Harlan County Horrors, edited by Mari Adkins, is billed as an anthology of regionally-inspired tales. With Harlan County being in the heart of coal country, one might expect a number of the tales to touch on aspects of mining, and that assumption is correct. However, there’s more to Harlan than the mines; for one thing there’s the people themselves, and where there are people, scary stories are sure to follow. These twelve stories are a showcase for tales of Kentucky coal country by a fine crop of writers, many of them with close ties to the state.
The lead story, “The Power of Moonlight” by Debbie Kuhn is a bitter lesson about a woman scorned and the folly of rash acts. It was a very good selection to kick off the anthology. Maurice Broaddus’ “Trouble Among the Yearlings” is a subtle tale that captures well the claustrophobia of being trapped in a mine. In “Spirit Fire”, Robbie Sparks weaves a tale that warns about making a deal that seems too good to be true.
Ronald Kelly’s “The Thing At the Side of the Road” has a darkly humorous twist – at first. “Inheritance” by Stephanie Lenz was my favorite of the collection, and possibly the scariest story of the bunch. I also liked Alethea Kontis’ “The Witch of Black Mountain”, another woman scorned tale that turns out a bit differently for the protagonist than does “The Power of Moonlight.”
Do the stories capture the feel of Harlan County? Having never been there it’s difficult for me to say. What the tales do capture is a feeling of loneliness, of desperation, and of a hardscrabble existence in a remote place where good paying jobs are few and far between. Pulling coal from the ground pays well, but takes its toll on everyone eventually, and many don’t survive the task. The stories also capture the natural beauty of the area, with its dark, rugged mountains and thickly-forested gullies and streams; towns that seem to still cling to a century ago, and people who could have lived in any time period during the last thousand years.
One criticism I would offer on Harlan County Horrors is that not all of the tales are horror stories per se; many are, but some seem more science fictional than truly horrifying – though horrific elements are definitely present – and one or two defy clear categorization. None of this is necessarily bad; the stories are uniformly well-written and engrossing, but not all met my expectations. That’s a tall order in any case for an anthology; part of the reason why so many anthologies seem a hit-or-miss proposition is precisely because each reader brings a different perspective and different expectations to any book.
Regardless, Harlan County Horrors is a worthy addition to any horror collection. At 180+ pages it’s not an overwhelming reading project, but the stories themselves are page-turners, bringing me to the end of the book sooner than I wanted. It is a satisfying read and, at $16 for a trade paperback-sized edition or $5 for a download, it’s well worth the money.