Whatever Happened to Sharyn McCrumb?

Sharyn McCrumb photograph by Jerry Bauer

I started thinking about Sharyn McCrumb after reading this post from Medusa’s Library. While talking about a section of The Hunger Games, she mentions a book called The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe. It’s set in East Tennessee. I was immediately filled with a desire to read this book, partly because it sounds cool, and partly because I’m always looking for books set in East Tennessee. In a pinch western North Carolina or southwest Virginia will also do.

I married into a love for that region.  My husband BK is from East Tennessee, and he still misses it, years after moving away. We go back pretty often, but usually it’s to help take care of an aging relative, so there’s not a lot of opportunity to really get out and appreciate the beauties of the area. But that’s what books are for, right?

Anyway, now I can’t wait to read The Hum and the Shiver, just as soon as I can get to the library. Just the fact that it exists made me nostalgic for Sharyn McCrumb’s books, and I that’s what got me wondering whatever happened to her.  Full disclosure: I don’t know her personally, and haven’t kept up with her writing as well as I ought.

BK & I first started reading Sharyn McCrumb when she wrote a couple of novels – the Jay Omega series – for TSR. This would have been back in the very early 90s.  Her first novel was Bimbos of the Death Sun, published in 1988. The next novel of hers that I read was Zombies of the Gene Pool. It’s a mark of both BK’s and my geekiness that we first became aware of her work through what she wrote for TSR. They’re set in the world of  role-play gamers and science fiction/fantasy fans, which is irretrievably what we were back in those days. It’s interesting to me that we didn’t become aware of her Elizabeth McPherson novels until we started reading a lot more mysteries.

We kind of lost track of Sharyn McCrumb after we ran out of Elizabeth McPherson novels. Part of that is because her Ballad Novels, for which she is arguably best known, are more difficult to read than some of her lighter works. In addition, I think our library was slow to acquire her later books (post ~1998), possibly because she was more on people’s radar around 1995, when she won just about every mystery award there is for She Walks These Hills.


When we did start reading the Ballad Novels, they were gorgeous, the kind of book that made BK think longingly of home. They were also a welcome antidote to the kind of portrayal one usually sees of mountain people, wherein they might be called hillbillies. These portrayals are wearisome and irksome in the extreme. Sharyn McCrumb knows and loves these people. You can hear the voices of mountain people in her work. Yet she never does a caricature; her characters seem real and wonderful.

So the answer to the question of “Whatever happened to Sharyn McCrumb?” is answered. Thank you, Internet! She hasn’t gone anywhere. I haven’t read her for a while, but I want to go back and pick up some of her novels I’ve missed. Whenever I need to revisit East Tennessee, she’ll be there.

I’m looking forward to reading Alex Bledsoe, too. I can only hope The Hum and the Shiver takes me back to East Tennessee they way Sharyn McCrumb’s books do.

Woo-Hoo! Free Story!

An anthology of dreams

Getting ready for Capricon, and I have miles to go before I sleep. So, huzzah! Today is free fiction day on CB’s Mojo. I’m sharing a story that previously appeared in an anthology produced by The Journey.

The anthology, Drops of Midnight, was edited by Steven White. About a dozen of us (including such luminaries as Tim Yao and Katherine Lato) contributed. Here’s the teaser from the back cover:

In the dark alleys and gaslit pubs of lower London you can buy almost anything—including dreams.

Here you can purchase small glass bottles offering tales stolen from the subconscious. Taste the longing and regret of a woman escaping her father’s fate and trying to live up to his memory. Experience the dreams of a child trapped in a coma, needing to fly. Feel the pain and nobility of a dreamer living through the Holocaust, or a general on the eve of battle. Some dreams are surreal encounters, like meeting a faded celebrity; others are dark nightmares, like a demon torturing a man for his past. One woman daydreams of a lost loved one; another man makes a bargain that may cost him his dreams.

Sample a bottle of stolen dreams—twelve stories spanning time and place from writers exploring daydreams and nightmares.

Be careful which one you open…

This is how my story begins:

Belarus Lost
In honor of the Belarus Free Theatre

This isn’t my room.

Every morning it takes me awhile to remember that I’m not home. Only it isn’t morning yet. The only light in the room comes from a tiny amber LED on my cell phone as it charges.

My roommate and fellow actor, Elizaveta, snores softly in the next bed, undisturbed by whatever roused me. Of course, I wasn’t fully asleep. I haven’t slept well since we escaped.

We barely got out of Minsk with our skins intact. I’m still waiting for my body to release all the fear and tension of those last miserable days, when we didn’t know how many of us would get away, and how many would spend the next fifteen years—maybe more—in prison. Assuming we lived through the interrogations, that is.

Mercifully, all nine of us made it to New York. The play that we risked everything to perform was well received. Our American hosts praised our bravery and provided a house for us to stay in. They’ve also been trying to help us figure out what to do when the month-long theatre festival for which we were booked is over. One after another, they present solutions for us to consider. Aleksey and Natalya, our leaders, enthusiastically examine every idea they offer.

Our situation has begun to exhaust me. When I am away from the others, I wonder why I didn’t just seek work as an office clerk or a waitress. At least waitresses aren’t imprisoned for doing their jobs. But no, I had to have the magical electricity of the theatre, the thrill of passionate discussions late into the night, the certainty that our plays, which dramatize Lukashenko’s worst abuses, would save our country from his dictatorship. And finally, as it turned out, the necessity to flee if we wanted to reveal the truth about Lukashenko’s regime to a wider audience.

I don’t mean to make a sound, but something like a moan escapes my lips. Elizaveta stirs. If she finds me awake, she’ll ask what’s wrong and try to comfort me. I don’t think I can take that again. I’m tired of being the only one in our group who can’t seem to cope. I creep out of our room and close the door.

Now I don’t know what to do. I’m too jumpy to even consider sleeping. I thought a noise must have awakened me, but though I strain my ears, I hear nothing but the night traffic outside. I can’t just cower in the hallway. Of course no one is downstairs, but I won’t be able to relax until I’ve made sure.

I steal down the stairs in thick socks, wearing the old bathrobe that still smells of my mother’s potato babka. This house, lent to us by one of the rich New York theatre people, smells of a strong, scented cleaning product covering up mold, or old dust.

I look first into the dark kitchen. Nothing moves. I could turn on a light, but the street lamps outside, reflecting off a recent snowfall, provide enough light for me to be sure no one is in there.

Through a swinging door, I see no one in the deserted dining room. The living room, filled with mismatched, sagging furniture, lies across the central hall. I’m almost done making certain I’m the only one down here, but I won’t be able to let my breath out until I’ve checked the last room. I move back into the hall and approach the last door, which opens onto the library. And then I see.

The door is ajar. I push it open and go in. The room is so cold my breath comes in sharply. Immediately I see the reason, but the shock makes me unable to speak or scream. A window is fully open and a light-haired man helps a dark-haired, bearded companion over the sill and into the room.

To continue reading, click here.

If you’re interested in the rest of the anthology, here it is on Amazon.

Writing exercise: A face appears…

In our jabber chat meeting (normally Thursdays, 8 pm CST) this week, we tried a horror-themed writing prompt (in honor of an upcoming anthology of short stories that we are hoping to launch the writing of): A face appears… (note: the link goes to an image found in a google search, but we didn’t really use it). Four of us (Kaden Patrick, Katherine Czerwinski, Diana Schmuckal and I) had entries (shown below, ten minutes, no editing). Diana amazingly wrote a great poem. I invite you to comment with additional entries.

Tim Yao

“I’ll see you tomorrow, Joe,” Karen said.
Joe imagined her secretly wishing he would ask her up to his apartment. She did pause there for a moment. “Uh, okay. See you tomorrow.”
Karen flashed him a quick, sweet smile and half waved. Joe could see her breath in the cold air, illuminated by the street light above them. Then Karen spun around and continued down the sidewalk.
Joe mentally berated himself, imagining searing lead being poured over him–it would be only what he deserved. He and Karen had been friends now for over a year and he still felt too shy to let her know how he felt.
He made his way up the three flights to his small apartment, barely registering the burned out light bulbs on both the second and third stories. It was cold here, too. His cheapskate landlord never seemed to miss opportunities to cut corners.
Joe fished out his keys before he noticed that his door was ajar.
“Hello?” he called out.
No answer.
He reached in and flicked on the light switch. Nothing.
Maybe it wasn’t the light bulb but a fuse.
It had been a long day; the landlord was hard to reach even in the best of times. Joe entered his apartment, closing the door behind him.
It was cold here too.
“Just as well I didn’t ask Karen up here,” he thought. But maybe that might have been an interesting adventure. A little darkness, a bit of disquieting cold and an opportunity to share some warmth…
Something creaked in the room.
“Is someone there?”
Had the door been ajar because of a thief? Joe shook his head. There was nothing worth stealing in the apartment, not even a television or radio. Still, the back of his neck prickled as though someone’s gaze was upon him.
Joe forced himself to put down his backpack and try to find his phone. He stubbed his toe on the foot of his bed and cursed. Feeling around, he sat down on his bed–the phone was on the floor near the head of the bed.
“Damn it!” No dial tone.
Something cold blew upon the back of his neck.
Joe jumped, stood up. His eyes had adjusted to the dark. There on the far side of the room he could just make out the faint paleness of a face.
His mouth opened, suddenly dry.
The face moved towards him.

Kaden Patrick

I burst out of the servants’ door, weighed down with the judge’s gold and lifted up by the thrill of taking it away with me into the fog. Predawn light and the distant gas lamps of the main street competed to color the heavy mist, tinting the air rust and bruised green. I bit my teeth over a laugh, then that laugh evaporated in my mouth as a face appeared.
A face pale and surprised, opening its mouth to scream.
Terror almost like sound raced up my back, flooding full force into limbs already sparking of excitement.
I threw myself forward and slammed the witness—a boy, a few years younger than myself, pale skin, wide eyes—back against the stone wall. My feet slid for purchase against the slick mud of the alleyway, nearly giving out beneath me.
The sky gave out above me, around me, as the fog came alive with pelting rain, beating fast as my heartbeat against my skin.
He pushed back, kicked my shin with a heavy boot, my arm was already weighed down from the bag of gold so he got loose. He was already beginning to scream by the time I’d freed my knife, but I cut it short and let the rain wash the nascent sound away. Let the rain wash the creeping, pooling crimson away. Let the rain wash my racing fear and sudden fever all away.
He fell to the mud and I ran home through the strange colors of the fog and the sheets of rain. I locked my door, and leaned against the solid wood, and closed my eyes, breathing deep the familiar taste of my own room.
When, finally, my wits had settled, I turned to the thick shadows within.
My eyes worked quickly to identify the lines of my table and chair, my bed, my trunk, but there was something strange. A light spot that was not supposed to be there. The moon reflected in a mirror I didn’t own.
I choked on my own breath as a face appeared.
A face pale and surprised, covered in crimson and mud.

Katherine Czerwinski

 The bathroom had gone from comfortable to stifling in only a few minutes as the steam from the shower thickened the air. James didn’t mind. He welcomed the heat; the tight feeling that it caused as he turned off the shower head and grabbed his towel. The mirror had fogged over, obscuring his reflection as he stepped out of the shower and rubbed the towel over his hair.
This was the life. Thirty years old. Successful. Popular. Good looks, if he did say so himself. On top of that, a shining personality that got him wherever he wanted. (Mostly anywhere, at least. But he tried not to focus on the negatives.) His time was spent as a motivational speaker. Or a speaker, if you wanted to get technical. Sometimes, his speech wasn’t motivating at all. But that’s what happened when you went to work for whoever paid the most. They gave him the guidelines and he gave them a speech that would sway anyone to their side. A mouth for hire.
That sounded just a little too demeaning to him. He preferred the title ‘entrepreneur of eloquence.’ Until, of course, earlier today. As he walked off the stage and found himself confronted by about the same size as himself. His path had been blocked, and despite the side stepping, the man simply moved to block him again.
“You won’t get away with your lies. You really should learn to watch your mouth.”
The threat had been laughed off and security had ushered the man away. Now? Just the thought of it had James chuckling to himself from his own private joke.
A stiffness settled through his jaw and he winced slightly, bringing his hand up to rub his chin. Water still dripped down the sides of his face from his hair, wetting his fingertips.  Shrugging off the feeling, he moved in front of the mirror. His outline was visible, but blurred. That simply wouldn’t do. He had a physique that was meant to be admired.
Reaching out, he used an edge of the towel to wipe some of the steam away from the glass, allowing his reflection to show through.
For a moment, everything was fine. And then, over his shoulder, a face appeared. His heart leapt into his throat and he turned around instantly, stumbling back into the counter. No one was there. Closing his eyes and pushing his fingers over them for a moment, he tried to calm himself. He needed to stop drinking so much coffee. Sleep more. This was getting to him. When he turned back to the mirror, the fear prickled through his body again. The face was still there. He recognized it: the man from earlier.
“You should learn to watch your mouth.”
He spoke, but his mouth didn’t move. Before James could move out of the way, the man’s hand circled around his face, fingers digging into his cheeks and covering his mouth.  He screamed, thrashing at the hold on him. And, just as quickly as he had felt it, the sensation was gone. His gaze frantically searched the room. The floor. The walls. The ceiling. He was alone. When he finally felt like he could breathe again it was quick and ragged. His heart felt like it was about to break through his chest and his entire body was cold.
He repeated the action from before. Closing his eyes. Forcing the heels of his hands into his eyes and trying to force the feeling and images from his mind. When he turned back to the mirror, his eyes widened and he tried to scream. It lodged somewhere in his throat, stuck. No cry for help sounded, though he tried over and over. His reflection in the mirror had changed, and his pulse quickened. Both hands went to his face, fingers digging at the skin, drawing lines of blood where the nails pierced through.
The tool of his trade; the ‘moneymaker’; the reason for his success, was gone.
He had no voice,
because he had no mouth.

Diana Schmuckal

she is not darkness
liquid like-molten glow
she burns at night
fills day skies in
poison clouds

they fear her loud bright violent
anger trembling quake
I fear her quiet, soft
sensual curves creeping
untouchable yet she

eyes glowing in darkness
mouth open, jaw broken
fluid, gaping over acres

Pele, I cry, as ground swallowed
my yard, my tree, my house
wood burns flowers ash
she will devour me

trap me in stone
suffocate me in earth
she devours
so much more
than me
forest highway house

she is not darkness
she burns it