A collection of fifteen stories, Sheryl Monks’s Monsters in Appalachia illuminates a fictional terrain that is both achingly familiar and underrepresented. Monks’s Appalachia is a place of miners laboring in impossibly dangerous conditions, poor women with drunken husbands, greed, exploitation, and desperate love. But it’s also a place where middle class children are bullied and young girls have mothers who are just a little too hot. It’s a place that’s broadly recognizable and relatable, yet Monks presents her characters in ways that are largely unexpected. Her fictional worlds are drawn with precision and insight, revealing surprising truths.
Monks writes about people and places we don’t see enough in contemporary short stories. The collection begins with this curious sentence:
All the children had been given away, and now Darcus Mullins found herself driving the curving road up toward Isaban to look again at the burning slag heap.
Darcus’s children have been put in foster care, a situation that is rare enough in contemporary short fiction, but to have that emotionally wrenching circumstance juxtaposed with a mound of burning slag is genuinely remarkable. I can’t remember ever having read a story that featured any kind of slag heap. In fact, I had to look up the term to be sure what it was. This story quickly puts readers on notice that they are entering a word of unqualified originality.
But it’s not the burning slag heap—probably refuse left over from coal extraction—that really interests Darcus. It is her son, Leonard, whose new foster home she drives past on the way to Isaban. He is outside happily playing with his foster sisters in a situation that seems idyllic, loving, and safe—a situation Monks paints with a few telling details: the children “patting pies into shape” and the “little white heads” of the foster sisters, one of whom has “her arm crooked up over his neck.” But when Darcus guns the car past her son’s new home, Leonard runs after it and is “doubled over bawling” when he fails to catch up with his mother.
Deep, self-sacrificing, and even courageous maternal love, especially from women who have been let down by their men, is one of the themes of this collection. The first story, in a mere six pages, gives Monks’s readers a glimpse of Darcus’s grim reality that they won’t easily shake off, and reveals Darcus’s love for her child without presenting it as in any way redemptive.
The next story, “Robbing Pillars,” takes readers to the depths of a coal mine, the place where slag heaps like the one that offers Darcus peculiar comfort are produced, and a place of such raw cruelty that the miners who inhabit this level of hell are almost forced to dwell in the realm of the supernatural. This story’s ghosts are a hint of what’s to come later in the collection.
The fraught lives of working class husbands and wives are also thematic in this collection, but the kinds of marriages that keep country music booming avoid becoming clichés in Monks’s fiction. In “The Immortal Jesse James,” Jane, a young wife with a baby, travels cross-country by car with her husband, Boy Baby, and his two brothers. The aptly named Boy Baby convinces Jane they need to make a detour to visit a bat-infested cave which was once a hideout for the James gang. What appears in this story to be a recipe for disaster becomes instead a moment when a young married woman experiences a quiet sense of her own agency. Or at least, the story hints that this may be the case. The arrangement of Monks’s stories is one of the pleasures of this collection, its unexpected turns making for a thrilling ride. And this story’s ending, coming after the depiction of two such harsh fates, is a shock of a different kind.
Some of Monks’s writing has a vintage 1970s feel, and she says in her acknowledgements that family stories she heard repeated over and over are a source of inspiration. Yet, in a story like “Barry Gibb Is the Cutest Bee Gee,” the vivid details and subtly mounting tension create something fresh and dynamically different from disco era clichés. In this story, a mother, a pubescent daughter, and an aunt are tanning in the summer heat while two handsome young men do yard work next door. Mama, with a “thin white scar” peeking out of her bikini, smokes and offers her daughter useless advice. The girl keeps going back into the house for her Coppertone and “leftover bacon and canned biscuits.” As the sun rises higher, they speculate about whether they are “ready to flip.” A local stoner comes by to admire the mother. Her daughter thinks about “Mama’s spelling-casting eyes” and the “hold they had on TJ Frazier” and in one of those examples of how Monks’s sentences don’t necessarily go where you’d expect them to, the daughter experiences “a surge of power” inside herself “like a burning tornado.”
But when the young girl finds herself sweating in a baking hot backseat on her way to the pool with the two young men, who are the uncles of her best friend, the sexual tension and self-consciousness are so strong that they become indistinguishable from the reader’s own memories of adolescence. When one man insists that she sit on his lap, that feeling of power fades, and the girl hears instead “the sound of a star swallowing its own planet.”
“Nympho” is another story that delves into the heart of American adolescence and has a contemporary appeal. But in this story, an adolescent boy’s ill-considered remark about a girl, instead of destroying her reputation, allows him to confront a bully. This is both one of Monks’s funniest stories as well as one that belongs in her land of “monsters”—if that term can be broadened to include the unusual, the vividly real, the unanticipated.
Monks examines the exploitation too often suffered by the economically disadvantaged, as when she portrays a moment from the 1960s when a mother on food stamps hears Lyndon B. Johnson on TV, giving his famous speech about the “Great Society” while a grocer is just about to cheat her out of the full value of her food stamps. Grocers don’t fare well in Monks’s tales. They may be stand-ins for economic exploitation in all its forms, since the mine owners and bosses never appear. In fact, except for the miner in a single story, few of Monks’s impoverished characters appear to work. It’s a feature of their economic immobility, and a tribute to Monks’s talent that she moves between socioeconomic realms with honesty and conviction. We trust her eye regardless of where it comes to rest.
By the time the reader reaches the final story in the collection, the title story, she is apt to feel she has seen a few of the monsters that inhabit Appalachia and is ready for one more. This story is perhaps the most surprising turn taken by Monks in a collection rife with the unexpected. In it, she uses the book of Revelation to invoke the monsters that populate the imaginations of any serious reader of the Bible, and perhaps takes aim at the religious beliefs that offer so little solace to the poor people in her stories. At least, that’s one way of thinking about a magical realist—even surreal—story that has found its way into a collection which, until this point, has been comprised mostly of skillfully realist fiction.
And yet, Sheryl Monks’s vivid and remarkable imagery has already unsettled our imaginations and prepared us for this moment. It seems the proper capstone of a collection filled with surprises yet capable of making us share some of life’s most wrenching moments without regret.
About the Reviewer
R. T. Both is a doctoral student in fiction writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, and articles have been published in magazines, journals, and newspapers that include the Brooklyn Review, Cream City Review, Weep, Chicago Magazine, and the Sunday Milwaukee Journal.