Something about living in the small-town South fuels eccentricity, secrecy, superstition, and creativity. Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s the isolation. Maybe it’s the leftover miasma of being a conquered, misunderstood people within one’s own country.
But those who’ve lived it recognize it, and write it, and sing about it in low, mournful sounds, or frantic chords. They evoke emotion from a bow drawn slowly across taut strings or fingers plucking at instruments in such a frenzied pace as to seem a physical impossibility. It’s a place where words have power, and words set to music have more power. Life plays out with a soundtrack.
Alex Bledsoe brought this world to life in last year’s The Hum and the Shiver (named a top read of the year by Kirkus Reviews), exploring the Tufa, a dark-skinned, black-haired people said to have populated the mountains of East Tennessee long before European settlers blundered across the place. A mysterious, inwardly focused people who keep to themselves and expect you to do the same. Outsiders don’t enter; insiders don’t leave.
Now we return to the world of the Tufa in Bledsoe’s Wisp of a Thing, and the mysteries revealed in The Hum and the Shiver deepen more as we’re drawn further into life of the tiny town of Needsville—an ironic name, given that the town neither needs nor wants anything from outside itself. Within is another matter.
From the outset, we’re set up to fall under the spell of Cloud County, Tennessee, as a strange feral girl emerges from dumpster-diving to return to her home in the forest. When the coyotes howl, something not-coyote howls back. The seers among the dwindling pure First Daughters of the Tufa, particularly Bliss Overbay, read the signs that tell them violence and change are coming on the night wind. A young woman falls further under the spell of alcohol and depression as her husband stands by, helpless to fix what’s beyond his understanding.
And a stranger comes to town—a young, haunted musician named Rob Quillen, looking desperately for the song that he’s been told could mend his broken heart. He starts out taking photos of the rural oddities on his cell phone, and ends up an unwitting fulcrum upon which the town’s secrets pivot and unravel.
And in the middle of the slowly developing cloud of mystery and mysticism and unsettling eeriness sits a bitter old man with six fingers—and a magical way with a banjo—and a woman with music of her own who must face off against him even though, ultimately, it is not her fight to win or lose.
Running behind it all are the songs. Songs from which the Tufa draw power and whose words both foretell and instigate change. And then there’s Kate Campbell.
Campbell is a singer-songwriter who in many ways epitomizes the yin and yang of the modern South. The daughter of a Baptist preacher who received a ukulele at the age of 4 and wrote her first song not long afterward, Campbell has a master’s in history but a rural storyteller’s heart.
Her songs—especially her 1997 song “Wrought Iron Fences”—give Bledsoe’s readers a real-life resting place in which to settle down and hear the kind of powerful music the Tufa might make if they left their mountains and lived among us.
Campbell sings about change in a way with which the ancient Tufa, facing down a final confrontation between the evil of the past and the uncertainty of the future, can identify.
“Years go by and everything changes, but nothing does,” Campbell sings in “Wrought Iron Fences,” a song which Bliss Overbay introduces Rob Quillen to in Wisp of a Thing.
Although, in the end, it’s a lyric from Campbell’s “Crazy in Alabama” that might best fit: “And the train of change was coming fast to my hometown; we had the choice to climb on board or get run down.”
Suzanne Johnson writes the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series for Tor Books. Elysian Fields, book three, will be released on August 13. You can find her online at her daily speculative fiction website, Preternatura.