After six decades as a prominent print journal, Washington and Lee's acclaimed literary journal Shenandoah is available at shenandoahliterary.org. The digital version - Volume 62, Number 2, is now online. The homepage also includes a Poem of the Week, an Archive Feature of the Month, audio files of contributors reading their work, an essay on featured artist, William Dunlap; brief and extended reviews and a rotating series of 100 arresting quotations. Those seeking information about submissions, prizes and the publication's history - from Tom Wolfe through Flannery O'Connor and W. H. Auden up to Rita Dove and Charles Wright- will find a wealth of information on the site. Further links reveal a description of the WLU English Department's Internship in Literary Editing program, along with comments by both the winter 2013 interns and recent graduates. All aspects of the journal are interactive and invite reader comment. Finally, Shenandoah's blog "Snopes" will introduce provocative topics and encourage readers to engage in discussion. Bloggers will include staff members, interns and special guests.
For over half a century Shenandoah has been publishing splendid poems, stories, essays and reviews which display passionate understanding, formal accomplishment and serious mischief.
Founded in 1950 by a group of Washington and Lee University faculty and students, Shenandoah has achieved a wide reputation as one of the country's premier literary magazines. Work from the magazine's pages has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best American Poems, Best American Essays, Best American Spiritual Writing, The O'Henry Prize, New Stories from the South and The Pushcart Prize, as well as numerous other anthologies and quite literally thousands of collections by the original authors. Recent issues have featured Pulitzer winners Natasha Trethewey, Claudia Emerson and Ted Kooser, as well as fiction by James Lee Burke, George Singleton, Alyson Hagy, Chris Offutt, Bret Anthony Johnston and Pam Durban.
Through the brief interval between grading papers and judging a contest with 1000 entries, I find myself flinchy and belligerent, unable to relax, despite the mild weather, DVDs of the first season of “Maverick” and just a taste of excellent scotch every time midnight rolls around. My newest irritation involves a movie that should never have been made because it renews old prejudices, distorts an already beleaguered and willfully misunderstood group of marginalized people and substitutes cheap B-movie conventions for much more intricate and interesting actual information. It also hijacks the title of an underappreciated documentary from half a century ago. Given all this fidgetation and flusterment, what could I do but share?
In the five-dollar bin of my local Wal-Mart, heaped up with all the Wayne westerns and Sandler travesties, the zombies and X-Men and adorable lost pet odysseys, I saw a startling DVD entitled “Holy Ghost People,” its cover displaying a raised hand gripping a rifle, the crucifix-tattooed forearm wrapped by what might be a rattlesnake. Pit-viper head and hooked fangs protruded from the reptile’s open jaw, however unrealistic, testifying to the creature’s lethal nature without arousing any real alarm.
I had to do a double-take because I’ve long been familiar with Peter Adair’s documentary “The Holy Ghost People,” shot in Scrabble Creek, WV and released almost fifty years ago. That film, now in the public domain, is a valuable resource in the on-going efforts to understand the Signs Following believers who speak in tongues, drink toxic liquids, heal by the laying on of hands, cast out demons and handle serpents. These feats the members of small congregations concentrated in the southern Appalachians believe they can achieve when the spirit is on them, which is a matter of faith, though there is no scriptural guarantee they will heal anyone instantly or that the deadly snakes, usually native pit vipers, won’t bite them. The worshipers take their lead from a passage in The Gospel of Mark and have long been reviled, persecuted and even celebrated as fascinatingly mad.
Weston La Barre explored the history and psychology of these believers in his They Shall Take Up Serpents, which treats them as a crisis cult like the Plains Indians’ ghost dance. The handlers have been studied and analyzed sympathetically by Dennis Covington in Salvation on Sand Mountain, by Tom Burton’s Serpent-Handling Believers, by Robert Schenkkan in a stage play. Photographed by Shelby Lee Adams, they’ve been brought to fiction by many, including Lee Smith in Saving Grace. You can even find them in a tent with Pastor Billy in the first season of “Justified” and in many dozens of poems by witnesses (like Charles Wright) and fantasists alike. Some of the churches have recently constructed websites to combat misinformation, and the National Geographic Channel in 2013 followed the lives of Pastors Coots and Hamblin in their reality series “Snake Salvation,” declaring a break when Jamie Coots died from a rattlesnake bite.
In our current century the practice, still illegal or marginal anywhere but eastern Kentucky, continues but is not on the rise. Tired of being maligned, the Signs Following people have come out of the shadows to offer interviews in order to help us understand their fervor and strange courage, and although I find their services and favored Biblical texts unsettlingly selective, I still find it impossible to dismiss Christians whose sincerity is not superficial and who are not seduced by flashy media presentations, mega-churches and cutesy piety. I know they’re tired of being ridiculed as idiots and hicks, and I sympathize, which does not mean I’d like to join or even visit any of the churches again, but they are not jokes or idiots and follow a long tributary of unorthodoxy that often replenishes the mainstream of American religion.
This new movie, which claims to be “partly inspired by” the Adair documentary, looks to me like an attempt to take some steps backwards, to accent the spectacle and novelty while returning the dirty glamour to the stereotyped “hillbillies” as they torture themselves and one another on behalf of purity and the old ways (the practice is, in fact, just over a century old). Or maybe it’s just an attempt to make a quick profit from passing counterfeit bills.
The company which made this 2013 film, which has little of the documentary about it, is Macabre, and one promo blurb, quoted from a Heather Wixson of Dread Central (no subscription suggested), touted “A mesmerizing, intoxicating southern gothic thriller” in letters as red as the title and the caption along the bottom edge, appropriated from the beloved hymn: “There is power in the blood.”
This film is, however, a cold-blooded production, placing the snake-handling cult in a compound akin to Waco where thirsty seekers are dominated by a vicious Brother Billy who abuses and intimidates his captive audience with rhetoric and volume, as well as firearms and a whip. It’s directed by Michael Altieri and aims to be a hostage thriller, a torture horror tale and a serious lost girl quest tale in which a self-destructive vet morphs to an action hero. What it omits is any semblance of theology, though a Bible is used as both prop and weapon. The most interesting aspects of this production (which features decent music, some respectable acting and plenty of gore, including snakebite, for all comers) are the parasitic adoption of a title nearly identical to the documentary (which it excerpts from to add a few moments of credibility) and the deletion of a crucial scene, which can be viewed on the DVD Extras.
In the deleted scene, we watch one of blessed Billy’s henchmen/apostles at the Church of One Accord read the passage from Mark that enumerates the five signs such Holiness believers follow. This is real information and crucial to any view of the movie in which interest in the real sub-culture even competes with the shock and aw-shucks awe. It’s the most revealing and provocative moment the camera caught, as the lake baptisms, marriage, prayers and other services are thin and unconvincing. But they left it on the cutting room floor, snake-like, I suppose.
The script was written by Altieri and a committee, and the whole carnival is rated R for language and some drug use, but the flagellation, gunfights, titillation and smirking evidently weren’t of much interest to the rating board. Likely they just saw all that as mainstream, or necessary for a film whose DVD case text begins with “BURIED DEEP IN THE APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS, mysterious preacher man . . . snake-handling misfits. . . Billy’s dangerous game . . . face her own dark past. . . .”
OK, I’ve made my point, and then some, whether it amounts to righteous indignation or just secular irritation. The result is kitsch worse than any proposed Beverly Hillbillies (or “Hollywood Hillbillies”) reality show. And I’m not so naïve as to believe that a fictional story must be true or that “entertainment” is required to be authentic. But here was a director/writer/entrepreneur whose knowledge of the original film could have inspired him to explore and reveal something important about passion and action, belief and bedevilment. Too bad either the artistic staff or the financial backers weren’t going for that.
Now on to the contest, where I expect to find more gravity, levity and maturity at every turn.
“A Turkey Hunter’s First Shot”:
A Look into Allison Glock’s Turkey Hunt in Garden & Gun
I am standing between rows and rows of palmetto bluff pines. My ears are open to the crackling chirps of crickets, as they stretch out their legs, and I can feel the strap of the Benelli rubbing through my camouflage shirt against my collarbone. This is the picture that Allison Glock has painted for her readers in her article in the 2012 February/March issue of Garden & Gun.
I live in a household which devotes an entire closet to camouflage suits, insulated rubber boots plus a number of turkey calls, and April means one thing to my family—turkey season. In Virginia, gobbler hunting begins April 12th and runs until May 17th, with the exception of Youth Hunt Day on April 5th. Though my roots are down in South Carolina, I know what this short time span means to many Virginians. For hunters, the month brings the morning excitement of setting up against a tree with a box call and then waiting for turkeys as the rest of the forest begins to wake up. For the children of hunters (I fall into this category), this month means choosing to wake up on a Saturday morning rather than sleeping in, learning the precise angle of a striker on a slate call, and hoping that all the target practice in March paid off.
In “A Turkey Hunter’s First Shot,” Glock interviews turkey hunting legend, Jay Walea. With a descriptive account of her turkey hunt and a new-formed friendship with Walea, Glock forgoes the conventional interview style and conveys the true turkey hunting experience to her readers—even for those who wouldn’t know a tom from a jake.
The article portrays the turkey hunt with such descriptive narration from the outdoorsman himself that the reader is practically on the hunt as well. At one point, Walea says, “You hear the flying squirrels peeping. You’ll hear a screech owl once or twice. The first little birds to chirp are the redbirds. Watching everything come alive. I love that.” Many writers would embellish the atmosphere of the woods or the serenity of the morning, but in Walea’s account there is no exaggeration. Unlike a writer, a turkey hunter wouldn’t normally comment on dewdrops on leaves or thickening pines. A turkey hunter focuses on sounds, because after all, they’re listening for the gobblers. Because the interview directly quotes its subject’s exact words, his depiction of the morning is precise, efficient, concentrated on the necessary.
Glock not only relays the beauty of the woods, but also goes beyond the impersonal, by forming an authentic relationship with Jay Walea. Of all the interviews I have read, given and seen, whether in a fitness magazine or on the Today Show, the majority of interviewers stick to basic, objective conversation, keeping their subjects at distance. However, she makes an honest effort to really know and understand Walea; Glock moves past his appearance and background to a more intimate level where she describes his words and actions, and even eats dinner with his family. At one point towards the end of the story, when Glock has mixed emotions about killing her first turkey, she writes, “Walea looks at me with pity. He takes a deep breath, finds my eye again, and says softly, ‘I’ve cried too.’” Then, the hunter hugs the writer, who has formed such a sound friendship with Walea that he admits crying shooting an animal before, and in return, she conveys that sentiment to the reader. Glock’s article goes beyond the superficial interview and treats her subject as a friend rather than an assignment.
Glock’s “Turkey Hunter’s First Shot” is an outstanding piece of writing because it uses expressive language and a personal relationship to help non-hunting readers understand the experience of stalking, calling and shooting. While not a candidate for great hunting literature, Glock’s piece is far more vivid than casual journalism.
Interested in Glock’s article? Follow the link—
After reading a New Yorker article that questions the dwindling presence of bookstores, I began to reminisce on my childhood bookstore. I begged my mother every day to take me to the bookstore. Buying a book was much more satisfying to me than checking a book out at my school library—I got to keep the treasured story on my bedside table instead of returning it to the librarian and had the ability to reread the intriguing plotline whenever I wanted.
Upon entering my bookstore, I entered a haven—a comforting atmosphere surrounded by thrilling tales of adventure that captivated my adolescent minds. The employees greeted me with welcoming smiles, and I bee-lined for the children’s section, selecting as many books that I could fit in my arms, plopping down in the middle of the bookshelves on the carpeted floor, spreading out the books, admiring the eye-catching covers. The fresh stories dawned beautiful pictures on crisp pages; I buried my nose into the binding to inhale that fresh new bookstore smell (everyone knows and loves that smell—there’s no denying it). I had an allegiance to my bookstore—feeling guilty if I visited another location to buy a book. The New Yorker article states, “Those of us who cherish our local bookstores do so not simply because they are convenient—how great to be able to run out for milk and also pick up the new Karl Ove Knausgaard!—but also because we feel a duty to support them, because we believe in their mission.” It was about more than just the book—it was about the whole experience. The bookstore fostered my love for literature at an early age. The nurturing environment encouraged reading, which made me feel comfortable among the books. From there I jumped into stories that kept me interested in books. From E.B. White to Judy Blume to J.K. Rowling—my passion for literature grew with each visit.
Today’s diminishing presence of bookstores makes me nervous. My childhood bookstore went out of business eight years ago. The vacant building broadcasts a dusty “For Rent” sign collecting dust on the milky, dirty windowpanes. The market for books is changing. The rise of the Internet and online shopping carves a convenient path for delivering books directly to my front door. But where is the experience in that? The bookstore environment encourages a love for the text, for the characters, for the author. The experience is irreplaceable—strolling through the shelves, observing colorful book covers, searching for the desired author. It’s lugging an armful of books to the counter. It’s carrying a new story out of the store. It’s bending the corners of pages. It’s inhaling the unique smell. The welcoming atmosphere encourages reading; the bookstores foster a love for literature within the minds of children.
I believe in the mission of bookstores. I believe in creating a pleasant domain where children feel comfortable diving into a book, expanding their imaginations through exciting plotlines. I believe in promoting the importance of children’s literature, for it stands as the platform from which children cultivate a greater love for reading, expanding their palate through adult literature that spans from different centuries and continents. Instilling a love for literature at an early age fosters a lifelong love for it within our children. Despite society’s technological advances in the book world, there is still a need for bookstores.
Where do you stand? What cultivated your love for literature? What happened to your childhood bookstore?