Sharyn McCrumb, Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Other Stories (Ballantine Books, 1997)
One of the joys of writing for Green Man is the ARCs. ARCs are the 'advance reading copies' sent out to reviewers well before the actual publication date. For example, we had two copies of Charles de Lint's forthcoming novel, Spirits in the Wires, so Grey Walker, our Book Review Editor, reviewed it, and other staffers are passing the other ARC from office to office. Another ARC we got was Sharyn McCrumb's latest Ballad novel, Ghost Rider. Andrea Garrett's doing the review, but I snagged the other copy. As I said of the review I did of the previous Ballad novels, 'Sharyn clearly is of the Hills and desperately wants these novels to reflect both her ancestry and the culture created there. Born, bred, and still living in Appalachia, McCrumb's mountain roots and her Scottish-Irish heritage show themselves strongly in her work. It is well-known that McCrumb has said many times she would like to be remembered for her Ballad series above all else. It is obvious that McCrumb has a deep affection for these books.' Andrea's review will be up shortly, so all I'll say is that this was the best novel in the series so far. Indeed it was so good that upon finishing it, I went off to the Green Man library to see what else she had written.
Hmmm... 'ell, I've read Highland Laddie Gone, of which I said, 'Have you ever been to a bonnie Highland Games in the States? One of me bands, Dead Heroes of Culloden, played a few well-payin' gigs at some a ways back. Several of our lads being of Scottish heritage were both amused and disgusted by what they saw. Haggis on a stick? Bullocks! Now, normally I think that Sharyn McCrumb is full of still steaming mathacladh, as her grasp of Southern Appalachian culture leaves quite a bit to be desired, but she's captured the absurd theatrical feel of the Scottish Revivalists and their insular culture rather well! The other lads in the band who have read this novel thought it was a silly and fun read. I shan't disagree!' (Her last Ballad novels show a far better grasp of Southern Appalachian culture. Not perfect, but considerably better.) So I was in search of something else by her. She's been prolific -- she even wrote something called Bimbos of the Death Sun (I kid you not!) and another series involving Elizabeth MacPherson, the forensic anthropologist who's the central character in Highland Laddie Gone. None of these tickled me fancy, so I picked up a collection of her tales, Foggy Mountain Breakdown And Other Stories, and set down in the window seat overlooking Oberon's Wood to read some of the stories there...
The only outstanding tales here are a couple of the stories set in Appalachian settings. 'A Snare as Old as Solomon', 'Old Rattler', and 'Precious Jewel' are as good as the last two Ballad novels as examples of storytelling. Indeed, 'Old Rattler' is particularly worth reading, as Rattler is one of the main characters. Like Nora Bonesteel, Rattler can see very real ghosts all too well! He's an outcast and a healer -- not an uncommon thing high in the Hills. Read this story to see how McCrumb develops him later on. Likewise, you'll find that the characters in 'Precious Jewel' are part of her Ballad universe. It's a good story that adds a bit of needed texture to the ongoing story she's telling. I find it fascinating that, like the Newford universe that Charles de Lint has created in his novels and stories, the secondary characters here are what often make the tales so truly worth reading.
But overall, the stories here are not well-written, nor does it appear that McCrumb cleaned them up after writing them. (When they were written is a mystery, as they're not dated, nor do we know where they were originally published. Bad girl!) McCrumb does confess in her introduction that the book is comprised of 'almost all the short stories' she's ever written, which means stories from her high school years and even writing exercises; unfortunately, it more often than not reads that way. My recommendation: skip this collection. Go read the Ballad novels (in order), or try the Elizabeth MacPherson novels, of which I personally think Highland Laddie Gone is the best one. But just don't waste your time with this one.