October Read of the Month: “Haints on Black Mountain: A Haunted Short Story Collection” by Ann Hite

There are novelists who never master the short story form or who wouldn’t consider writing memoir. There are also writers of short fiction who balk at the idea of committing to a novel. And though 2012 Georgia Author of the Year and Townsend Prize finalist Ann Hite stays true to her Appalachian settings and Southern Gothic genre, she’s a writer who tests her craft and takes risks. It’s been a prolific three years for Hite. In 2020, her autobiographical memoir, Roll the Stone Away: A Family’s Legacy with Racism and Abuse was released, followed by Going To The Water: A Nantahala Novel in 2021—where Hite explores a new setting and deviates from her Black Mountain series. And now, in 2022, though Hite returns to Black Mountain, North Carolina, with Haints on Black Mountain: A Haunted Short Story Collection (Mercer Press University, 2022), she chose the short story form. Hite not only experiments with different types of narrative writing, with this collection she offered up her muse to her readers. She sent a request, via Facebook, asking for very brief family histories based on the following themes: “wind,” “something or someone a little removed from the family,” and finally, “women to be reckoned with.” These themes became the parts of the collection. From the submissions Hite received, she selected the histories that spoke to her and used those anecdotes as inspiration for each story. Haints on Black Mountain is a tribute to Southern voices and an attestation to writers who defy the tried and true by experimenting with their muse.

Haints on Black Mountain is divided into three parts. Although each story may be read independently, there’s a benefit in reading them in chronological order, especially the stories in “Wind,” which span familial generations who lived or live on Black Mountain. The first story in the collection, “A Wrinkle in the Air,” is set in 1835 when the Cherokee inhabited the area. Polly Doublehead, the daughter of a Cherokee chief, faces two, unfathomable choices—marry a white man to save her family and land, or walk the Trail of Tears and face innumerable losses, including her culture and possibly death. If a Native American woman married a white man, the land would pass to her husband. Women making extreme sacrifices is one of many themes explored throughout this collection. And of course, part one is titled “Wind,” so the element of air factors into these stories—sometimes subtly—at other times, characters are afflicted by tremendous storms or tornadoes. But what’s particularly compelling here is seeing how one character’s decision affects the generations to come. The ensuing stories demonstrate the impact Polly’s decision has on her ancestors and for Black Mountain itself. Her choice is unimaginable—not even a choice, but the lesser of two evils. It proves to be a choice that haunts her and the characters of Haints on Black Mountain.

For those unacquainted with Hite’s infamous haints, they’re ghosts or spirits of the Southern variety with unfinished business on Earth. It’s best to allow one of Hite’s granny characters to describe a haint. Grandma Conner, in “Dancers on the Horizon,” tells her granddaughter Rebecca, “They look so real folks believe they are…Haints are real, and they walk around this world with us, girl…and…Most haints try to tell you something about your future or past.” Sometimes, haints simply want to share their story. Other times, they want to enjoy in death what had been denied them in life like the poor dancing haints of “Dancers on the Horizon” who were so mistreated in life, they just appear at night dancing in the fields. Because haints are so realistic, when a character encounters one, they’re generally not alarmed until they later discover they’ve been convening with the dead. In addition, not everyone can see a haint, and some, when they reach adulthood, lose the ability. Haints, also, can be quite useful when they warn or save a character from impending danger or offer guidance. They typically appear when the female protagonist is at a crossroad in her life. For instance, Alice, in “Watercolor Sky,” has lost herself in raising kids and an unhappy marriage. She’s given up her dream to be a painter. When looking for Christmas cookie cutters in a storage closet, her old sketchpad with an image of her Gran’s home and garden on Black Mountain falls from a shelf. Even though it’s Christmas, Alice packs up and heads to the mountain. It’s an impulsive decision, the weather is bad, and her car breaks down. Luckily, the haint of her third great-grandmother Polly appears and not only saves her from freezing temperatures, but imparts her wisdom, telling Alice, “Use the gift bestowed on you, dear daughter.” As a literary device, Hite’s haints blur the past with the present, allowing for larger narrative leaps, linking characters and plot across the stories, making for a more cohesive read.

Black Mountain

With Black Mountain, Hite creates a pseudo-mythology; it’s a haunted forest inhabited with haints, granny witches, seers, and even a ghost dog. There aren’t too many rules on Hite’s haunted mountain, but there is one rule Grace in “There Is an Untold Story” mentions that’s especially poignant: “Old folks always said, once a soul left Black Mountain, they could never come back, not really.” This rule or condition implies that families ought to stick together, loyal in life and in death. And if the reverse is true, then those souls who die on Black Mountain remain there in perpetuity, or if they go to some other place in the afterlife, they have the ability to transcend time and come back to the mountain at will. With a population half dead, half undead, Black Mountain has developed a reputation. Hite spins family histories along with Southern history and lore, and in doing so, creates a mythic landscape. In addition, Hite’s husband, Jeremy Hite, mapped out the narrative settings; it’s a special treat for the reader and can be found in the front of the book. Mapping, blending real history with invented myths and established lore, is the technique of world-building authors—a title Hite has carved out for herself with her Black Mountain series.

Map by Jeremy Hite

Not all of the stories are set on Black Mountain, but there’s always a connection to the mountain as demonstrated in the story “Take Me Home” in Part Two of “A Little Removed.”  Twelve-year-old, protagonist Emmaline and her mother move (or escape) from Swannanoa Gap, North Carolina, to live with Granny Esther in Milledgeville, Georgia. Emmaline wasn’t expecting to have a mental asylum for a next-door neighbor. With this story, Hite integrates the real setting of Georgia Central State Hospital—the largest treatment facility in Georgia for mental illness and developmental disabilities—to make for an eerie setting. The hospital lies on almost twothousand acres, complete with historical cemeteries and pecan groves. It proves an irresistible milieu for the author and the character of Emmaline who sneaks out at night into the woods and meets strange characters along the way. Using historical settings, such the infamous Georgia Central State Hospital, is a classic example of how Hite blends real settings and/or past historical events to build her folklore.

As mentioned previously, sacrifice is a predominant theme in Haints on Black Mountain, but there are other relevant themes— finding home, abandonment, broken families, mental illness, female empowerment, poverty—to consider as well. Hite pays homage to her formidable female characters in Part Three, “Women to Be Reckoned With.” What’s noteworthy is Hite’s portrayal of a weak mother figure. The weak mother figure doesn’t occur in every story, but she’s present enough to comment upon. Though Hite works within the mechanics of the archetypal maiden-mother-crone convention, she bucks an androcentric portrayal of the mother figure. The mother figure may be attractive and able to catch a man, but the male characters in Haints on Black Mountain stand in the way of the female characters’ dreams and the wise grannies know this. The grannies are painted in a far more flattering manner than the mothers, who frequently abandon their children for a man, are afflicted by mental illness or grief, or are simply selfish, leaving their children in the care of their grandmothers. Grannies are the backbone of the families. They provide emotional and financial support to many of the young female protagonists and steer them away from the paths of their mothers, or a dead-end life of marriage and babies. Hite’s grannies, similar to her female haints, are not weathered hags at the end of their lives but are wise women who encourage the “maidens” to go after what they want, to be fearless, and to pursue the female hero journey.

Since Hite’s storytelling involves real places and history, it’s understandable why she decided to experiment with family histories not her own. The story “Take Me Home” is prefaced with a quote from fellow Southern author Raymond Adkins: “Granny Adkins drank her coffee from a saucer and took a good bit of Bruton of an evening.” Granny Esther answers the phone and initially chalks it up to the Widow Bailey, who “is not all there” since her daughter and grandson tragically passed away. She explains to Emmaline, “It’s probably Widow Bailey down the road, needing a can of Burton. Lord, she goes through that snuff. Nasty habit.” This is a simple but amusing character detail provided by Hite’s contributors. At other times, Hite builds her entire narrative around a shared personal memory like the one Karen Lynn Nolan shared about her grandmother’s dark past. In “Last Year’s Easter Egg,” the granny witch, who now suffers from Alzheimer’s, spills a wicked family secret to her granddaughter. As a young married woman, she tires of her life, becoming attracted to a local tenant farmer. She isn’t going to let her husband and a brood of children stand in her way: “I was young. I couldn’t stand him. He was an old man and thought about two things: working and making babies. We had six kids…I threw a spell on him.” To discover what results from the spell and what this granny witch did with her children, you’ll need to read the book.

It’s not surprising that Hite, who enjoys borrowing from her personal experiences, turned her attention to family histories not her own. How many times have you heard a family member say, “I wish I wrote down that story Daddy told me once?” Or granny, or whoever. Family stories get lost if not preserved. And while this collection is a work of fiction, the stories act to preserve voices of a vanishing Southern past. Hite’s stories will make you nostalgic for lost family members and histories buried deep in your ancestral DNA. You can practically smell granny’s pinto beans simmering on the stove or taste her chicken frying in a pan. Yes, the stories are set in the South, but could easily be told by characters from any poor rural landscape. What woman’s favorite weapon of choice wasn’t an iron skillet, whether she hailed from the South, Midwest, or elsewhere? Finally, the methodology used for inspiration for Haints on Black Mountain is a fascinating testament to Hite’s craftmanship. Hite’s haints are sure to haunt her readers long after they close her book.

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