I want to take a moment to ponder Butler County Kentucky, the place where the majority of my childhood was spent and the home of my ancestors going back well over two-hundred years. I bring it up here because of the half dozen stories I’ve published, half have been set in Butler County and its environs. I have good responses to set my fiction based there and I imagine that Butler County is something like Stephen King’s Castle Rock, Maine. Of course Castle Rock is completely fictional whereas Butler County is all too real. Well, mostly real. My Butler County is only real in a geographic sense. The Names that populate my stories- Cardwells, Ingrahms, Johnsons, Lindseys, Fleners and Phelps, oh so many Phelpses, are all the common names of my former home. I use some of the history and all the place names, but that is really the end of it. No matter what people may think, there are no eldritch horrors lurking in the coal seams on the north side. And yet from a story telling point of view they fit in so nicely.
There are reasons that Butler County works for me, not the least of which dovetails with the old chestnut, “write what you know.” Children have superior vision to adults, usually far better than 20/20. They also have the capability of absorbing the hidden context of what they see and experience. That’s one reason that an adult that spends 30 years living in a particular town might still seem like an outsider while a fifteen year old native is completely integrated. When I write in Butler County I am able to call upon a wellspring of detail that is hard to fake. In genre fiction we tend to deal a lot in “second worlds” to borrow from Tolkien, but when we work with a second world that is for the most part identical to the prime, we end up with a realism of material that often belies the “sub-creation” attributes of the plot.
Beyond actual physical experience however there are other realities which make Butler County a uniquely interesting place to set the dark fiction that I tend to write. Coal is the first reality to come to mind, depopulation is the second. Butler County sits right next to old Stom’s Landing, now Paradise, the sight of the first coal mine in Kentucky dating back to the first decade of the 19th century. Kentucky’s coal industry begins in Butler County. Coal is a dark thing. Formed from vast, rotting layers left behind by the newly evolved ligninatious plants of the carboniferous age that sank into an anoxic soup often thousands of feet thick, and that underpinned swamps the size of which the world had never seen before nor since. It is a mineral that was far more curse than blessing as it caused men to rip the skin from the earth and subjugate the native poor for fortunes that never so much as endowed a rehab clinic in Butler County. A megalithic power-plant sits on the bones of the town it devoured and pumps out cheap electrical current, mercury and carbon monoxide from the world’s largest cyclonic fired boiler and it has the name, ironic long before John Prine put it to music, of Paradise. If hell is fire, coal is the fuel. Butler County is in the shadow of Paradise.
Butler County is a place of haunted spaces. It reached its population maximum in 1900 and it never recovered. It is only about ten percent smaller in land area than it’s neighbor, Warren County, yet it has less than one tenth of Warren county’s population, and due to new settlement patterns, the small communities out in the county have been all but abandoned by people “moving into town.” It makes for a land of old home places and sullen gray barns that seem to resent being empty. It was a common experience of my childhood to walk along some forest path and stumble upon a clutch of upright sandstone blocks that marked where a family had buried their dead and then been forgotten. No-one will ever remember; the soft, ruddy colored sandstone of the North Side is so susceptible to the erosive forces of rain and wind that the names carved into them doubtlessly did not long outlast the mourners that inscribed their grief in the first place. Out in the county, where two roads cross one another, the older folks had names for vanished communities that sounded out of all proportion in their urbanity. There was Brooklyn, and Monford, Mining City and Provo. And others, less incongruous if not more particular- Nefus, Possom Trot, Monkey’s Eyebrow and my eternal favorite, Huldyville. It is a county of hill and hollar with hardly a straight road. Nature abhors a vacuum and the imagination always wants to fill empty space. Butler County, with it’s trackless woods and isolated river bends has plenty of space for imagining.
There are also plenty of historical reasons to find literary gold in Butler County- plenty of family feuds and bloodshed, whiskey stills and their modern equivalent the meth lab. The most compelling symbolic reality in Butler County after the flame belching hell that is Paradise, is the great divide of the Green River and its long legacy of North Siders and South Siders. I was by blood a North Sider which, in origin, meant that my family was from the north side of Green River and thus sent its sons to Owensboro to fight for the Union. The South Side tended to send its young men to Bowling Green to fight for the Confederacy. What the numerical truth of this division was- how absolute the demarcation held to political identity and so on, is perhaps debatable, but it became truth in the succeeding generation. North Siders typically did not mix well with South Siders, and nobody mixed well with the strange people of Leonard Oak.
Leonard Oak, the most remote and backward community in a remote county was isolated by hills, rivers, and hollars, and it represents one of the many “real” darknesses that can be found to this day in Butler County. My cosmic horrors and diabolic manifestations are in many ways symbolic representations of the problems that every day try the people that toil and struggle in one of Kentucky’s least privileged regions. Leonard Oak was infamous once for its cottage moonshine industry; its bootleggers were notorious for both their cunning and violence. Now its forest mazes house illicit labs, producing a scourge every bit as demonic as anything I imagine in the form of low grade meth. On the flip side, the county has its own Brahman class, an uncategorized nobility numbering perhaps a few dozen that control the majority of the county’s political and civic capitol and many untoward deals have been sealed with a handshake and a whisper.
It may sound like I am coming down on Butler County. I have certainly been accused of that before and in a very public way, but I would charge anyone that makes such an accusation as being both blind and narrow in vision. I love many things about my former home, not least of which is the endless possibilities it provides me for narrative, but it is a place that is always clinging to survival, and in that narrow band between success and failure there is the capacity for truly important, truly epic choices.
That’s my dissertation on Butler County. As I noted in my post yesterday I have recently had a story published in The Absent Willow Review, which I encourage you to read and experience a bit of my Butler County. It’s always a thrill to see your work published, but as I have said so many times before, getting in TAWR is for me a singular honor. I’ve been a fan since they got going. If I needed icing on my cake I got it today with a message from the flood ravaged world of Australia, home of the long named Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.
Re: The Stone Flowers: Just a note to let you know that your submission has passed its initial reading, and we are now considering it for inclusion in Andromeda Spaceways. Your story will now go through a second round of reading. Expect to hear more from us in 2-3 weeks. If your story passes the second round of reading, we will ask to hang on to it for no more than three months, while we make a final decision. Hoping you will be patient with us. Lucy Andromeda Spaceways: We'll get you there ... sooner or later.
This is the third time I’ve had a story make the second round at ASIM with one going to the third round. I’m hopeful, the story that they are considering is one of my favorite pieces of work and has made the final round at both Intergalactic Medicine Show and Asimov’s. Either way, it’s forward momentum.
Now that my story is out and I have nothing else pending publication for the moment I can finally get back to writing. It makes no sense to me, but when I have a story awaiting publication I completely freeze on my new work. It’s as if knowing that something is coming out creates a creative anxiety that makes it impossible for me to do new work. I sort of hold my breath for a few weeks, creatively speaking. This wait has been a bit worse as the other factors in my life have conspired to depress my productivity. On a lighter note, I have recently done something hideous to my back and it hurts to pee, so if I can keep my wife from forcing me to go to the doctor I am looking at my evenings being spent immobile on the couch which should make for some good writing time. Well, I won’t go on and on. I have writing to do and some research to catch up on. So go read, write and be good to small animals.
Andrew Clark Porter