Legends of the Mountain State 2: More Ghostly Tales from the State of West Virginia / Edited by Michael Knost
Woodland Press, LLC / September 2008
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno
The surprisingly rich depths of Mountain State folklore are again expertly mined by editor Michael Knost and thirteen dark scribes in Legends of the Mountain State 2: More Ghostly Tales from the State of West Virginia.
Its lengthy, schmaltzy title aside, Mark Justice’s “Dancing in Time to the Beating Heart of the World” is a surprisingly poignant story in which a heartbroken pharmacist’s faith is restored with the help of a haunted hospital’s ghost nurse and a curmudgeonly janitor. Justice imbues a genuine sense of emotion into this simple, classic-style ghost story that ably sets the tone of the anthology.
Jonathan Maberry’s delightful “The Adventure of the Greenbriar Ghost” expertly blends the unlikely elements of West Virginian folklore and English murder mystery. When the ghost of a young murdered country girl demands justice from the grave, the girl’s stalwart mother sends an imploring telegraph to famed Scotland Yard sleuth Sherlock Holmes, who’s visiting the new world with his faithful sidekick Dr. Watson on a matter of forgery. What follows is part police procedural, part period piece, part ghost story – all wrapped up in the delicious incongruence of proper English sensibility meets down-home Southern charm. A thoroughly engaging and enthralling cross-genre gem.
Bob Freeman’s “The Grim Beast of Iaeger” gamely employs the campfire story structure to tell a cautionary tale about a mythical beast that stalks a notorious section of the titular town known as Sandy Huff Hollow. Despite the oddly disconcerting old-time voice and vocabulary of the narrator that never quite rings true with the decidedly more modern details of the story, Freeman nevertheless manages to create a creepy vibe that floats along the thematic undercurrent of there being safety in numbers.
Lies and lineage take center stage in Lucy A. Snyder’s college campus-set “The Cold Gallery.” UC freshman Emma is embarking upon her first year of college and a new relationship with a long-absent father, a highly-regarded professor at the institution. But when her father arranges for a part-time job as the evening curator at the campus art gallery, ulterior motives become apparent and ghostly twists abound in this satisfying revenge tale.
The nightshift at the Harper’s Ferry police station proves as dangerous as the big city streets Nate Kenyon’s protagonist in “The Anniversary” left behind in this fog-enshrouded tale of an eerie ghost train. Kenyon does an admirable job capturing the innate spookiness of third shift work, with a grand old twist at the end guaranteed to raise some gooseflesh.
In Steven L. Shrewsbury’s “Cain Twists”, an Indian psychometrist is called to the site where the bones of a half dozen infants have been unearthed by the dubious son of a colleague. Although the political commentary – American Indians and abortion - is heavy-handed at times and the story ends rather abruptly, Shrewsbury shows a notable talent for creating creepy imagery, with vengeful ghost babies and an inconveniently placed gardening implement lending the story its visceral edge.
In the forests surrounding Flatwoods, a Braxton County sheriff runs afoul of otherworldly horrors while on the hunt for two missing boys in Michael Laimo’s wildly inventive “Occurrence at Flatwoods.” Laimo’s considerable descriptive powers are on full display here, drawing the reader deeper into the legend of The Flatwoods Monster. One of the collection’s honorable mentions.
“Buyer beware” is the cautionary theme of Maurice Broaddus’ sublime “A House is Not a Home” – the standout of the collection. When a young artsy couple goes house hunting, they find more than they bargained for as an appealing fixer-upper soon becomes a conduit back through time. Soon the couple finds themselves part of living history as they find more than termites in a basement that once served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Broaddus’ commanding use of language coats the story with a lushness that belies its short fiction format and places it in a class of its own.
Gary A. Braunbeck shares some “Dark Wisdom” in a spooky little tale of poetic justice, the limits of love between fathers and sons, and some ghostly prison inmates. Braunbeck shows admirable restraint in what could have otherwise been a heavy-handed morality tale in the hands of a lesser writer.
Brian J. Hatcher opts to tug heartstrings instead of stopping hearts in the affecting “An Angel in the Balcony,” in which an actress overcomes her opening night jitters with some help from one of the theater’s two resident ghosts. Although the subtlest of the bunch, Hatcher’s tale stands out for its tender climax – at times sweet, but never too saccharine.
In “Andi,” Mary SanGiovanni takes on another haunted healthcare setting in this story of guilt and grief and a haunted sanitarium. Like Justice’s “Dancing in Time,” SanGiovanni’s well-paced tale speaks to the resiliency of the human spirit when lent a hand from the other side. SanGiovanni’s writing chops are in fine form here, as in this passage where she attempts to define the abstract:
"There are places all over the earth where the air is different. Andi might have said those places were soaked through with magic, with death, with that which bleeds into this world from the other side. It gets into the ground, the clothes, the hair, the fabric of everyday life, a thick smoke, a cloying sensation of otherness, of being watched, of being waited for."
Wounded Civil War soldiers haunt a residential neighborhood in Rob Darnell’s “The Man in Ragged Blue.” The story – the weakest of the collection – lacks punch and feels wooden at times. Although the legend behind the tale is ripe with possibility, it never feels fully explored here as a newcomer to the town of Parkersburg tries to stop nightly visits from the wounded specter of a Civil War soldier – who seems to need only a few inexplicable shots of whiskey to finally find his eternal rest in the story’s confounding ending.
A beautiful homecoming queen’s annual ghostly walk across a football field dovetails with the imminent passing of a terminally-ill man in Nate Southard’s moving “For Just One Night.” More a nuanced portrait of sibling devotion than full-fledged ghost story, Southard explores the idea of the immediacy of connecting to spiritual comfort in the midst of great human suffering with this gentle, bittersweet story.
As a collection, the thirteen stories in Legends of the Mountain State 2: More Ghostly Tales from the State of West Virginia work cohesively to paint a multi-layered portrait of a working-class region overflowing with superstition and ghostly lore. As in the first volume, editor Knost does a commendable job balancing the terror and tenderness. Individually, some of the stories feel restrained by an arbitrary word count, like butterflies whose wings can’t fully spread because of the constraints of their cocoons. Longer stories like Maberry’s “The Adventure of the Greenbriar Ghost” show that others – like the Kenyon and Shrewsbury pieces - would have benefitted from an expanded treatment.
While Maberry gets the ingenuity award for most original use of a Mountain State legend, the real props here go to Broaddus and SanGiovanni – Snyder, too, albeit to a lesser degree - who expertly recount their chosen legends by fully weaving them into the narrative fabric of their tales, without someone telling an actual story within their stories.
This fall, take a trip into the shadowy mountains of folkloric West Virginia with this at times engaging, on occasion brilliant, but always enjoyable collection of regional urban legends.
Purchase link coming soon.