favorite KickAss 105 Country. He heard an old Hank Snow tune “I’ve Been Everywhere”. Sometimes he wished he was drifting out there alone somewhere, hitchin’ a ride to wherever rather than stuck in this thing called marriage. He loved Lucy and the kids, but sometimes he just dreamed that old dream of freedom, wide open-spaces, a world to be had… Instead he was trapped on an old cotton farm sunup and sundown, eking out a minimal living on some property his own worthless drunk of a father had left him a few years back.

Back then he’d dreamed of college, even moved to the city and gotten him a job at the gas station. Was saving him some money slowly but surely; that is, till he’d seen Lucy and some of her friends drive up to the tanks one day, then his dreams went right out the window. She was the prettiest thing he’d seen in his whole life. Her hair a blaze of golden honey, eyes like those pictures of the ocean he’d never seen on postcards; and, her laugh, was like listening to innocence itself, so mellow and assured. He’d slicked his black hair back real smooth and come out to the car, one of those convertible jobs – a Buick roadmaster skylark two-door Coupe – sky-blue with a powder finish, white-walls, and a shiny chrome grill that looked more like some kind of beast with teeth clamped down waiting to bite you. But he hadn’t been eyeing that automobile, that day; he’d been gazing at one thing, that pretty girl with the wandering smiling eyes and scarlet red lips.

When she’s noticed him looking at her she’d laughed out loud, telling her friends: “Lookie there girls, we got a live one!” The other girls turned and oohed and awed him till he blushed, turning red until she’d said: “Aw, we’ve embarrassed him… stop that now, girls you’ll give him one of those – what do they call it? – a complex; yes, that’s it, a complex.” She laughed at her own joke and jumped back in to the automobile, motioned for one of the girls to pay the nice man without ever turning toward him again.

He took the money, but when he came back he saw she’d dropped a white handkerchief when she’d sashayed back to the driver’s side. He picked it up and walked around the front of the vehicle, turning and nodding to all three of the girls making them blush in return. Then he’d looked directly at her when he came up to the door saying, “’Scuse me, Miss…” He held the hanky out to her. And, when she reached out to grab it, said: “Not so fast.” And pulled it back behind him: “What’s your name, then I’ll give it to you.”

She looked a little perturbed, just to put on a little show for the girls, saying: “It’s not proper to tell a man a girl’s name whose a ‘stranger’.” She teased.

Now, he laughed. “Well I’m not a stranger, my name’s Chuck Bannerman and I’m going to be someone someday.” He boasted, smiling back.

“Well, Mr. Bannerman,” She looked up peevishly. “Until we’ve been properly introduced you’re still a stranger to me. Isn’t he girls?” She waited. The girls chimed in… “Yes, yes, properly introduced…” both of them laughing hilariously now.

He turned back to his boss: “Hey, Johnnie these girls say they’ll tell me their names if I’m properly introduced.” Johnnie who’d been sitting on his whittling stool laughed and walked over, saying: “Well, let me see…” He stroked his chin. “If I remember correctly, since I’m old enough to be her father, and an owner of a business that qualifies me as an elder in the community to do just that.” He made a sweeping gesture, and spoke up: “This here is Mr. Chuck Bannerman, ladies, a bonafied grease monkey from way back.” The girls all laughed, while Chuck wanted to slink into some dark hole and forget he ever thought up this hair blamed scheme.

“Well, well,” She said, satisfied. “I guess that means me and the girls will just have to comply. Right, girls?” They said in unison: “Right!”

“My name is Lucy Groomer, and these two gals are Judith Temple and Betsy Peabody.”

He bowed like a real gentleman and said: “I’m pleased to meet you, Ladies.” Then he handed her the hanky and told them that anytime they need gas or anything at all just to come on back by and he’d make sure they were taken care of.

That was the first time he’d set eyes on her. The next time he’d caught her all by herself late one night needing some gas, heading back to her dorm. He’d asked her out that time, just for a soda down at Watson’s Soda Fount of Main. She’d accepted. It’d been all down hill from there.

Of course her Dad hadn’t taken too kindly with his daughter going out with a grease monkey. He’d even tried to buy him off and send him packing. But Chuck had stuck to his guns, told the old man he couldn’t be bought. After that her Dad had taken him under his wing, given him a place in the oil fields. Taught him the trade, so to speak. That is till they’d found out about his background, his drunk father who’d beat his mother to death and almost done the same to him on several occasions. The boy lied for his father on the stand and he’d gotten off with manslaughter instead of the electric chair and spent several years in the State Pen up by Tuberville.

When he’d returned he’d not changed his ways much at all. Took up drinking and cussing and roaming as he’d always done, forcing his son to work the livestock and the help around the place. Then one night he’d run into a creosote pole – the phone company had recently put up, on the way home, busting his head wide open and cutting his neck to the juggler when he’d plunged through the windshield. They’d found him dead the next morning.

After that they’d felt bad for the young man. They’d allowed their daughter to marry him. Even let them take over the farm and move out there, given them their blessings, helped them out with some new equipment and kitchen supplies and enough money to make it through a few seasons.

Things were turning around for them. They’d had a couple of children, Toby and Elena. Everything was looking up. Getting better. He looked over at his wife, back at his kids and smiled. Yes, things were getting better, what else could a man ask for?

***

Joey grabbed the old mattress from the back of the pick-up so they’d have somethin’ to protect them when they slammed into the next vehicle; that is, if something went wrong and the other fellow didn’t swerve in time. They’d been sitting there a while chewing the shit, drinking the rest of the beer when another vehicle topped the ridge a mile away.

“There’s one now,” Fat Girl hollered, excited. “C’mon guys, hurry up!”

“Hold your horses, will you. Got to get things set just right. Okay!” They nodded at the driver, who seemed to know what he was doing.

“Now when I holler pull the mattress up and over out of the cage, got it?” Thin Boy looked at the two of them as if they were idijits… they were. He pointed to the area behind the seat where two rifles were locked up. “There, got it?” They nodded. “Ye, haw! Now we’re talking, let’s go…”

So they set off in the dark without any lights showing. The skinny driver figured to wait till they were right on top of them to turn the lights on so they’d have to react fast or be slammed. He didn’t tell the others that he hoped they’d plow right into that other car no matter what.

***

It was a moon-lit night or he’d of not seen the dark blob in the road ahead of him. It was strange looking, something he’d never seen before on this highway. And, he’d driven it a hundred times or better. Something wasn’t right, he felt it. He thought about slowing down, because whatever it was seemed to be getting closer as if it were moving at a high rate of speed.

Then when two light beams came on he realized it was a truck, and it was speeding right at him. All he could do was react, he tried to swerve right to the other side of the highway but too late realized there were some scrub oaks that way so suddenly shifted back to the left which would have plunged him immediately into a gully about four or five feet down and across. So instead he turned back and slammed on the breaks, hoping the other driver would swerve out of the way knowing he had no maneuvering room at all.

The driver didn’t swerve…

***

At the funeral, everyone, even the First Methodist preacher looked haggard as if the whole affair were some kind of horrid joke. The preacher, who usually had something profound to say, didn’t offer anything more than the basic set eulogy. He’d decided not to charge the family. He didn’t want to be there, but felt obligated to them for their support of the Church.

Everyone was in shock, no one wanted to say a thing. It was as if the world had just gone dark and meaningless for good. Words no longer held any solace. None at all. Everyone left the funeral home as quiet as they’d come in. At the graveside service the same routine. A few minimal words were said by the Preacher, and he left unable to say anything else, anything of comfort to the parents who seemed more like stone figures on a marble tomb than living flesh and blood. Their eyes were gray and empty, even the tears seemed to freeze in those eyes. Death had undone more that the dead this time. He shivered and turned away.

***

The next morning they’d found them all except the skinny driver of the truck. Dead. His friends, Joey and Fat Girl had been thrown clear out into the fields. The family had been thrown through their windshield onto the highway. Even the State Patrol and ambulance services had to turn their heads. It was a bloody mess.

Only the skinny driver was found wrapped up in the mattress snoozing away in the truck unharmed. The truck was totaled. Looked like it had flipped and rolled over so many times that the paint and all the chrome accoutrements were stripped clean off. The axles and tires were broken, and the frame twisted up like an accordion; even the rear end was missing, strewn metal cut into the asphalt like someone had taken a can opener and had a heyday; everything but the cab was a complete wreck. And, yet, the skinny boy had not only survived, but didn’t have no broken bones, not even a fucking scratch on him as if he’d been floating on a cloud like an angel.

The state patrolman and his partner asked him what he was thinking. Why he’d done it?

Thin Boy looked up, grinning from ear to ear, and said, “I saw it in the drive-in movie last week. They was playing chicken. It looked fun. I had to do it. It looked fun. And, by golly, it was… fun!”

One of the patrolmen sighed. The other just stood there blinking at the kid.

Thin Boy rose up out of that mattress naked as a jaybird, and said: “Boy howdy, I can’t wait to do that again next week. Anyone seen Joey and Fat Girl?”

One of the patrolmen cuffed him, saying: “Boy, where you’re goin’ you better pray to gawd you can find a friend; any friend at all.”

Thin Boy grinned: “Oh, don’t you worry about me none, I make friends anywhere I go. Chicken, anyone?”

 finis

Note: Back in the mid to late fifties kids used to dare each other and play a game called Chicken wherein they’d either bluff each other and drive old wrecks off cliffs and wait to the last minute to jump out; or, they’d actually run at each other head-on and see who would chicken out and swerve at the last second. Sometimes such idiot games were played on innocent unsuspecting people. This tale is of such a family and of such a psychopath…

One will remember James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause


©2016 S.C. HickmanUnauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

Flannery O’Connor: The Southern Comic Grotesque

I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.

-Flannery O’Connor, Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction

When we look at a good deal of serious modern fiction, and particularly Southern fiction, we find this quality about it that is generally described, in a pejorative sense, as grotesque. … Thomas Mann has said that the grotesque is the true anti-bourgeois style, but I believe that in this country, the general reader has managed to connect the grotesque with the sentimental, for whenever he speaks of it favorably, he seems to associate it with the writer’s compassion.

In these grotesque works, we find that the writer has made alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe every day, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life. We find that connections which we would expect in the customary kind of realism have been ignored, that there are strange skips and gaps which anyone trying to describe manners and customs would certainly not have left. Yet the characters have an inner coherence, if not always a coherence to their social framework. Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected.

In the novelist’s case, prophecy is a matter of seeing near things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far things close up. The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque.

Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. … Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.

Certainly when the grotesque is used in a legitimate way, the intellectual and moral judgments implicit in it will have the ascendency over feeling. I think this tradition of the dark and divisive romance-novel has combined with the comicgrotesque tradition, and with the lessons all writers have learned from the naturalists, to preserve our Southern literature for at least a little while…

For the kind of writer I have been describing, a literature which mirrors society would be no fit guide for it, and one which did manage, by sheer art, to do both these things would have to have recourse to more violent means than middlebrow subject matter and mere technical expertness. …

The novelist must be characterized not by his function but by his vision, and we must remember that his vision has to be transmitted and that the limitations and blind spots of his audience will very definitely affect the way he is able to show what he sees. This is another thing which in these times increases the tendency toward the grotesque in fiction.

We live now in an age which doubts both fact and value, which is swept this way and that by momentary convictions. Instead of reflecting a balance from the world around him, the novelist now has to achieve one from a felt balance inside himself.

The great novels we get in the future are not going to be those that the public thinks it wants, or those that critics demand. They are going to be the kind of novels that interest the novelist. And the novels that interest the novelist are those that have not already been written. They are those that put the greatest demands on him, that require him to operate at the maximum of his intelligence and his talents, and to be true to the particularities of his own vocation. The direction of many of us will be more toward poetry than toward the traditional novel.

The problem for such a novelist will be to know how far he can distort without destroying, and in order not to destroy, he will have to descend far enough into himself to reach those underground springs that give life to his work. This descent into himself will, at the same time, be a descent into his 1·egion. It .will be a descent through the darkness of the familiar into a world where, like the blind man cured in the gospels, he sees men as if they were trees, but walking. This is the beginning of vision, and I feel it is a vision which we in the South must at least try to understand if we want to participate in the continuance of a vital Southern literature. I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in gray-flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about now. I hate to think of the day when the Southern writer will satisfy the tired reader.

-Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose Pieces

On Being Southern: Faulkner and the Southern Writer

Sometimes I have to just put things down and reread my Faulkner. On my best days I’d like to think I’ve escaped my southern heritage, but I know it’d be a lie. No one can actually escape such a sordid world, one can only remember it and work through the corruption and taint of its bitter history, not through some nostalgic bit of fantasy, but rather through opening one’s eyes and peering into the darkness and abyss of that world without flinching. Having lived in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi back in those early years we like to forget: childhood, the stench of racism, bigotry, small minds – that whole gamut of, as Hemingway hated to say, Men-without-women – misogynists, one and all, who seem to pervade our literature as they do our real and imaginary lives like dead flies that keep resurrecting their ugly life reminding you that nothing stays buried forever. We have to face it as part of what is there, a part of a retroactive education in the grotesque and macabre Gothicism that tweaks us back into our present, not changed but rather stamped and molded by its dark river of images. As Faulkner himself once said:

“Because it is himself that the Southerner is writing about, not about his environment: who has, figuratively speaking, taken the artist in him in one hand and his milieu in the other and thrust the one into the other like a clawing and spitting cat into a croker sack. And he writes. We have never got and probably will never get, anywhere with music or the plastic forms. We need to talk, to tell, since oratory is our heritage. We seem to try in the simple furious breathing (or writing) span of the individual to draw a savage indictment of the contemporary scene or to escape from it into a make believe region of swords and magnolias and mockingbirds which perhaps never existed anywhere. Both of the courses are rooted in sentiment; perhaps the ones who write savagely and bitterly of the incest in clay floored cabins are the most sentimental. Anyway, each course is a matter of violent partisanship, in which the writer unconsciously writes into every line and phrase his violent despairs and rages and frustrations or his violent prophesies of still more violent hopes. That cold intellect which can write with calm and complete detachment and gusto of its contemporary scene is not among us; I do not believe there lives the Southern writer who can say without lying that writing is any fun to him. Perhaps we do not want it to be.”

-William Faulkner, His Intro to The Sound and the Fury

Nothing about our heritage is fun, but if we don’t face it we will continue living it and suffering all those fools that keep repeating its mistakes. Maybe that’s why we need to reread our Hawthorne’s, Melville’s, James’s, Twain’s, Faulkner’s… not because it gives us pleasure, but because the pain of its dark truths awakens in us that desire not to repeat that past, but to change our lives in such a way as not to sink into its abyss. The southern writer is passionate and full of bluster, rather than that “cold intellect which can write with calm and complete detachment,” and writes as if the very pen in his hands were ablaze with the fierce truth that hides in the blood like some gothic tale better left in the silence of dead worlds. Yet, writes he does with all the verve and oratory of an ancient sophist expounding on the way of things and people that live in the hollows of swamps and villages, along the broken trails of back woods and muddy rivers where the music of a fiddlist plays into the wee hours of the morn, and men and women fall into that mad world of sex and death: make love and die, rage and dream, bless and curse. People who live by the Good Book even if they no longer believe in its God.

Healers, prophets, madmen, jokers… the sordid lot of con men who seem to sale you the moon, and hand you the keys to hell in a hand basket. Men whose smiles could bring you comfort and peace, and at the same time shake you down for every penny you have left. Men who with a straight face tell a woman how beautiful they are and with their eyes commoditize each thread on her body as if everything was made of gold. A world where words still have weight and solidity and you’d better be able to back them up with your fists not your lies. Working men who spend everyday scraping together a life for their own and who protect their own to the death if need be. Men who don’t give a shit about intellectual bullshit or educated idiots but rather if you can actually do something with your hands not your mind; cunning men who live by tongue and hand pragmatic intelligence. They respect the mind but only after you’ve proved yourself to be a man among men. This is a world of status and clannish ways of being where appearance is reality and people don’t hide behind masks but stand before you unmasked in their savage glory. A violent and world where people love deeply and hate just as … deeply. This is the world where a man will give you the shirt off his back if you need it, and want expect repayment; only that you live up to what it is you are and can be. Yet, if you cross the unwritten line watch out. Nothing in hell could stop a man from unleashing his fury if you’ve harmed are even threatened to harm his loved ones. He doesn’t give a shit about himself, but threaten what he loves and he’ll kill you; or, at least make you wish you’d been killed. (Of course in this day of legality such a world is part of a shadowed distemper of its ancient heritage.)

And, yet, there is life here, life like it isn’t in those great cities of death around the world. Here are people who give a shit about themselves and each other, who still hold onto certain tried and true ways of the earth. Pain is central for sure: blood, sweat, and tears always a part of it. Humor and laughter are here, too. But there is something else, a sense of being part of something, a sense of community, of family, of all those others you share this sweet earth with – ties to the land that encompasses us around about. Might not mean much to most people but it’s there nonetheless. All the clichés aside the southerner lives a separate life and really doesn’t give a shit what the rest of the planet thinks as long as they don’t enforce or impinge on their right to live they way they see fit and be left alone. What they hate is Big Brother Federal government imposing its ethical and legal crapology: it’s neoliberal way of life on people who don’t take kindly to it. It stirs them up, pisses them off, makes them do things maybe they shouldn’t, and generally get in trouble for their efforts. Southerners just want to live and let live, and most of all to live it without someone setting traps for them, telling them how to raise their kids, how to talk, how to vote, and – how they should live their lives… people down south go to church or the bar where they can be among there own, untroubled by those fools who would take their way of life away. Don’t even go there…

I mean you can take a gander at the list below and see what makes a southerner tick. Do you have a favorite southern book or author? Add it to the comment list and I’ll add it below:

  1. A Childhood: The Biography of a Place – Harry Crews
  2. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  3. A Death in the Family – James Agee
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  5. Airships – Barry Hannah
  6. A Land More Kind Than Home – Wiley Cash
  7. A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest Gaines
  8. All Over But the Shoutin’ – Rick Bragg
  9. All the King’s Men – Robert Penn Warren
  10. Apostles of Light – Ellen Douglas
  11. As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner
  12. A Streetcar Named Desire – Tennessee Williams
  13. A Time to Kill – John Grisham
  14. The Awakening – Kate Chopin
  15. Bastard Out of Carolina – Dorothy Allison
  16. Bats Out of Hell – Barry Hannah
  17. Big Bad Love – Larry Brown
  18. Black Boy – Richard Wright
  19. Blues All Around Me – B.B. King
  20. Brother to a Dragonfly – Will Campbell
  21. Burning Bright: Stories – Ron Rash
  22. Before Women Had Wings – Connie May Fowler
  23. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
  24. Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters – Robert Gordon
  25. Child of God – Cormac McCarthy

Grumpus Buglish and the Turning Tree

Grumpus Buglish and the Turning Tree

Grumpus sat there eyeing the boy. The time of turning was upon him, and the boy would need every bit of knowledge the old man could muster into him if the boy was to survive it. Even now the boy had no clue. The old man remembered the day he’d changed. Things happen in life and not always for the better, but nothing had prepared him for the turning. As a child his old man was mean and kept his nose to the grind, never speaking about the way until the day it happened. So when it did Grumpus was ill-prepared and went wild and rogue. But that wasn’t the half of it…

But all that was long ago, a time he didn’t relish remembering now. Only thing that mattered was that the boy would not go through such pain. He’d see to that come hell or high-water.

Grumpus felt the creep in him, knew his skin was turning wood, rough and leathery; his snout seemed growing longer with each passing year, and have more white hairs coming out of it than his horse Juju. Warts the size of June bugs were crawling and popping out skin-wise on nose and toes, especially around his eyes like black toads. His knees kept snapping and creaking in the mornings, and his fingers were not as nimble as they once were. His feet looked more like scrimps, roots full of pimples and growths as if at any moment he might burrow down into the earth and become a swamp oak. The simples Mrs. Degler fixed for him no longer did him much good. His gimpy eye hung low, the good one was beginning to droop slime. He’d rub the burn oak oils into his swarthy skin, hoping against hope his bones wouldn’t creak like some old reliquary’s tomb wood. But every time he walked now something seemed to click and clank as if he were a living drum pounding the world back into some iron age kettle.

He almost envied the boy. Wishing he was again his age. But that was all foolishness. His time would soon be over. He knew that. He even relished it like an old lover. Death would be his last love. She’d come quickly too when he gave the boy the dark gift.

“Come here, Shandee!” a mite too harshly.

The boy looked up, his sprite eyes almost ready to burst, full of foxfire. He stood up and walked over to Grumpus with a big grin on his face. “So what we doing?”

He knew the boy wasn’t ready. But he’d have to make do. “We got things to do today, you and I,” he spoke with a lisp, as if he didn’t even like using his mouth anymore. His tongue felt like a dried up plum, squirmy like it didn’t belong to him but was some kind of snake crawling around in there waiting to get out. The boy was getting tall now, and a little too scrawny; he’d have to put more carp and crocodile on the menu, more potato’s and some hog jawls and buttered turnips. Fatten the boy up. His eyes were strong and healthy, his shoulders broad and had a grip on him now like one of those swamp wrestlers. Boy was growing up. Mop of brown hair and strange blue eyes. Must’ve gotten those from that no good daddy of his. Sorry son-of-a… enough, he thought.

“You’ll see.” Grumpus knew he didn’t see; no one at his age could see such things coming.

He grabbed his knotty stick, coat, and hat stood up rubbed the boy’s thick brown mop of thick-laden hair, and said, “Let’s go!”

Outside the leaves and wind seemed almost ready, waiting on queue to start up and make the scene as hostile and eerie as could be. Autumn always seemed to have that flavor: burnt oranges, umbers, caked-dried earth, the scent of winter on the breeze; the river colder, darker, and the stones along the creek, wet and slippery. He felt a sudden chill, turned his collar up, took his bone pipe out and lit it up. The smoke seemed to drift round and round and up toward the meeting place as if it too understood what was about to happen.

Grumpus pulled his coat tighter and told the boy. “Follow me.”

As he turned he saw the boy, changing…


Note: Just snippet of a series of children tale  I’m working on… 

Background: A fusion of old European notions of the Wood-Elf and Ogre, Amerindian notions of Windigo, Skin Walker, Wechuge; Japanese notions of Jikininki; Hindu notions of the Rakshasa; and, even H.P. Lovecraft (Ithaqua: Wind Walker) and Algernon Blackwood’s Windigo all play in the background. The notion of the Wild Man or the legends surrounding the spirits of the wild places in resurgence, manifesting themselves through time even in an Age of Reason such as ours still plays heavy in movies, books, etc. We seem to have a fascination with the unknown, with the dark powers outside the human range of being. From Kant’s time on the realm of the noumena was closed off, and philosophers have lived handicapped in the realm of phenomena as if nothing else could be questioned, known, tolerated in the House of Reason. Yet, during the whole time of the early 19th Century when the Enlightenment was supposedly to take hold through science etc. we saw a great influx of the Gothic and Grotesque/Macabre aspects of literature and poetry in Coleridge, Poe, Baudelaire, some of the German Romantics, the Decadents, etc. All dealing with the darker aspects of human and inhuman forces. My aim is to make it come alive, to bring a language that truly awakens the imagination of an old evil presence that is at once intelligent and crafty, wise and full of that mischievous power associated with the tricksters from Coyote, Raven, Fox, etc. A sense of the Wood Elf. To situate it in a southern gothic mythology and physically implant it in that culture with echoes of all the aspects shooting out in concrete metaphor and metonymy.