The Hills are Haunted; the Mountains are Hungry: Digging Into Appalachian SFF

A few months ago Appalachia was trending on Twitter; someone was explaining what makes the mountain range unique, diving into some of the geographical data on the Appalachians, trying to conceptualize just how fucking old this spine is. It’s difficult to imagine, but this range contains some of the oldest mountains in the world. Even comparisons fail; for example, the Rocky Mountain range was formed about 80 million years ago. The Appalachians? 480 million years ago.

All this orogen history has to mean something. These mountains know a thing or two.

As a southerner with a vested interest in Appalachia, who is eagerly awaiting the full debut of Lee Mandelo’s Summer Sons (more on that later), I took it upon myself to pull together a short list of Appalachian speculative lit. To be fair, there is… not much. While there are plenty of magical stories set across the Americas, finding representations specifically Appalachian magic proved a little tougher. But we have a few to offer.

 

John the Balladeer by Manly Wade Wellman

We’ll start with some of the original speculative lit from the area: John the Balladeer. This character was created by Manly Wade Wellman, a prolific SFF writer across genres, who published a series of fabulist short stories and novels in the mid-twentieth century starring this Appalachian wanderer. Also called Silver John stories, these books dive into folk beliefs and magic of the mid-1800s—from old Appalachian traditions of sin-eating to creatures like the Behinder—Wellman explores the Western Carolinas with an ear towards the mythic. Silver John himself is a storyteller; a man with silver strings on his guitar, who wanders through the region, picking up stories and legends for his ballads. The books are hard to find, but worth it: I recommend the complete short story collection, Who Fears the Devil? (bonus points if you can get your hands on the edition with illustrations by Wellman himself) and The Lost and the Lurking, one of the Silver John novels.

 

The Tufa Novels by Alex Bledsoe

Another series of books that helped put Appalachian folklore (beyond the family saga coal mining novels) on the literary map is the contemporary Tufa Collection. While some of the supernatural elements of The Hum and the Shiver are more original to author Alex Bledsoe’s personal mythology than the Appalachian folklore, the vibe is still on point. With excellent work done within the book to flesh out the kinds of characters you might find in Appalachian stories (the preacher, the singer, the mysterious people in the woods), this series is more archetypal than archivist. However, it’s five books and it’s got a lot of magic, intrigue, and mystery, and the descriptions of the spooky woodlands of mountained Tennessee make the Tufa Collection absolutely worth picking up.

 

Ghost Days by Asher Elbein

If you’re looking for folkloric magic and you want to stick to the source material (as much as there is passed down, such are the old ways) check out Asher Elbein’s Ghost Days, which is accompanied by fantastic illustrations by horror-fantasy artist Tiffany Turrill. Seeped in old-school magic and folklore, this book is absolutely faithful to the old-time stories, perhaps even more so than the Balladeer, which combined science-fiction sensibilities with North Carolina hill lore. We follow Anna O’Brien, an Appalachian conjure woman, in a series of short stories as she travels through the region, interacting with haints, hags, and the horrors that haunt the highlands. With wonderful attention given to the old warnings and characters who whisper low as sorghum molasses in your ear, Ghost Days is for fans of the podcast Old Gods of Appalachia and folks who want to remember what others forgot.

 

The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

The Twisted Ones also has more vibes than traditional folklore, but the writing in this piece is haunting and the story is wonderful. Focusing on the strange in-between-ness of hollers, this book follows a young woman as she tries to clean out her grandparents’ hoarded-out home after their passing, only to find it desperately haunted. With a very good, very dumb, only occasionally brave dog as one of the main parts of this book, there’s something incredibly endearing about a fish-out-of-water lowlander coming into the highlands of Appalachia, and finding themselves entirely and utterly out of their league.

 

Every Bone a Prayer by Ashley Blooms

A very recent publication set in Appalachia is Every Bone a Prayer by Ashley Blooms. This book deals with some heavy stuff, so read the content warnings carefully. It also deals with them beautifully, taking on a magical response to trauma through the eyes of a child. An inheritor to the old tales, this fable feels like a ghost story you’d hear passed down in your family. It feels natural, it feels like something that’s deeply indebted to the old stories by being something totally unique. Seeped in faith and haunted by ghosts, Every Bone a Prayer demonstrates Blooms’ deep understanding of the region that comes out in evocative prose, slipstream magic, and nuanced characters, making this book an incredible, if heartbreaking, read.

 

Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

Now we get to the book that inspired me to write this list—Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo. This book combines the fervor of dark academia (think The Secret History) with the haunted hills of eastern Tennessee. Featuring an exceptionally queer cast of boys that are both in and out of the closet, this book is about the people living in Nashville (and its surrounds) right now. This is about the stories they were told, the haints that swing in blue bottles, the graves that are always disturbed no matter how many generations pass over. Another book that feels like it’s taken the mantle of Appalachian storytelling and woven something entirely different with all the same core elements intact, Summer Sons should be on everyone’s list.

 

Linda H. Codega is an avid reader, writer, and fan. They specialize in media critique and fandom and they are also a short story author and game designer. Inspired by magical realism, comic books, the silver screen, and social activism, their writing reflects an innate curiosity and a deep caring and investment in media, fandom, and the intersection of social justice and pop culture. Find them on twitter @_linfinn.

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