Appalachian Sly

Unfortunate characters suffer multiple miseries before attempting to turn calamity into good fortune.

Many famous novelists began their careers writing short stories for literary journals and magazines before moving on to long-form fiction. Steven King, David Baldacci and Khaled Hosseini, just to name a few. To those outside the writing world, it might seem like short stories are the easier form, literary “training wheels” so to speak before a writer rides off into the long stretch of a novel. 

“I don’t think people realize how much work goes into a 5,000-word story,” says Scott Loring Sanders. “I spent months and months on each of those short stories before they were published, sometimes a year. And I read and edited them at least 20 or 30 times out loud.”

With deft prose, Sanders writes in a gritty style evoking the best of pulp fiction. Most of the stories in this collection take place in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, where Sanders lived for 25 years before moving to Massachusetts to teach creative writing at both Emerson College and Lesley University.

“I identify myself as Appalachian probably more than anything,” he says. “My true heart is in the mountains. What I’ve learned from living in Appalachia is how tough the people are, but how kind they are as well. I’m generalizing, but that is overwhelmingly what I found. They have a hardscrabble life, a lot of them, but that doesn’t lessen their kindness and their ingenuity.”

Each story in Shooting Creek stands on its own, but a recurring theme binds them together—the ethical conundrums faced by deprived people placed in harsh predicaments. 

“I like testing my characters,” says Sanders, “putting them in very difficult ethical and moral situations to see how they come out of it. I think about what I would do in their situation and they usually do the opposite of that. Like in ‘Frank’s Beach,’ the opening story, when Frank [treasure hunting with a metal detector,] digs up a body on the beach. For me, Scott Sanders, I would immediately call the police. And I would like to think most people would do that. But that’s not interesting. What’s interesting is if you don’t call the police and why you wouldn’t.”

It turns out Frank is a man sought not only by the police for various crimes, but also by the gangster he framed for murder. If the first finds him, he might wind up in prison; if the second finds him, he’ll wind up buried next to the body he discovered or in some other unsavory dumping spot. To avoid these fates, Frank has been hiding in a small beach town for more than a decade. But his DNA is on file, and when he dug up the body he cut himself on the ring that made his detector beep, leaving behind his blood as evidence. 

Other characters in this book also find themselves in seemingly no-win dilemmas. In one story, a husband discovers his cheating wife is also a murderer; in another, a mother with a bum for a husband seeks a way to provide for her brain-damaged son; and in another, a boy who witnesses a truck crash discovers a bag of money on the floorboards. In each case, the protagonist makes a somewhat shocking and often illegal choice—the boy, for instance, runs off with the bag of money, bringing hellacious consequences upon him and his mother when the criminal tracks them down. 

“You’re not ever going to find a story in anything I write that has a nice little happy ending with a bow that seals it up all pretty,” says Sanders, “because life rarely works that way.” But the most interesting thing about these stories is what the main characters decide to do to improve their situations. The protagonists are of the antihero variety, the type who might stand up to a true villain by bashing in his head; then, instead of informing the police, bury his body in the back yard and keep his ill-gotten loot for themselves. 

“I do write about people who do some pretty horrible things,” Sanders admits. “Characters should be flawed because we are all flawed. And we all have good qualities and bad qualities, so I like to focus on that.”

Although Sanders populates his stories with tough-as-nails characters, he also exposes their humanity by baring their fears and frailties. In one passage, he writes of a man taking his coal miner father-in-law to the doctor. “Those X-rays looked like some foreign black universe with a splattering of white stars. Each star, explained the doc, was coal dust, scarring the lungs. Joe didn’t ask questions, just gazed ahead, absorbing it as if he’d known since boyhood this day was inevitable. He’d left school in eighth grade to enter the mines, only exited a few years back. That was the shit of it all. Work 50 years underground just to be put back in it permanently, right when you’d finally come up for air. As if day-by-day, year-by-year, all you’d been doing was digging your own grave.”

Shooting Creek and Other Stories captivates from beginning to end with fully imagined characters, devious situations, and sly solutions that usually come with a twist. The plots of these suspenseful stories are enough to keep you turning pages, but the way Sanders delves deep into the human psyche and unflinchingly portrays flawed characters with dignity will leave you thinking about them long after you set the book down.

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