“Ancestors and Others: New and Selected Stories”
By Fred Chappell. St. Martin’s Press; 320 pages; $27.99
By Gina Webb
In each of the 21 stories in “Ancestors and Others,” the creaking sound you hear is a door opening to Another World. It may start with a two-story-high dream that blocks traffic, a cabin in the woods that wasn’t there yesterday, a large box containing a “wonderfully woebegone” plant or a strange woman dressed in white on a bridge. It can happen in Cherry Cove, N.C., or halfway between Turkey Knob and Ember Forks. Everything starts off normal and fine, and the next thing you know, Fred Chappell opens that dadburned door.
This collection of the poet/writer’s previously published work and more recent pieces from literary magazines offers a lively retrospective of Chappell’s illustrious career, including everything from ghost stories to tall tales, allegory to historical fiction, fantasy to realistic tales of life in southern Appalachia.
A native of Canton, N.C., Chappell grew up surrounded by practical farming people who didn’t always understand his dreamy nature. He began writing poetry at an early age, then turned to science fiction and fantasy, publishing his work in pulp magazines. In time, he settled into a realistic style, but he has always retained elements of the supernatural and surreal. As a result, half of these stories possess the humor and sorrow of a classic bluegrass tune, and the rest would make the best “Twilight Zone” episodes you never saw.
Even his most realistic stories have a hallucinatory quality. “Broken Blossoms” tells of a boy who drives his parents to distraction with his goofy behavior and his tendency to wander in “cocoons of incomprehensibility,” unable to identify the farm’s most basic tools or carry water to his father in the field without misplacing it. He’s blinded by hope and “a bright and shining future” right up until he breaks open a Pandora’s box in the attic.
Many a traditional murder ballad comes to life in the ghostly “Ember,” when a fugitive on the lam after shooting his sweetheart finds himself on a mountain where awful things are known to happen after dark. Lucky for him, he stumbles on a cheery little cabin where a granny woman sits knitting. Once inside, while drinking a cup of tea that “tasted of far away,” he suddenly notices something under granny’s throat “as red and rare as a scarlet flower.” Uh-oh, looks a little like a gunshot wound.
When an elderly couple join the Living History series in “Ancestors,” their Civil War-era relatives arrive for a long visit: “They spoke, remembered their former lives in sharp detail, and even told jokes. … They also ate, slept and shaved, were human in every way.” Well, maybe too human. Between tobacco-spitting Lieutenant Aldershot and gravely wounded young Private Harper, enough is enough. But No. 3 is already at the door, a talkative, rambling poet who won’t shut up.
Worlds of classical thought unfold in three historical tales. In one, “Linnaeus Forgets,” the father of botany is given a mysterious plant that upon closer inspection contains an entire universe of fairylike people who dress in brilliant colors, ride winged camels and move at breakneck speed. Some of the stories, such as “Alma,” where a slave trader is outwitted by the women he’s captured, are disquietingly funny, and others — “The Somewhere Doors,” “The Lodger” — so old-fashioned and oddball that they seem to have crept out of the pages of a musty copy of “Weird Tales.”
Best of all are the ones that introduce us to people such as Kermit and Curly, the descendants of music-loving, moonshine-drinking Scots-Irish, who say things like “well I be dogged” and “twicet” and “pizen,” who describe their wives as “not much bigger than a chigger” and who sometimes still “employ terms as quaint as bustles.”
In the elegiac “Duet,” Kermit unabashedly mourns the death of his best friend, Caney, a man so good-natured “there wasn’t nobody didn’t like him except a few there’s no pleasing ever.” The only remedy is a trip to Colter’s Grove, where the high lonesome sounds of the creek and mountains fill him with something new and unknown: “There was a momentful thing inside me, something important not to disturb, and I had to keep it like that or I would never be able to bring off what I was setting out to do” — which is to sing at Caney’s funeral.
When it comes time, though, the voice Kermit hears is someone else’s, not his own. Not until he sings Caney’s favorite song, “Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” does he recognize it: “It was my own sadness, which had come out of my body and taken a shape apart from me. It was the ghost of the way things used to be, given to me to make it a little easier to keep on going down the road.”
Beautifully crafted with a tender eye and faithful ear, these wondrous stories are as restorative as the cold mountain streams that run through so many of them. If you’re looking to dip into the grand tradition of Appalachian short fiction, you’ll find no better place to start.