Laura Long and Doug Van Gundy, eds.
336Pages; Print, $32.00
The newest edition in a long string of anthologies of Appalachian literature highlights West Virginia. However, Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods, published by Vandalia Press, an imprint of West Virginia University Press, is not entirely like the others in more ways than simply a focus on this particular state. This anthology features both prose and poetry, which gives the book a distinction from the outset, and with this difference comes potential not before anticipated.
The collection of poems and stories in the anthology, edited by fiction writer/poet Laura Long and poet Doug Van Gundy, lives up to that potential with strong showings of both forms from the usual mix of established veterans (Jayne Anne Phillips, Ann Pancake, Ron Houchin, to name a few) and fresh voices (Ida Stewart, Scott McClanahan, Rajia Hassib, among others). It is the tendency of most readers to first seek out those veterans, the Appalachian writers who have already been accepted into the fold of what can be a very exclusive group of writers. However, a reader of Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods would be terribly remiss if they discounted the work of the new wave of Appalachian writers this anthology offers.
Scott McClanahan, though not by any stretch a newcomer, is still sort of a newcomer for those who have neglected reading his work, which are, unfortunately, still more than a few. His story in this anthology, “Picking Blackberries,” comes from his novel Hill William (2013), and is the perfect example of one expectation at play against another. The title would suggest we’re about to read a story that would fall in line with a nostalgia often associated with Appalachian writing, but this couldn’t be further from the truth of McClanahan’s work. And it becomes mostly clear in the story’s first sentence, “I didn’t want my Mom to find out about anything.” It goes on to assuredly reveal a side of life in the rural areas of West Virginia often swept aside.
When we got home I felt even worse because she was acting strange like walking in and out of all the rooms in the house and then walking into the living. Then she went walking into the kitchen...Then just a couple minutes later she was going through these little orange pill bottles she took sometimes (she knew something was wrong). She held one of the orange pill bottles in her hands and looked down at the label.
She kept staring at it and then she turned to me and pointed to her Diet Coke and said, “Hey, Scott. Is diet pop alcohol?”
The mantra throughout the story becomes, “It’s going to be all right,” with the character of Scott saying it again and again, Scott’s mother saying it to him. And finally the author’s acknowledgement at the end of the story that sometimes he even believes this to be true. The story is a perfect example of how Appalachian writers can and should excavate new reserves of the heart from the reality of their lives.
With poetry now included in these more and more popular Appalachian anthologies, the eye (or at least my eye) went directly for Huntington-born poet Ron Houchin. Houchin is the author of seven collections of poetry, including his most recent, Planet of the Best Love Songs (2017), a collection that has a long hard look at our impulse “to chant about what we cannot understand.” In Eyes Glowing at the Edge of the Woods, Houchin has two poems—“Phantom Flesh” and “Family Portrait with Spider Web.” In “Phantom Flesh” Houchin marries both the traditional outlook of Appalachian poetry and also the nontraditional, more realistic point of view.
My great aunt’s great arms Were seismic slabs I feared. Passing near their cetaceous wobble,
I smelled bleach and sea breeze. When she lifted them to hang wet sheets on her clothesline.
In the anthology’s introduction, Long and...