Your Musical Community Is Where You Find It

Music as a communal event is difficult for someone like me, who doesn't play any instrument and doesn't (or shouldn't) sing. I've attended concerts where the sense of community was created by the shared music we all knew, or by the intense efforts of the performer to make sure that connection happened. But for the most part, I've always Read more

Help Plot My 2015 Reading Tour

Would you like to hear me read Long Black Curl to you this summer? Maybe ask me some questions in person? If so, here's what you need to do.  Go to your local bookstore, ask if they'd be interested, and if they are, send me the contact info, including the name of the person in charge of author events. Don't Read more

Why I Haven't Blogged Lately

I haven't blogged in a while, so I thought I'd blog on why that is. Enjoy the brisk taste of meta. Primary among my reasons for not blogging is the continuing work on Long Black Curl, the third Tufa novel that comes out in May. You'd think it would be done by now, wouldn't you?  Alas, 'tis not the case. Read more

Win an advance reader copy of Long Black Curl

The third Tufa novel, Long Black Curl, doesn't come out until May. But you might win an advance reader copy right now by leaving a comment below telling me about your favorite folk song (new, old, original, traditional, it doesn't matter). I'll be giving away eight copies, so pass the word and let everyone know. Deadline is midnight on Read more

Win a copy of Mythica!

Recently the good folks at Arrowstorm Entertainment were kind enough to give me a sneak peek at their latest production, Mythica: A Quest for Heroes.  You can read my review of it here, and an interview with two of the stars here. Short version: I found it very enjoyable, with a terrific main character (played with full-on commitment by Melanie Read more

Review: My Old True Love by Sheila Kay Adams

Posted on by Alex in family, folk music, folklore, reviews, writers, writing | Leave a comment


Writing prose about music is, to borrow an analogy, dangerously close to trying to teach a fish to ride a bicycle. If you could say it in regular words, there’d be no need to sing it. And music can do some things far more efficiently than any other art form. For example, it takes over seven hours to tell the three-generation story of the Corleones in the three Godfather films; Steve Earle covers the same amount of territory in less than five minutes in his song “Copperhead Road.” So really, the best a prose writer can do is try to describe the effect music has on the people who create it, and hear it.

The list of novels that do that well is fairly short. One of them, P.F. Kluge’s Eddie and the Cruisers, I reviewed here. Another, Lee Smith’s The Devil’s Dream, is on deck for a re-read and review in the near future. And Sheila Kay Adams’ My Old True Love is a third, one set in the Appalachian Mountains and about, among other things, the way songs can often speak for us when regular words fail.

Set in the years before, during and after the Civil War, it tells of two men, Larkin and Hackley, and the woman they both love, Mary. But it’s told by Arty, Hackley’s sister and Larkin’s foster mother, who’s barely older than they are. And it encompasses many aspects of the South that don’t get much attention, such as the idea that not every Southerner was gung-ho for secession or Civil War. And woven throughout all this is the music they sing, listen to, and share.

Sheila Kay is uniquely qualified to write this novel.  She’s a professional storyteller and noted ballad singer; you can find my review of a documentary that features her here. Further, she’s so embedded (by history, biology and choice) in the region she describes that the book reads more like a memoir than fiction. She brings Arty to life in a way that’s astounding in its simplicity and vividness.

And the story does not evolve in the way you expect. In fact, there’s a glorious moment near the end where one character says something very simple, but it has the effect of turning the reader’s expectations entirely around. It works the same way the climax of the Scorsese film The Color of Money works: by making you suddenly realize this isn’t the story you thought it was going to be, and yet now that you know, you can see that it could be no other story.

I write about Appalachia in my Tufa novels, and my father’s family comes from the region. But Sheila Kay lives and breathes what she writes, and because of that, there’s an amazing depth and verisimilitude to her words. In My Old True Love, she brings it to life and shares it with us, just as the folks in her stories share the songs they learn. And believe me, the book sings.


WISP OF A THING Advance Trailer

Posted on by Alex in faeries, fantasy literature, fiction, folk music, folklore, Hum and the Shiver, Jennifer Goree, novel, series, Tor Books, Tufa, Wisp of a Thing | Leave a comment

As a special Valentine’s Day present to all the Tufa fans, here’s the advance trailer for Wisp of a Thing, including music by the first honorary Tufa, Jennifer Goree.

Enjoy, share, repost, and otherwise pass amongst yourselves.


Guest blog: author Dale Short on superstition

Posted on by Alex in folklore, guest blog, witchcraft, writers, writing | 4 Comments

 Dale Short has guest blogged here before, and he’s welcome any time.  Between his writing and his radio show, he’s got a full appreciation of all aspects of Southern life, and his collection of short stories, Turbo’s Very Life, is one of the best books I’ve ever read.  He’s joining us today to talk a bit about superstitions in the south and how they impact everyday life even now.


Southern Superstitions: Encoded in the Blood?

In the remote North Alabama coal-mining community where I grew up, being superstitious (which nearly all of us were) was like walking a tightrope. This was because the Missionary Baptist Church (to which nearly all of us belonged) totally frowned on what the Bible called “witchcraft and divination.”

And the church interpreted scripture broadly, so as to be on the safe side. Their prohibition against gambling, for instance, meant we weren’t permitted to own playing cards–or dice, including the pair that mysteriously disappeared from the Monopoly set I got for Christmas one year.

As a result, witchcraft and divination didn’t just cover such portals to the beyond as Ouija boards and fortune-tellers, but included horoscopes and Zodiac signs. Yet everybody I knew kept a copy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac in their house or barn because “planting by the signs” was as natural as breathing; everybody who farmed had a tale to tell about some season when they’d ignored the almanac and had meager crops to show for it. The signs also specified the proper time for slaughtering a pig or a cow, and everybody knew of some ill-timed slaughter that had caused the meat to spoil.

Even without such divination devices as almanacs and Ouija boards, though, we seemed to have a complex list of superstitions encoded in our blood, and many of them involved coal mining. It was bad luck for a woman or girl to venture near the mouth of a mine. One variant even said that it was bad luck for a man on his way to work if he chanced to meet a red-haired woman on the road. Mules in the mine who became unaccountably skittish were thought to be seeing ghosts, or “haints,” that humans couldn’t. And so on.

In retrospect, many superstitions seemed to be sexist in motivation, such as “A whistling woman and a crowing hen / Always come to some bad end.” On the other hand, I’ve encountered a number of people over the years who apparently had the power of supernatural healing, and the ability to find lost objects and foretell the future, and all of them were female.

After my grandmother joined the church as a young woman, she openly scoffed at superstition. And yet our family knew that she was the seventh child of a seventh child, supposedly giving her the power to cure the oral infection known as thrush (also known as “the thrash”) that was once common among babies. She remembered, as a child, neighbors bringing their thrash-suffering infants and asking her to blow her breath into their mouths. She was embarrassed by the attention, she told me once, but nonetheless the babies were cured. As a churchgoer, she had managed to mostly convince herself the healings were coincidence.

The superstition that most sent a chill up my back during childhood, though, was birds-and-windows. If a bird tried desperately to break through a window pane, it was said that someone in the family would die soon. I’ll never forget the afternoon I was in the house alone and a redbird flew in a fury against the picture window.  The bird hit the glass again and again with increasing force until its head left a smear of blood down the pane as it fell—whether dazed or dead I didn’t know, because I was afraid to go outside and see. I decided not to tell my parents about it later, in some irrational hope that if I never spoke about it, it wouldn’t be real.

Days passed, then weeks, and nobody died. But I had a new and recurrent nightmare, of bird after bird slamming against the windows of our house until the glass was covered with blood.

Not long ago I was searching through old files in my mother’s storage house and found a short story from that period of time that I had forgotten I wrote. It’s not very good. Not even a real story, more of a vignette, about a boy afraid to leave his house because flocks of birds keep attacking the windows, but eventually they stop and nobody dies. The prose style is a shamelessly Capote-esque ripoff.

The tale doesn’t claim any new literary ground, but it occurred to me that while many new nightmares have come and gone in the years since, I have no memory of dreaming about the bird scenario again. Is it superstitious for me to believe that writing fiction is an act of self-exorcism, that can actually clean old horrors out of brain cells and make room for the new?

Probably. But it appears to be a gift from what we call, for lack of a better term, the beyond. And I’ll take it gladly.


Interview: Dracula expert Elizabeth Miller

Posted on by Alex in Dracula, Elizabeth Miller, folklore, vampires | Leave a comment

If you watch the History, Discovery or National Geographic channels around Halloween, when all things vampiric and Draculoric are fair game, you’ve probably seen and heard Dr. Elizabeth Miller. She is an expert on Bram Stoker and the novel Dracula, including its history and inspirations. Her many published books include Bram Stoker’s Notes for Dracula: A Facsimile Edition, and Dracula: Sense & Nonsense. Professor Miller was kind enough to answer some questions for me regarding vampires in folklore and literature.

Alex: It seems as if the vampire in traditional folklore was seldom a fully conscious, will-directed creature. At what point did they become so in the popular imagination?

Dr. Miller: This started to happen as the vampire migrated from folklore to literature. The 18th-century reports about vampire sightings in central and eastern Europe coincided with (and may have contributed to) a rising interest in Gothic literature, first in Germany and later in the century, in England. The Gothic movement was part of the broader period of Romanticism, with its challenges to rationalism and its shift of philosophical emphasis to subjectivity, emotion, intuition and the imagination. The adoption of the figure of the vampire was inevitable. Appearing first as a type of “demon lover” in German poetry, the vampire made its way to England where it was embraced by the Romantic poets and shapeshifted into a full-blown aristocrat.

Dracula is the gold standard, but not the first “aristo-vampire.” What prompted this shift from peasant revenent to high-born demon?

The first vampire fiction in English literature was The Vampyre. Published in 1819, The Vampyre was written by John William Polidori, who had served as Lord Byron’s personal physician for a time until disputes brought an end to the relationship. Polidori clearly modeled his vampire, Lord Ruthven, on Byron. That, along with the fact that many thought that Byron had written the story, gave it instant popularity. It began what was essentially a “vampire craze” in the theatres of London and Paris during the 1820s. Lord Ruthven is the prototype of the aristocratic vampire.

During the 19th century, interest in the vampire continued, with Polidori’s Ruthven as the model. By the time Bram Stoker started Dracula, a number of literary conventions for the vampire were already in place: the vampire is of an old, aristocratic (and usually foreign) family; the vampire is tall, dark, spectral, and dressed in black; the vampire possesses sharp fangs which leave two bite marks on the victim; the vampire is a creature of unusual physical strength; the vampire has a strong seductive power over women; the victim’s response to the vampire is ambivalent, revealing both attraction and repulsion; and the most effective way to destroy a vampire is to drive a wooden stake through its heart.

In my research folkloric vampires seem to be solitary creatures often linked to their families, yet the film version of In Search of Dracula (based on the landmark book by Raymond T. McNally and Radu Florescu) says vampires meet on St. Andrew’s Eve (November 29). Is this legitimate folklore? If so, why did the vampires meet?

I have no idea of the source of the statement re vampires meeting on St Andrew’s Eve. I know that it is widespread in general folklore that evil is at its strongest on the eve of a saint’s day. Indeed, Stoker encountered such a piece of lore in Transylvanian Superstitions by Emily Gerard (1885). She stated that St George’s Eve was believed to be a time for the gathering of witches. No mention of vampires, however. Stoker uses this in his novel, with reference to “all the evil things in the world”. I suspect the statement in the film was “wishful thinking.”

There are many odd ways to identify and/or repel vampires. What’s the strangest you’ve come across?

There are two that Stoker listed in his notes for Dracula but decided not to use in the novel:

“Painters cannot paint him – their likenesses always like someone else,” and “Insensibility to music”

Vampires are now not just appealing to teenagers, but in the wake of the Twilight series they are teenagers. What do you see as future trends for the popular image of the vampire?

Vampires are likely to become so commonplace that they will lose much of their appeal. The down-side of romanticizing the vampire is that it loses the grip on that part of our imaginations that are attracted to horror.

Thanks to Professor Miller for answering my questions. You can find her newest work, Notes for Dracula, here.