Charles Blackburn, Jr.
short fiction collection, 177 pages, cover price $13.95
($10 if ordered from the MSR Online Bookstore)
Release date: 2013
These stories range from the rural South to the Middle East. Their subjects include the home front in World War II, the dangers of unexploded Confederate ordinance, a small-town lawyer’s encounter with the supernatural, and a modern-day outlaw whose exploits breathe life into a dying newspaper. In “Borer Bees,” a lonely recluse’s unusual method of bee control robs him of a gabfest with two visiting missionaries, and in “Ghost of a Scientist,” babysitting an elderly gentleman in a spooky old house leads to an unexpected revelation. “Sweet Souls,” “The Golden Pine Cone,” and “Golf in Pakistan” all won Crucible Magazine‘s annual fiction contest, and “Sweet Souls” won a literary fellowship from the N.C. Arts Council.
Charles Blackburn, Jr.
Charles Blackburn, Jr. grew up in Henderson, N.C., attended Barton College and UNC-Chapel Hill and now lives in Raleigh with his wife and daughter. Early in his career he roamed the state as a reporter and editor for four small town newspapers. He has been part owner of a Chapel Hill used and rare bookshop, for which customers were even rarer. His stories, feature articles, and poems have appeared in many regional and national publications. He has written about N.C. history, people, and places for Our State magazine. Charles is a past president of the N.C. Writers’ Network and the N.C. Writers Conference. In 2008, St. Andrews Presbyterian College presented him the Sam Ragan Award for Literature.
Influenced by the American tradition of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor-and also by the English tradition of Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham, Blackburn has forged a style distinctively his own. His voice is unmistakably Southern, and yet not quite like that of any other Southern writer one could name. These stories are often funny, sometimes sad, and sometimes both at once. But they are always irresistibly readable and deeply memorable.
Professor of English, Louisiana State University and author of The Age of Nixon: A Study in Cultural Power
Charles Blackburn’s stories simmer in the imagination long after the first reading. His ironic gaze ranges broadly embracing the pseudo-historical, the fantastic, and even the outlandish. A story might start in recognizable down home Carolina, maybe on the road to Morehead City, but in the turning of a page, you get dropped into a world you never imagined with hilarious characters you don’t want to leave. Some of these natives may be “quaint beyond reason,” or even wanderers adrift from some other literary stream, but whatever their distinctive voice or voyage, they are always entertaining and their surprising fates totally satisfying.
Associate Editor, Crucible
Sweet Souls and Other Stories is full of surprises: a character named Goody Koonce had “a Gibson Hummingbird guitar with cigarette burns on the head stops from wedging them between the strings, a basset hound named Merle, his father’s looks and his mother’s sense.” Prose often becomes poetry: the “migraine heat of August beat the fairground to dust.” Blackburn changes into marvelous and believable stories the things he no doubt has seen and heard.
Professor Emeritus of English, UNC-Pembroke, and Editor Emeritus, Pembroke Magazine
Where “Golf in Pakistan” came from in Blackburn’s creative mind, I can’t say, but the reader is in for a hair-raising bus trip careening backward over a cliff, passengers falling out along the way; a sweltering train ride with stops for communal showers; and finally a game of extreme golf on a “sporty little course” hacked out of the jungle, with an army of 100 ragged caddies who carry a single club, or carry the sedan chairs (and a case of single malt scotch), or retrieve balls, or who beat the bush “never know what might be lurking about.” Did I mention the dead body on Number Eight?
Executive Director, Paul Green Foundation; former Director, N.C. Writers’ Network
The old joke about Sneedsboro was that, in defense of the status quo, the Home Guard had kept the final outcome of the War of Northern Aggression from being reported in the local newspaper. It was a town time forgot. Deaths had outpaced births there for decades, and the exodus among the ambulatory was constant.
For the most part, only two kinds of people lived in Sneedsboro: those who owned property and those who hoped to inherit it. Some families held title to vast tracts through original land grants from the King, and the most powerful elective office was that of Tax Collector, for which the salary was still calculated according to a pre-industrial formula as a percentage of collections.
A Sneed of some description had occupied the narrow two-story brick law office on the corner of Main and Court streets since James Madison was president. Various Sneeds had served more or less with distinction in the state legislature, and the voters had returned old J. Harlan Sneed to Congress time and again, long after there was precious little of a cognitive nature left to send.
The Sneeds had a reputation for being hard-headed, pragmatic and in no wise suggestible to supernatural phenomena, which made what happened to Younger Sneed all the more remarkable.
That’s not to say the community as a whole was impervious to the dark undercurrents of superstition. It was axiomatic on the judicial circuit that statutory definitions of assault could not be strictly applied in Harlan County cases in which plaintiffs and/or defendants were alleged to have put haints and spells on one another. It was also generally accepted that those who believed themselves to have been supernaturally assaulted were due a certain latitude for whatever violence had erupted in consequence.
Such things passed with a wink and a nod among the enlightened gentry, of which the Sneeds were foremost and perpetual. But it was inevitable that a man who loved women as much as Younger Sneed did would run into trouble sooner or later, even if nobody could have guessed the form it would take.
The first real inkling came at the City Barber Shop the day Younger astounded the regulars by asking Mott, the owner, for the use of his broom. It defied popular belief to imagine that Younger had ever used one before, and nobody was sure how to react when, spotting it in a corner, he laid hands on it and proceeded to sweep up his own freshly shorn locks from around the barber’s chair into a neat little pile on the linoleum.
Nobody knew what to say when Younger reached in his pocket, pulled out a small paper sack, bent over and put the salt-and-pepper clippings in it, taking pains not to leave behind a single strand. Rapt, poker-faced silence continued among the spectators as he pocketed the bag and handed Mott the usual fee and tip as though nothing unusual had transpired.
This was something radically new in the realm of Sneedish tendencies, but it was none of Mott’s business if a customer wanted to take his goddamn hair with him. Next time Younger came in for a trim, Mott swept up and bagged the clippings for him. It became a standard part of the service, and neither of them ever said a word about it.
Talk had begun to circulate by then, however, about Younger’s sudden disappearances from public life. He’d vanish for days at a time, only to reappear without explanation. The assumption was that a jealous husband or Younger’s long-suffering wife would one day provide a cure for his wanderlust. No one would have been surprised if Younger had turned up dead.
But gradually folks began to see he was a changed man. The vacant look in his eyes was clearly due to more than the rigors of the boudoir, and when he could be found in his law office at all, he seemed chronically distracted and agitated, unable to concentrate on the business at hand. Even old friends began to describe his behavior as “erratic.”
Then, one day during a trial for grand theft auto, Younger failed to return to the defense table after the noon recess, and Judge Hamilton was forced to make inquiries. Only then did an explanation for his sudden disappearances emerge. It seems he had developed some kind of mysterious illness that came and went, periodically leaving him bed-ridden.
Nobody knew what to make of it. Younger Sneed had always been as healthy as a goat. Yet it became obvious, as his hiatuses from public view grew progressively longer, and his eyes more sunken and lackluster, that something pernicious had a hold on him. It even affected his walk, which became stiff and unnatural, almost puppet-like. One medical specialist after another was consulted, but no one could pinpoint the problem.
Meanwhile, Younger’s law practice went to hell. His wife left him and took the children. He became known as a man possessed. This public verdict was reinforced whenever he was observed by the light of a full moon in his yard muttering to himself while sprinkling some kind of white powder around the foundation of his house. He outlived the rumors about tertiary syphilis, as his dementia proved to be of a more lasting variety.
By degrees, the mystery was solved, at least to Younger’s mind. He told the story over and over the rest of his life, as though it contained some ancient, elemental truth worthy of endless repetition. Most people didn’t need to hear it twice to form an opinion.
To hear him tell it the trouble began not long after a young black woman of extraordinary beauty named Simone caught his roving eye. One day her Creole grandmother came home unexpectedly to find Younger in bed with the girl. The old crone was locally famous for her powers. Flying into a rage, she put a hex on him then and there.
Naturally, Younger figured to have gotten off scot-free. The idea of haints and hexes was beneath the dignity of a man of his education and social standing. But a week later the first of these mysterious spells came over him. He knew it was mere coincidence. And yet…when these horribly debilitating attacks kept recurring…when doctor after doctor gave up…when his law practice fell apart…when his wife left him…
Against his better judgment, Younger found himself taking routine precautions to ward off the evil eye. But it didn’t do any good. Each new attack was more agonizing than the last, further diminishing any hope of recovery.
Simone had by then borne him a son, and her Gran vowed to renew the curse annually until the sheer weight of it broke Younger’s back. It was more than he could endure. He was a broken man indeed when he finally went to the old woman and wept for forgiveness.
“The Sneeds a big noise hereabouts,” she told him, “but you’re just another sinner in the eyes of the Lord.” She ran her twig-like fingers once down his backbone. “Whare too much hex, even for a Sneed.”
Younger began to breathe easier right away, but ten days later he was stricken again. This time, however, on the advice of a cousin, he went up to the state hospital in Chapel Hill, and after some new kind of test, the specialist told him, “You’ve got ankylosing spondylitis. It’s a rare disease in which the upper vertebrae of the spine slowly fuse together. Not one doctor in a thousand knows anything about it. It can create enormous pressure on the central nervous system. That’s what’s been causing your symptoms. The good news is there’s a treatment for it.”
Younger got better. Except for a lingering stiffness in his neck, he made a full recovery. He moved to the country and spent the rest of his days raising peacocks and gourds and cultivating wild honey.
On weekends and throughout the summer, he delighted in entertaining his many children and grandchildren of all races from many different unions. Everybody said his was the best honey anywhere. Its luxurious sweetness fairly exploded on the tongue.
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