Sam Burnham, Curator
Under the shadows of a global pandemic, social unrest, political strife, and an economic downturn James Calamine released The Road the Hell, his latest book from Snake Nation Press.
Previously I have reviewed his works Insured Beyond the Grave (volumes 1 & 2) which mostly followed non-fiction dispatches and articles that highlighted pieces of American culture.
This book is a bit different. 100 pages, including the author’s photography, makes for a shorter read than the previous works. As with Insured Beyond the Grave, the photography tells as much of the story as the words do. The pictures settle in your mind and set the mood as you read. The images stir a sense of nostalgia while the narratives prey upon that emotion.
This is a work of fiction, a collection of short stories. They are really more of vignettes, some even essays. Through these stories Calemine holds up a mirror for our society, particularly in The South, to get a good look at ourselves. Calamine drops us into the challenges we face as a people. He puts real faces on the dark corners of our existence. He makes us look at ourselves. I’ve often said that Southern Gothic is such a powerful art form because it’s not far removed from reality. Calemine blurs that divide beautifully.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. In several places the light shines in the darkness. Some stories are lighter, touching on the everyday. Hope is not lost. Among the virus, depravity, horrible decisions, corruption, and outright sin we can see answers. It becomes obvious where the mistakes are made. If we know the mistakes, we can fix them.
The best part of the book lies in the brevity of the stories. Each one is enough to stimulate thought. The stage is set, the action put into motion, and then the reader is left to their own devices. Your imagination takes over, your soul gets engaged in the matter. Each story is a type of warning and Calemine serves as an oracle. Do we continue down the road of greed, lust, selfishness, and vengeance while technology, anger, substance abuse, political strife, or apathy wreck the world? Or do we reach back to our virtues and ideals? I found myself thinking of Independence, thrift, stewardship, private property, political liberty, family, marriage, parenthood, neighborhood - values that make appearances but, as in reality, not often enough. It is obvious that their absence is the source of so many problems.
Calemine has chosen this tactic in a brilliant way. The reader has to engage the story. Passivity is not an option. To read these stories is to become a part of them yourself. There are familiar faces waiting behind each page. You will probably even find yourself in there.
It is not rare to find a book that is good - entertaining, interesting, and engaging, but that isn’t really an important book. The Road to Hell fits both descriptions. It is an excellent fit for the reader who is prepared to be challenged and therefore changed by what they are confronted with. It’s a book the world needs right now.
Sam Burnham, Curator
Tis the season for stories of the macabre, the grotesque, the suspenseful. The modern genre of horror has often strayed into an overuse of violence and gore in place of suspense and psychological thrills. I don’t care much for the blood and gore of the slasher genre but I love the old style. Hitchcock was a master. Stephen King’s 1408 and the movie adaptation of the same are also good examples.
The South has a long tradition in this genre. Although Edgar Allan Poe was born in Boston, he was raised in Richmond and attended the University of Virginia briefly. Poe is but one well known pen in a sea of Southern ink that has given America ghost stories, and of course our most famous literary class - Southern Gothic.
The stories are the fruit of a grotesque history. Our region has seen the War for Independence, slavery, the War of 1812, the Trail of Tears, The War Between the States (specifically Sherman’s March), Reconstruction, Jim Crow. Death and tragedy have stalked The South since settlers arrived at Roanoke Island. Disease and pestilence have ravaged this land. Cities like Savannah and Charleston are filled with ghost stories and much of the region remained, until relatively recently, a frontier only inhabited by the strong willed, who often succumbed to its hazards. This history and the personal tragedy invested in it led writers, including Poe, to delve deep into tragedy, mystery, intrigue, and suspense
Poe himself pointed to the past when searching for America’s best ghost story. As my friend Sean Busick relates: “Grayling, or Murder Will Out,” Poe wrote “it is really an admirable tale, nobly conceived and skillfully carried into execution—the best ghost story ever written by an American….”
That’s a pretty strong endorsement.
Simms was the most important writer in America’s antebellum period. The South Carolinian is remembered and celebrated by the Simms Initiatives at the University of South Carolina. A few years ago they teamed up to create this video playlist, a reading of that best American ghost story, Grayling or Murder Will Out. I have decided to link the playlist here for anyone who’d like to hear it read aloud. It’s an appropriate story for a good Southerner at Halloween.
[This story can be found in print in The collection The Wigwam and the Cabin. More information on Simms and Grayling can be found at the link above, where Sean Busick is mentioned in red.]
Sam Burnham, Curator
Just before we left for South Georgia I found a book online titled Cracker Gothic. I was intrigued from the beginning. So imagine my surprise when Leigha held up a copy of it that she found in a local author and topic section of Once Upon a Bookseller in St. Marys. I had to have that one. And some others, but those are different stories.
Cracker Gothic by Wanda Suttle Duncan rotates mostly around the northeast Florida town of Green Cove Springs. I knew of the town beforehand but didn’t have a lot of knowledge on the place. This was an excellent opportunity to learn about a town in Florida. Real Florida.
I want to start by saying this is a good book. It’s a really good book. But the point I want to make is that this is an important book. I’d say it’s up there with Patrick Smith’s A Land Remembered when it comes to understanding Florida from an Agrarian viewpoint. (Side note: while it is subtitled “A Florida Woman’s Memoir,” it’s ok guys, you should still read it. It means it’s the experience of a woman. It’s not some Jodi Picoult novel that’s gonna cost you your man card. Read the book.)
Duncan starts the story with some family history. She tells of her forebears squeezing a living out of the Okefenokee. Her people stayed on that land as long as a living was possible. Then, like so many other Crackers, they wandered south, across the Florida line and many found a home around artesian sulfur springs near the St. Johns River. The springs are located in a little town called Green Cove Springs.
Green Cove Springs is unique. But it’s also just like every other small town in The South. It has character and characters. It also has a rich history and a heyday that is long gone. Duncan’s descriptions of all of these keep you turning pages. She weaves the town’s past and present with the personal story of the trials and tragedies that brought her back to this town decades after her escape to greener pastures elsewhere. But her return isn’t all sorrow. There are old friends as well as new. She finds herself frequenting places she wouldn’t have visited elsewhere. There are new hobbies and adventures. She rediscovers the rich flavor and aroma of sulfur water. And if you love sulfur water, you’re a genuine Cracker.
Duncan beautifully describes her return and her understanding of the Spanish idea of “Querencia,” that spot in a bullring where a bull retreats to regain his strength. La Querencia is a specific location from which one’s strength of character is drawn. It’s this sense of place that makes home much more than where you hang your hat. It is set deep in your identity. That’s what she found on her return.
Again, in many ways, Green Cove Springs is unique. There’s no other place like it. In other ways, it’s just like thousand small towns across the rural South. Taking in the stories laid out in Cracker Gothic helps us to understand the plight of small towns. Their beauty, their uniqueness, their value can be understood and appreciated only after we take the time to reconsider them. We’ve fled from them and neglected them and now it is time to go back and rediscover them, not to change or adapt them but love them for what they are.
And so this book should be read and it should show us pictures of Green Cove Springs, and also St. Marys, Kingsland, Folkston, Darien, and the list goes on. Like I said before, this is a really good book and also an important book. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves The South.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire