For some of us, moonlight suggests romantic moments. Sketches are quickly dashed off drawings, bare outlines of more detailed compositions. At the bookstore when you spot a copy — no, not acopy but a tower of copies — of Gerard Collins’Moonlight Sketches[Killick Press] you might reach out drawn by the desire to read an anthology of short stories about light-hearted romances.
Or not. Who am I to presume what might go through a book-browser’s noggin?
However, take a close look at the shadowy colours of the community sketched on the cover; at the bold, black print of the title; at the midnight, pitch-black sickle-edged moon.
Shades of Stephen King? Naw, not in this case. More like shades of Erskine Caldwell.
Bet ol’ Erskine is a novelist you haven’t thought about since the devil was an oakum picker.
I first read Caldwell’s novelsGod’s Little AcreandTobacco Roadwhen I was an unsullied youth. Afterwards, I immediately scoured bookstores and libraries until I exhausted the meagre — nowhere near the 25 novels penned — local supply of Caldwell yarns.
Caldwell’s stories explore the dark side of the American south, a society partly populated by people driven by raw emotions, yet who, despite their oftentimes primitive behaviour, garner our sympathy.
That last paragraph make any sense? I’m trying to be right literary.
Certain of Gerard Collins’ stories evoke memories of those Caldwell books I enjoyed back when I was probably too young to fully appreciate their content.
For instance, Tar-Cat, one of the several stories featuring David Snow and his violent cousin Benny. Benny’s brutality, his “ease with death and violence” is almost idiopathic, perhaps stemming from the same mutated mores that makes drowning cats “a natural part of life in Darwin.”
Because it’s his nature, Benny pitches Snowball the cat into the tar bucket. Despite the mistreatment, Snowball — kinda like that resilient Puss in the Doc Williams tune The Cat Came Back — survives and thrives.
There’s a sweet sardonic touch at the story’s end. One of Snowball’s progeny is named Benny “out of spite.”
My favourite story is The Darkness and Darcy Knight. This one has echoes of not only Caldwell, but also William Faulkner and Shirley Jackson, and even the hinterland horror of the movieDeliverancewithout the dueling banjoes.
Idealistic school teacher Darcy Knight believes he can save Amy Crowley from the life of abuse and poverty she exists in on the outskirts of Darwin. Foolishly, he ignores the “stay away” warnings and confronts Amy’s family.
Darcy is like the mockingbird that it’s a sin to kill alluded to early in the story. Collins has a dandy couple of lines foreshadowing — sorta — Darcy’s fate: “ They didn’t have mockingbirds in Darwin, Newfoundland. Furthermore, it was only naturalto shoot something if you happened to have a gun and it made the mortal mistake of flying.” Love those lines. Darcy the mockingbird mistakenly flies into the Crowleys’ territory.
At some point in the book I realized there’s a sound track thumping away in the background; an eclectic mix of Rush and Eninem and Beastie Boys; the Stones and Van Morrison and Charlie Pride. And others.
By weaving this music into his stories Collins reminds us that we all have sound tracks to our lives.
Midway through Run, Mother, Run! I burst out laughing, an explosive guffaw that spewed spit on the pages. The outburst was triggered by a scrap of description that flashed a visual image into my mind like one of those pop-up windows you encounter on the Internet.
Missus in the story is enraged at her daughter, so enraged in fact that “ her face suddenly turned red and her lips clenched tight like a hen’s …”
Because it might offend delicate readers, I’m not going to say which part of a hen’s anatomy Missus’ face resembles. I will say the reference is to a bodily orifice common to all fowl, the excretory organ called the cloaca.
I hadn’t heard that expression in threeparts of a lifetime.
On reflection, I add that in my memory the expression usually ends with a two-word tag. Here’s the tag: “chewing frankgum.” Thank you for reading.