Talking to the Moon

Hello, friends.

I’m on vacation this week, but I still have a piece I’d like to share with you. No, it’s not another southern gothic book review or essay about Alabama, even though I’m enjoying a bit of Alabama summertime right now. It’s cozy and warm outside, and the cicadas are promising to sing me to sleep tonight. It’s a good time to be home, even if home ain’t always perfect.

Anyhow, I thought I’d share this bit with you tonight. It’s a little fable I cooked up for a project that didn’t get off the ground. On a night like this, when the moon is clear and bright and the nighttime smells like damp earth and magnolia flowers, I can’t help but imagine the werewolves howling….

 

“They say that somewhere, far away from the hum of civilization, lies a forest as old as the world itself. Within that forest is another realm, hidden away from outside realities. Those who enter that realm find a place without time or permanence, where ancient knowledge is whispered by the wind, and where the trees shudder with magic.

Travelers find themselves drawn to the center of the wood, where a great spirit is said to live. It is said that this wise spirit will bestow a blessing upon visitors, if only they manage to find it.

Many have tried, but most become enamored with the beauty of the forest. They move in circles and wander endlessly, never to return.

That, at least, is what the stories say.”

Read the rest HERE at HLRuddAuthor.com. 

 

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Southern Gothic: Wicker’s Bog Review

I discovered Wicker’s Bog by Mike Duran with a bit of digging on Amazon. I needed to find a new book to review, and I was short on time to read it, so this little novella seemed like an ideal dive into independent horror publishing. It’s a short little book, just 64 pages in length, but I hadn’t noticed just how short it was when I paid $5.99 for it. And I’ll be honest, I’ve talked to a couple indie authors who cringed at the price, but I don’t mind. Even a short book is still well worth it if I enjoy, and it still cost me less than my typical order at Subway once I tack a drink onto the end. So, what’s the problem?


The problem is pretty straight forward: I’m not sure how much I liked Wicker’s Bog, and I’m not sure how fair that is. The author writes nice prose and has a great command of visual language, which makes it an enjoyable read, though it clips along a little too fast for my tastes. It’s more like a long short story than a short novella, but the scene is set nicely and it has the kind of gloom that I love in southern gothic stories. There’s a sunken manor house, a town with mysterious disappearances, and a history of hauntings right out of the gate, and the writer does a great job evoking that.

I was a scrappy country kid, once upon a time. I tend to like the little Scout Finches of southern dramas, and our main character is one of them. However, she’s the only character that matters. There is a brother who serves as a one-note bully, and a caregiver who is there to spout out southern lingo and remind the kids to be home by sundown.That’s still mostly okay, but I can’t discuss the characterization too much without spoiling the story. But it does tie into the first of my two more serious problems with Wicker’s Bog.

The first major problem is the mystery aspect. Mysteries are subjective, so something that’s tricky for one reader might seem bland and predictable to another. I completely accept that. What I can’t accept is how transparent the mystery element in this story is. Without spoilers, I’ll say that there is only one choice for who the culprit might be, and it’s telegraphed pretty heavily on top of it. I don’t think it ruins the story for every reader, especially since a work this length doesn’t have much time to set up alternatives and layers, and the writing itself (plus the excellent imagery) could probably soften this blow for many readers. It did for me – I still enjoyed it. But I saw it coming by a country mile.

My second concern is the story’s thematic undertone. With frequent mentions of God and a big emphasis on fate, I had a hard time not feeling like this story was pushy. That said, it’s a common thing in southern gothic. Religion has a strong grip on the south, both its characters and its writers. I’m not exactly surprised, but the methods used here irritated me. Again, it’s difficult to explain in-depth without spoiling the story, but the main character’s ending thoughts had me rolling my eyes. If you’re like me and came from an abusive religious background, you might want to skip this one.

I don’t want to seem excessively harsh just because the story has a Christian slant. There is a lot of good here. The writing is solid, the pacing is nice, and the climax is thrilling. I think the author is an excellent writer, and many of the problems vanish if you read this as a ghost story, not as a mystery. The imagery took me right back to my childhood, and if you love a good spooky tale, this could be a great quick fix. But if I knew about the Christian theming from the start, the price might have been a bigger issue for me.

Personal Poetry: “To the Dandelion” by James Russell Lowell

April showers bring May flowers and May flowers bring…poetry? May flowers also bring weeds! One of the most common is the dandelion. As a weed and flower alike, the dandelion is a powerful symbol in poetry. As the little yellow flowers begin to dot the lawns all over New England, lets take a moment to appreciate them with the 1848 poem “To The Dandelion,” by Massachusetts native and Romantic poet, James Russell Lowell.

 

“To the Dandelion” is the longest poem covered in Personal Poetry yet. Therefore, instead of analyzing it line by line as in past posts, the major themes will be grouped together. If you are interested in reading the poem in full, it can be read in The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell available at Project Gutenberg linked in the Further Reading section.

 

Lowell opens the poem with a statement of the ordinariness of the dandelion, “ DEAR common flower, that grow’st beside the way,/ Fringing the dusty road with harmless gold!”  At its most literal,  this line describes how the dandelions grow numerous alongside the road that he travels but he still stops to notice and appreciate their presence. This opening line can be further interpreted as the joy one can revel in beholding even the the most ordinary sights in nature. Lowell ends the opening stanza with the line, “thou art more dear to me/Than all the prouder summer-blooms may be.” The dandelion may not be the only flower that catches the observant Lowell’s eye, however, it is the most valuable to him. This is explored deeper later in the poem, but even at the beginning he emphasizes the particular significance of the dandelion.

“How like a prodigal doth nature seem When thou, for all thy gold, so common art!” Significantly, Lowell repeats the descriptor, “common” for the dandelion. Readers of poetry should always take note of repetition, because poets are intentional in their choice of diction. Repeated words typically point toward a important theme of the work. It is the simple commonness of the dandelion that makes it important to Lowell. Dandelions are everywhere, and thus can be appreciated and remind Lowell of the modest beauty found in even the smallest cracks of nature.

 

In addition to Lowell, it is children, he remarks, who appreciate the dandelion. “Which children pluck, and, full of pride, uphold—High-hearted buccaneers, o’erjoyed that they/ An Eldorado in the grass have found” It was this part of the poem, describing children joyously plucking dandelions from the earth as treasures that held the most personal significance for me. Reading it instantly transported me back to my youth in which I would gather the dandelions and wood sorrell in the yard, delighting in their vibrant yellow hues, and present a bouquet to my mother. Children do not differentiate flower and weed in their identification of beauty. They simply pluck and keep what catches their eye.  As with myself, dandelions are also closely tied to Lowell’s memories of childhood. “My childhood’s earliest thoughts are linked with thee” he states in the middle of the poem. The dandelions are a powerful link to Lowell’s own early years and their commonness allow him to experience those memories often.

 

The ubiquity and unsophistication of the dandelion leads to the most important theme of “To the Dandelion”, the richness of sacred gifts in nature. Lowell often linked nature and spiritualism within his poetry. In the dandelion he sees the virtues of modesty, humility, and innocence.

 

“To rich and poor alike, with lavish hand;  Though most hearts never understand/To take it at God’s value, but pass by/The offered wealth with unrewarded eye.” It is those who take the time to appreciate the unadorned flower who truly experience the majesty of God, according to Lowell.  And although these gifts of nature are available to all, rich and poor, it is a rare person who collects the wealth offered so freely and unceasingly. The rare person who allows their heart to be filled with the joy of these humble gifts.

 

It is in this rarity, that children are the exception, part of the reason Lowell appreciates the link dandelions create with his childhood is that reminds him of when he felt a greater and easier connection to nature. “The sight of thee calls back the robin’s song,/Who, from the dark old tree Beside the door, sang clearly all day long;/And I, secure in childish piety, Listened as if I heard an angel sing/ With news from heaven, which he did bring/Fresh every day to my untainted ears,   When birds and flowers and I were happy peers.” To the young Lowell, the birds were angels. Their songs the news of heaven. Notably, he describes his young self as a peer to the birds and flowers, meaning he too was a part of that heaven on earth. As he aged and lost his “untainted ears” he lost that heavenly connection, as well. He loves the dandelions because they remind him that he once felt that fullness of that kinship.

 

espite the inherent loss of aging, the poem ends on a hopeful message, “Thou teachest me to deem More sacredly of every human heart,/Since each reflects in joy its scanty gleam Of heaven, and could some wondrous secret show,/Did we but pay the love we owe, /And with a child’s undoubting wisdom look /On all these living pages of God’s book.” Lowell believes that the dandelions can teach him, and the readers by extension, the value of the humble gifts in our lives. Even if the connection becomes lost in adulthood, it can be regained in “gleams” if we can only remember to look with our childhood wisdom and recognize that the wonder of creation is all around us, even in the humblest weed.

 

Further Reading

James Russell Lowell, The Complete Poetical Works of James Russell Lowell is available to read at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/13310/pg13310-images.html

 

Similar Poets to Discover

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

John Greenleaf Whittier, Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., Poems

 

Katelyn Varley writes poetry and prose. When not engaging in wordplay, she teaches swimming to all ages. She graduated from Hampshire College in Amherst, MA with a degree in History. She lives in Ayer, MA with her partner, two dogs, and a cat. Find her on Twitter @HistKB.

 

Essay: Alabama Ex-Pat

My name is Hannah, and I was born in a tiny unincorporated township in northeastern Alabama. I’m beginning a series of essays on my experiences. This is an excerpt from the first essay in that series. For the rest, check out my blog, or check it out in Mill Pages Vol 3, coming soon!

People always say I should write about Alabama. “You have such good stories!” they say, and perhaps they aren’t wrong.

I enjoy telling those stories. I’ve told some of them dozens of times, at places like Christmas parties or during slow stints at work. Sometimes it’s relevant to the conversation at hand, or someone asks for a repeat of their favorite. Sometimes, though, they just leap out on their own volition.

As a teenager, I often sensed that the absurdity of my experiences would make good stories one day. My mother used to tease me about it, saying I should write a book about my youth and call it ‘Children of the Cornbread’. It would be a dark comedy about a cynical, soft-hearted southern woman who wished to be a tough, morally-upright northern man.

Again, not wrong.

Some of those stories are worth telling. It’s just that talking about it and writing about it are different. Writing is more of a commitment. Repeating those old anecdotes is cathartic and entertaining. Chronicling them for the future is owning them. The moment I pour my energy into writing it all down, I’m bonding myself to it. It’s taken a long time to gather the moxie.

I think the hesitation partially comes from the inevitable question: why did you leave? You see, I live in Massachusetts now, not too far from Boston.  If I mention my southerness, ‘why did you leave’ is the first question out of someone’s mouth. It’s usually curious, sometimes unbelieving, and always so earnest.

I guess you ask that question to anyone who crosses the country, especially to somewhere so different. It’s hard to answer that question, but harder to ignore it. And the answer is as complicated is it simple.

Allow me to try.

Essay: The Haunted South

As a child, I would sometimes sit in front of my mother’s bookcase and look at her collection of hardcover Anne Rice novels. I was too young to read them (or much of anything at all), but I loved how they looked. The cover art was rich and detailed, and covered with mysterious figures and enticing titles. They stoked a sense of mystery in me, even if I was only old enough to look.

If I wanted scary, I had plenty of other places to look. My elementary school library was filled with regionally-published anthologies of ghost stories. They were everywhere, and all with a similar aesthetic. These simple ghost stories were just a little bit more age appropriate. Less teeth, I suppose. But still spooky, and so very popular. Southerners love ghost stories, no matter the age.

There’s something about the south and it’s ghosts. I wish I could put my finger on something objective or tangible, but I really can’t. I suppose it’s a matter of my raising. Anyone can feel haunted by their childhood home. But when I visit Alabama and drive down the winding country roads I knew as a child, I hear all those ghosts calling out to me.

Let me make something clear real quick – I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t even believe in God. I’d like to lay eyes on either, and it’s not been a lack of trying.

Belief or none, something about Alabama still feels haunted. I can almost feel all those ghosts brushing against me everywhere I go. It’s a natural part of the landscape. Everything’s old, rotten, and miserable. The perfect place for a haunting.

It could be the south’s quiet nature combined with its unsavory past. Everywhere you go is thick with the stench of the Civil War, and those lonely rural stretches really start to get under your skin if you think about it too much while your drive through. It’s almost like the ghosts of the old south notice the emptiness, and so they do the polite southern thing and fill the silence with some friendly chatter.

 

Thanks for checking out this preview of The Haunted South! You can read the rest over here on my blog, 905. 

Book Review: Spooky South

This monthly column, by our own H.L. Rudd, will feature book reviews for books she loves including genres like Southern Gothic, horror, fantasy, and more.

9781493019175 

Southerners like horror stories. In the deep south, it often seems like a restless spirit is behind every tap on the window or sharp summer breeze. Maybe it’s because of our rough history or our love of tales, but either way, I grew up surrounded by a devoted, sometimes evangelical love of the supernatural.

 

I grew out of my belief in the supernatural, but I never stopped loving the stories. Even now, I’m quick to snap up any book about spooky southern folklore. A couple months ago, while visiting my family in Alabama, an opportunity presented itself to me. While visiting a local book chain, I came across Spooky South: Tales of Hauntings, Strange Happenings, and Other Local Lore, by S.E. Schlosser. The title, though genetic, was enough to grab my attention, and the surreal artwork was enough to sell it. I took it home with me right away.

 

This book contains retellings of 38 different folktales from around the southeast. It contains a map displaying the locations of each story (by number), and the numbered table of contents tells the reader exactly where each story took place. I really like this feature, and I think it adds a lot of flavor to the book, but it’s also a bit wasted on the actual executions of the retellings.

 

I was already familiar with a handful of these stories. Some, like the tale of the Bell Witch, are familiar to many fans of the supernatural. Others, like the Wampus Cat, are a bit more regional in their distribution. The references section in the back shows good research on the part of the author, and I don’t doubt that she put genuine work into compiling these stories, but the writing itself didn’t draw me in.

 

Each story is short, often only 2-3 pages, though a few are a little longer. They’re perfect for a little bit of reading before bed, and they each come with a gorgeous illustration by Paul G Hoffman. The stories are narrated in one of a couple ways (with some told in a distant third-person style like a campfire story, and certain ones having first person setups to frame them), and are pretty straight forward. They describe something scary happening to someone, the end.

 

That’s what holds me back from loving this collection. The stories are neat, and it’s awesome to see such a wide collection of southern folk tales, but I just wanted a little more.


That’s not to say that the book doesn’t work. I just find these retellings to be inconsistent and a little bit flat. While Thirteen Alabama Ghosts deals with similar campfire fare, it adds local history and strong, close narration to really make the story feel like it matters. The stories in Spooky South sound more like something you’d overhear in a crowded bar. And that’s okay, but for me, it wasn’t quite enough. I’d give the book a three, but the effort in research and stellar art lift it to a four. If you want to read something quick to read before bed, this could be the folktale collection for you, but don’t expect to be frightened.

You can enjoy another book review by H.L. Rudd on the second Wednesday of the month.  Read an expanded version of this book review, at her blog, 905.  

Librarian Reading

This monthly column, by our own Sara Marks, will feature new books that librarians and book bloggers are talking about.

I’m a little biased this month.  I have a connection to both books I’m going to share with you, but it’s my column and I do what I want. One of my favorite things about being a writer and librarian is that it allows me to connect with other writers and librarians and writer librarians.

P.S. I Miss You My first pick for March is P.S. I Miss You by Jen Petro-Roy (coming out on March 6).  Jen and I have been friends for years.  This book is for middle grade readers- that means older elementary school, middle school, and lower high school students.  It deals with teenage pregnancy, sexual identities, and communication.  It’s written in letters (epistolary). I love the book and might have used a whole package of tissues as I read the book.  I’m even tearing up now as I write this.

Here’s the blurb:

Eleven-year-old Evie is heartbroken when her strict Catholic parents send her pregnant sister away to stay with a distant great-aunt. All Evie wants is for her older sister to come back. But when her parents forbid her to even speak to Cilla, she starts sending letters. Evie writes letters about her family, torn apart and hurting. She writes about her life, empty without Cilla. And she writes about the new girl in school, June, who becomes her friend, and then maybe more than a friend.

As she becomes better friends with June, Evie begins to question her sexual orientation. She can only imagine what might happen if her parents found out who she really is. She could really use some advice from Cilla. But Cilla isn’t writing back.

The Lost DoorMy second pick, The Lost Door (already released on Kindle), is another book I have a connection to.  Long story short, before my first publisher closed a month before publishing my book, I paid a lot of attention to the other authors I thought I was being published with. One was Steen Jones who has just released her second book, a sequel to the one published last year.  The series, which begins with The Door Keeper and continues with The Lost Door, imagines different worlds connected through doors.  Each world has their own Door Keepers who protect it.  It was an exciting read.  I have only just started The Lost Door, so no spoilers!  This is an adult fantasy series, but young adults will enjoy it.

Here’s the blurb:

It’s been over seven years since Eden learned the truth about where she came from and that her mother was a Door Keeper from another world. Eden’s own daughter, Gabby, is about to turn 18 and learn the story herself, and about the predestined future that lay ahead of her. As fate would have it, the worlds intervene before Eden can tell her daughter the truth, throwing the family into complete and utter chaos. Gabby must find the strength to save her Mom while grappling with unbelievable realizations about herself, her family, and what it all means for her future.

This anticipated sequel to the portal fantasy, The Door Keeper, introduces interesting new characters, opens two new doors into unique and magical worlds, where our heroines must face the harsh elements and mythical creatures long thought extinct. The Lost Door explores the circle of mother/daughter legacy, the unbreakable bond of family, and the sometimes inescapable repetition of the past.

Want more?  Check out Sara’s blog, Book Club of 1, where she talks about her own experiences as writer and sometimes suggests books to her readers.  Her column will be featured on the first Wednesday of each month.  Want to see more books suggested by librarians, check out Library Reads.