I’ve been meaning to write about this for some time, but this last week I was reminded I hadn’t done it yet. Oops? I got distracted?
So what, you may be asking, is banjo fantasy? Are there musical instruments and sprightly tunes?
Not… always. There could be, sure. Or it could be a reference to ‘paddle faster, I hear banjos!’ which in turn comes from a movie I have not seen (nor do I wish to, thankyouverymuch). The term was coined by friend and fellow author Tom Knighton, as he was in the audience for my reading at LibertyCon. I was talking about the novel I had just released, and was about to read from, Possum Creek Massacre. Although it is completely unrelated to my Pixie series, it has the same problem – there’s no easy sub-category of fantasy to plop it into. It is contemporary fantasy, yes, set in the present day. It does fall into paranormal police procedurals, and I have it categorized as that, but Pixie doesn’t fall there. Both of them are set in rather rural areas, but Rural Fantasy evokes images of the Shire, and bucolic farmland where life is placid and the stories in my books are, well, not. So I’ve had discussions here, over on my blog, and on other social media about what to call my fantasies.
Tom, sitting in the audience, called out, ‘Banjo Fantasy!’ the whole audience laughed and I decided that was it. For Possum Creek in particular, given it’s Appalachian setting, the category is very fitting. Modern backwoods Kentucky is an interesting place to visit, and learn about. My First Reader was born there, in another time, and grew up largely in Ohio with visits back. But when he came to Ohio when he was a small boy, he was savagely bullied by teachers and students for his accent and origin. His story is by no means unique, Kentuckians in the modern era bear the stigma of hillbilly, and anyone with a hillbilly accent, he tells, me gets an automatic reduction of twenty IQ points by the person listening. He tells a joke: a college professor asks his class “What would you do if you found out the world was ending tomorrow?” One student raises his hand and drawls “I’d move back to Kentucky.” The professor, stumped, asks “Why would you do that?” The student shakes his head and opines “In Kentucky everything happens twenty years later’n the rest of the world.”
it’s a cliche, this banjo term, but it’s an evocative one. The books like David Drake’s Old Nathan, the modern Witchy Eye series by Dave Butler, parts of Monster Hunter International (specifically trailer park elves). The TV show like Justified, which I watched part of and found interesting as I had seen glimpses of that darkness in Kentucky and far parts of Ohio as well. Unless you live in it, it’s hard to describe the feeling of a town that has simply given up on life and is watching the cars pass through on what was main street with blind windowed eyes partly boarded up where the vandals had played and no-one cared to replace them. Those stores on Main Street were never going to open again. The First Reader and I were helping my Mom house-hunt in Southeastern Ohio and northern Kentucky, which lent themselves to the settings in Possum Creek Massacre. There’s a lot to read between the lines in houses that have sat empty for a generation, or that have been rented to low-class beings who took it on themselves to wreak havoc on the house when their landlord finally lost patience with them. The house I turned into a gruesome murder scene in my book was one we walked through with realtors and my Mom, after carefully picking our way up a steep washed-out driveway that was going to cost a mint to replace. There were barns, land, and the house was nice, once… I’m glad she didn’t buy that one. Something was very wrong, there. On the other hand, a farmhouse up on the hill with an amazing view and jewel-like setting both the First Reader and I fell in love with. That house sang to us when we pulled up. Had we not already known that one sill was full of termites, for sure, and maybe more, we might have made an offer for ourselves (sorry, Mom!). Well, that and there would have been no work in easy commuting distance. Over an hour’s drive to the nearest jobs with decent pay. Which is why if you google streetview Portsmouth, OH, you’ll get a sense of what I described at the top of the paragraph.
And it is what I was thinking of, along with countless Kentucky towns crumbling down by their creeks in the hollers, when I wrote this into Possum Creek Massacre.
Snippet of chapter Endeavour:
I sat up a little and looked closely at the town. The main road doubled as Main Street, it looked to me. Aged wood facades on clapboard buildings, with one lone brick edifice on the corner of the town’s only intersection. The deputy turned onto this cross street, went up a block, and pulled into the lot next to a low, modern brick building that looked slightly out of place in this setting. A sign on the street proclaimed it the county sheriff’s office, but the lot full of cars would have told me that. There were several in the brown and gold the county favored, and a pair in the silver with a blue diagonal that designated the state police. I’d seen one or two of those during our drive on the interstate, but none since.
I climbed out stiffly again. It had been, I checked my watch, nearly three hours since we’d left the airport. I did a little mental calculation to figure out the local time, although the lowered position of the sun and some welcome coolness told me it was evening time. I wondered if I’d be taken to a hotel, or put right to work. I was tired, but not ready to fall over. And I had not seen a hotel on our way into town. Not since the interstate, actually.
I followed Deputy Mark into the station. It looked much like any other, with a small waiting room and locked doors as barriers to the inner sanctum where the work happened. He swiped an access badge and let me into the action.
And action was the right word. The office was an open concept, with desks scattered through the big room. On one of the interior walls was a massive whiteboard that was mostly clean. Only a small clutter of photos held up with magnets and a scrawled list occupied one side. But the amount of people in the room belied that lack of documentation. I didn’t even try to count, because the sheriff had seen us enter and was forging his way through them like a bull through the herd. I wondered who they all were, since the deputy had told me how small his force was.
“Howdy.” He stuck out a meaty hand. “You must be Detective Lombard.”
“Yessir,” I put my hand out and he clasped it surprisingly gently in his warm, dry hand. “You must be Sheriff Lilburne.”
“That I am, and may I say, mighty glad to see you. Did y’have a good trip?”
“I did, and not too tired to work if that’s what you’re asking.” I smiled at him.
His eyes looked about as tired as I felt, but at that they lit up a little. “Appreciate it muchly. D’you mind seeing the body first?”
“That would be fine.” I looked around the roomful of people who were mostly ignoring us. “Where is your morgue?”
“No, ma’am. Honest mistake, but the body’s still on scene.”
My face must have betrayed my surprise. I would have sworn Deputy White had told me it was moved. A young man wearing a uniform blurted out, “We cain’t move it!”
“Now, now, Hod. We cain move her. An’ then she comes back, an’ we move her, and move her again. And then we call you.” The sheriff turned to me as he said that last.
He smiled, more of a grimace at me. I could see the trouble in his eyes, and understood that this was what had led to my being called in.
“How many times did you try moving…” I asked.
“Only the three times. We may be dumb, but we ain’t plumb dumb. We called in BCI, and they made a call, and they tole me you were comin’ an’ to hole on.” His accent was slipping badly, and I guessed at the depth of his disturbance that wasn’t showing on the genial surface.