Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Other Stories by Sharyn McCrumb. ReQuest Audiobooks, 1997.
The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Stories of the American West by Bret Harte. ReQuest Audiobooks, 2005.
Eye for Eye by Orson Scott Card. ReQuest Audiobooks, 2005.
Audio books have become increasingly popular over the last ten years or so. I suspect most people make the audio books discovery on a long road trip, or, possibly, as occurred with me, when they find the amount of spare time they used to be able to devote to reading disappearing from their increasingly busy schedules. But whatever the reason, those of us who have joined the audio books revolution know what a great experience it can be to relax on the long commute to and from work while somebody reads you a novel. There is something invigorating about the experience, something that takes the normally private experience of reading and makes it a performance, a duet of voice and text, one complimenting the other.
The only problem I’ve had with audio books up to this point in my experience with them has been the scarcity of short stories and novellas. There is no shortage of New York Times Bestselling novels on audio, but if, like me, you have always loved the shorter venues, up until recently there haven’t been many alternatives available. There are podcasts, of course, and many of the options out there, such as Escape Pod’s science fiction stories and Psuedopod’s horror stories, but beyond that, the field is pretty thinly populated. That is, at least, until ReQuest Audiobooks started producing a number of neglected short venue classics in economically packaged three disc collections. Each of these programs runs about three to three and a half hours in length, and is generally available for less than $15.
I’ve been a fan of ReQuest Audiobooks since I discovered them two years ago, and for this review I’ve decided to include three representative works from their huge selection of titles.
Sharyn McCrumb’s Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Other Stories
Sharyn McCrumb comes from a long line of circuit preachers in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, and the culture of the Appalachian Mountains figures prominently in most of her writings. In describing her own themes, McCrumb has said that her “books are like Appalachian quilts. I take brightly colored scraps of legends, ballads, fragments of rural life, and local tragedy, and I piece them together in a complex whole that tells not only a story, but also a deeper truth about the culture of the mountain South.”
What she doesn’t say is that her work covers a huge canvas of genre and points of view. She has penned everything from historical ballads with books like The Songcatcher, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, The Rosewood Casket, and She Walks These Hills, to aggressive crime fiction, to deeply atmospheric ghost stories of surprising subtlety, to stories using characters from the Hellboy comics universe.
McCrumb is very prolific, especially in the short story venue, and seven of her best tales have been assembled here in Foggy Mountain Breakdown. The tales include:
“Remains to Be Seen” is the story of two old women in a nursing home who find a well-preserved mummy in a military surplus store. One of the women has sought to stave off the boredom of the nursing home by practicing black magic, and she buys the mummy because some of the spells she’s learned “need a deader” to work right. But the other old woman has her thoughts about the mummy, and her effort to ensure the corpse gets a decent burial demonstrates McCrumb’s comic gifts.
“Not All Brides Are Beautiful” and “A Predatory Woman” are closely related tales. “Not All Brides Are Beautiful” is the story of a woman who marries a convicted serial killer and proceeds to petition for a stay of his execution in order to feed her need to for media attention. “A Predatory Woman” is the story of a female child murderer who has recently been released from prison and is now trying to live a quiet, anonymous life where she has effectively divorced herself from the memory of what she did to all those children so long ago. Like “Not All Brides Are Beautiful,” this story is told from the perspective of a female crime blotter reporter. Both are stories about how impossible it is to escape the consequences of your actions. In “Not All Brides Are Beautiful,” the woman who has exploited the serial killer’s coming execution for her own aggrandizement becomes the victim of a delicious Twilight Zone-style twist at the end. “A Predatory Woman” is a much more subtle story about guilt can avalanche its way into a person’s mind, wiping out any attempt they may make to obliterate the past.
“Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is famous for a reason. Not only does it describe the majesty of the Appalachian Mountains in a way that only McCrumb can do, but it is a crime story of the first order. What makes this such a perfect crime story is the absolute sympathy McCrumb engenders for her main character, an industrious young boy who suffers at the hands of the local bully. As the young man’s suffering slowly develops towards its ultimate quiet explosion, you cannot help but nod your head at the justness of his actions. It is only after thinking back on the story from a distance that one can appreciate the subtle brutality of it.
“An Autumn Migration” is one of the best ghost stories I have ever read. Well, it is either a ghost story, or a powerful example of the unreliable narrator (on par with Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper…yes, it’s that good!!!) depending on your point of view. There is nothing scary about this story. It’s not that kind of ghost story. There is none of the horror that Joe Hill gave us in Heart-Shaped Box or Stephen King gave us with Bag of Bones and The Shining. Rather, the narrator’s plight in An Autumn Migration unfolds with quiet humor. And there is a lingering doubt in our minds that the narrator is really going to succeed with the cure she finds at the end.
“Love on First Bounce” describes a different kind of fear, one that horror fans probably haven’t seen before. You see, the narrator, a young high school girl, is telling us about her best friend’s latest crush. This best friend leads a life of quiet desperation when it comes to the boy’s who enjoy her attentions. You see, her track record up to this point has been changing crushes almost as often as she changes her underwear. But this latest boy is different for some reason. This crush doesn’t go away. And the fear this story describes is the terror the girl feels at having her affections made public. Perhaps it is not a problem everyone has had at some point in their past, but it the fear of looking ridiculous is one most people can share. A lesser writer wouldn’t have been able to make that fear convincing, but McCrumb develops it beautifully.
“Gentle Reader” is an epistolary story between a bestselling mystery author and her number one fan, who seems to have an awful lot of technical know how about how cops and hit men operate. If you’ve read the dramatic monologues of Robert Browning, such as “My Last Duchess,” you know just how much of a crime can be carelessly revealed through what a person says about themselves. “Gentle Reader” manages the same kind of subtle revelation, providing the subtext of a what, on the surface, is a random example of urban violence.
Bret Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat and Other Stories of the American West
Bret Harte is one of those writers who seem to have slipped through the cracks. He was, at one time, one of the country’s most popular writers, his stories of the American West and the California gold rush as commercially viable as anything by Mark Twain or Jack London. Today though, Bret Harte is remembered primarily for two stories, “The Outcasts of Poker Flats” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” both of which are included in this collection along with a few other stories of lesser worth and a few poems that remind me of the droller works of Robert Service.
Part of the reason for his decline in popularity is, I’m sure, tied to the slacking of interest in the Western story in general. Writers such as Max Brand, Elmore Leonard, Elmore Kelton, and of course Louie L’Amour pretty much keep that genre afloat these days. But I think another reason is Harte’s prose style. Unlike Leonard and L’Amour, Harte’s prose is startlingly effeminate, almost Victorian in its propriety and daintiness when confronting the realities of frontier life. Harte’s characters are gamblers and prostitutes and murderous robbers, but in reading about their exploits, you might get the feeling you’re reading Dickens or Thackeray instead of a true western. It was this same daintiness that prompted Mark Twain to ridicule Harte’s writing with the kind of vituperation he normally reserved for the literary offenses of James Fennimore Cooper. Still, for all that, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp” remain some of the best examples of what the western story can accomplish, and this collection is worth the cost for those two entries alone.
“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” is a melodramatic morality tale. It is the story of a mismatched band of gamblers, drunkards, and prostitutes who are thrown out of a frontier town so that the town can restore its good name. The outcasts meet a deluded pair of young lovers and then get trapped in a deserted cottage when the mountain pass they’re in gets covered with snow. The ending is, like I said, melodramatic in the extreme, but the story is a good one from a forgotten talent.
Mark Twain thought “The Luck of Roaring Camp” was perhaps the worst story ever written, but I think that is patently unfair. It is the story of a rough and tumble mining camp, the entirely male population of which unwittingly becomes the caregiver of a baby boy, the son of the town’s prostitute who died in childbirth. The unspoken, but obvious implication of this story, is that any of the men in camp could be the child’s father, so, not knowing which one it truly is, they all become the infant’s father. Once again, melodrama rears its ugly head in the ending to this tale, but the humor underlying the story is still genuine.
Orson Scott Card’s Eye for Eye
You know those little things people do that make you so mad, mad enough you wish you could just reach out and punch them in the nose—or worse? Well, Orson Scott Card knows them very well, and his novella Eye for Eye is the story of what would happen if you could actually do something about it.
The narrative mode here, that of a subject talking to a research scientist, is similar to Theodore Sturgeon’s Some of Your Blood and Fran Friel’s Mama’s Boy. The main character is Mick Winger, a seventeen year old orphan who has managed to kill more people than most of the serial killers you’ve ever heard of over the course of their entire careers. You see, when Mick gets angry, his body sends off invisible sparks of bioelectrical energy. These sparks cause cancer in the persons who make him angry, which, unfortunately, usually means the people he loves most. Mick is plagued by guilt for his actions. But now it seems that there are other people out there who know what he’s been up to, and they will stop at nothing to control him. Soon Mick is caught up in a family war, with Southern Baptist nut jobs on the one side and hardened researchers on the other.
Card’s novella is a loose retelling of the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau. The issue of birthright plays strongly into the text. Like Jacob, Mick is essentially a good person struggling with the events around him. Orphaned at birth, Mick is forced to learn what it means to be a good person all by himself, a task made almost insurmountable by the gift (or curse) his power places upon him. It seems that one could also apply the points Card makes in this novella to gun control, or, rather, the horror of no gun control whatsoever. Card was, I’m sure, conscious of the comparison, as he has Mick describe his power in terms of guns and weapons throughout the text.
If you haven’t read Orson Scott Card before, this is an excellent place to start. He is perhaps most famous for his novel Ender’s Game, but this novella is a great example of what he’s capable of. Evidently, the science fiction community thought so too, as it won the Hugo Award in 1988 for best novella.