By Scott Nicholson
There’s a little-known oeuvre in the literary world called “hillbilly horror.”
There’s no formal list of practitioners and I’m not sure what the qualifications are, but I suspect it’s the type of club where, if you had to send out applications, it would spoil all the fun. I’m not as widely read as many of my peers, but off the top of my head Mark Justice is one, and Michael Knost has edited a series using Appalachian legends, and the legendary Manly Wade Wellman based his Silver John series on mountain folk magic.
The most common usage of hillbilly horror is to make the hillbillies vile, sinister cannibals or murderers. Authors Jack Ketchum and Richard Laymon, and countless others, have employed this mechanism, and of course it’s the primary depiction in any horror movie set in the wilderness, the rural mountains, or the Deep South, where people are, you know, generally less than human: Deliverance, Wrong Turn, and quite possibly the worst and most pointless horror movie ever made, The Devil’s Rejects.
Author Sharyn McCrumb is on the brainier side of hillbilly horror, exploring Southern Appalachian legends and history without the cheap stereotypes. She often pitches the hillbillies as the heroes, as I tend to do. And, as she likes to say, “Deliverance was not a documentary.”
In my novels, it’s often the “outsiders”—Floridians, Yankees, tourists, wealthy developers, timber corporations—that are the real threats, and one of my favorite subthemes is that pressure of change, as tradition is squeezed out and some rich idiot builds a three-story monstrosity on a clear-cut hill to get buffeted by the cold wind. Of course, the rich idiot is never there to worry about it, because he’s down in Palm Beach showing off pictures of his mountain house and the view he could have if he were only there and a hundred other rich idiots hadn’t clear-cut all the ridges around him for their own second, third, and fourth homes.
When I was a teen, you could find moonshine pretty easily, and it was usually good and safe, not the blinding radiator crud of fiction. Now, there are too many nerds and narcs around and those who have it keep it to themselves. Your average barn dance is more likely to have SUVs and Lexuses parked outside than Ford pick-ups and tractors. Tradition has pretty much been reduced to commodity, with Rebel flag key chains, hillbilly corn-shuck dolls, and corncob pipes sold in roadside stands. Downtown, you can buy “Hillbilly bubble bath,” which is eight dried pinto beans in a plastic bag. Cute.
Rural people are the only folks in modern America who are still open to socially acceptable ridicule. In Monsters. Inc., when the evil lizard gets punished at the end, he drops into a mobile home in a swamp (which might as well been a hillbilly shack for all intents and purposes) and he’s beaten by yodeling trailer trash with a Southern accent. If the lizard had been dropped into Brooklyn’s Boro Park and beaten by Orthodox Jews bearing scrolls, or dropped into East LA and knifed by Hispanics, the uproar would have kept Fox News busy for months. But hillbillies tend to keep to themselves. They don’t organize into political movements.
My novel Forever Never Ends (the revised version of my 2003 paperback The Harvest) is probably the deepest treatment of this clash of changing culture. Years later, I realized the actual invasion and threat (an alien entity landing in the mountains and spreading its infection) was mirrored by the threat of development and change. It’s not just nature that is being subsumed and altered, it is a way of life. Writers shouldn’t sit around looking at their themes, because then they become pompous A-holes like Jonathan Franzen, but that one is now so obvious that it’s hard to deny.
One New York critic said of Forever Never Ends, “This book probably sets the record for small-town Southern stereotypes.” That’s one of the best blurbs I ever received, because those characters weren’t stereotypes, they were based on my relatives.
In Drummer Boy, Solom, and The Red Church, there’s a little nod to tradition, with outsiders either misunderstanding or underestimating mountaineer ingenuity. Even today in the mountains, there’s a strong sense of pride, and it’s not vanity, either, it’s a culture of self-reliance. During a February blizzard with -10 wind chill, you can call the elderly woman down the road and ask if she needs anything, and she’s going to say “I’m fine, thanks,” even if her feet are encased in two big ice cubes and there’s only a shriveled carrot in the cupboard.
In The Skull Ring, where Julia Stone comes to the mountains as an outsider, she’s the one who has to confront the raw brutality of the wild mountains, and nature seems like a harsh and punishing force if you don’t know what you’re dealing with. Which was kind of the point of Deliverance, wasn’t it?
Why not share some of your favorite hillbilly stories, movies, stereotypes, or jokes?
Scott Nicholson is author of The Skull Ring, Speed Dating with the Dead, The Red Church, Drummer Boy, and nine other novels, five story collections, four comics series, and six screenplays. A journalist and freelance editor in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, he often uses local legends in his work. This tour is sponsored by Amazon, Kindle Nation Daily, and Dellaster Design.
To be eligible for the Kindle DX, simply post a comment below with contact info. Feel free to debate and discuss the topic, but you will only be entered once per blog. Visit all the blogs on the tour and increase your odds. I’m also giving away a Kindle 3 through the tour newsletter and a Pandora’s Box of free ebooks to a follower of “hauntedcomputer” on Twitter. And, hey, buy my books and put me in the Top 100 and I’ll throw in another random Kindle 3 giveaways for each bestseller. Thanks for playing. Complete details at http://www.hauntedcomputer.com/blogtour.htm
I just want to add, thank you for being here today, Scott! Love the post! I hope you do garner more readers! Good luck to everyone who is entering the giveaway!