5 Questions with…
Chris McGinley

Chris McGinley’s new collection of short stories, Coal Black, is more than just a great collection of brutal crime stories; it’s a deep exploration of the social ties and crises confronting people in eastern Kentucky. From petty thieves to poachers to cops, he imbues his characters with nuanced life… even when they face grisly deaths. McGinley sat down with Nick Kolakowski to talk about the book, his inspirations, and what he’s reading.

Q. Where do you draw the inspiration for your stories? Are the characters and situations based on real-life people you know?

Hey Nick, thanks for having me. My inspiration comes mostly from other writers, other stories, and from the dynamics of rural regions generally. That is to say, it derives from the collective stories of people in Appalachia, and from people in rural regions, though I don’t live in one myself.

With the proliferation of news outlets and other electronic media, the stories of these people, these regions, are more accessible than they have been in the past—and of course there are books about these areas, too. Even colorless reports like those of the Appalachian Regional Commission provide me with ideas.

And as I said, authors and other storytellers give me inspiration, the writers of the so-called Romantic tradition in American literature—Cooper, Poe, Hawthorne, Irving—are all hugely influential for me. Like a good many crime writers, however, I don’t really know any criminal types. These characters are inventions in large part.

Q. The book has a real feel for the current issues gripping eastern Kentucky, from drugs to mining. How does your own background factor into what you write? 

Coming from a middle-class family, I’ve been blessed with access to formal education and to employment opportunities that don’t involve corporate exploitation and the cycles of poverty that plague large segments of Appalachia. Frankly, I’ve never had to deal with those problems, and in the end I could never truly understand them. But the stories interest me, the sadness of so much of it, and the fact that it continues to go on, and that people endure.

Q. “Kin to Me” is one of my favorite stories in the book—it features complicated characters, an intriguingly weird premise, and probably the most interesting MacGuffin I’ve seen recently in crime fiction. What was your inspiration for it? As I read it, I kept thinking of Otzi, the famous Ice Man of the Alps…

Funny you should mention Otzi, Nick. I always cover Otzi in seventh grade social studies. (I’m a middle school teacher.) It’s the first true murder mystery, right?  But the idea is that the main character in that story is somehow a part of the legacy of the violence of the region’s past, even prehistoric violence. The Man, as I call the bog body from this story, is a symbol of all this—the exploitation, the violence, the Past with an upper case “p,” if you will. I wanted to trace a history of sadness, of violence and exploitation, that suggests an even earlier origin than that which we commonly think of when we think of Appalachia, or other rural regions. And I wanted to render a character who felt it all and decided to stand up in the only way he could. As for Otzi, and the bog bodies of Iron Age Europe, those guys are always on my mind! 

Q. What stories in this collection are closest to your heart, and why?  

The story that means most to me is “The Quilt.” I’ve never quilted and I’m not a woman, but the idea of some shared craft among women, who often bear more of the burden in impoverished regions, is something incredibly tender and resonant in a different kind of way than other shared things. There’s a sense of one generation passing down something to others, something that’s been lost because of external conditions, but not entirely. I think the end is hopeful. I think the main character experiences something like apotheosis . . . wait . . . that’s the right word, isn’t it?

Q. Who’s your inspiration in terms of crime fiction? Who are you reading right now?

 As far as crime fiction goes, I’ve recently finished some stuff that probably qualifies as “literary crime fiction.” Anyway, I guess that’s what they call it.

Ian Pears’ THE INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST is an excellent “crime” novel, as is THE GIVEN DAY by Dennis Lehane, which is an historical novel as much as a crime novel. Then there’s Ron Rash’s THE RISEN and SERENA, both of which I read recently. These are most assuredly crime novels, but they wouldn’t be found in the mystery section of the bookstore.  

I just finished a towering novel, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, by Davis Grubbs. But my favorite crime novels of recent years are all three Donna Tartt novels, and if we can go back as far as the 80s, Patrick Suskind’s odd work, PERFUME. Bonnie Jo Campbell’s ONCE UPON A RIVER is a great new novel. 

The Haint by Chris McGinley

They hadn’t let him take a jacket when they grabbed him.  By now the blood from his nose had dried almost black on his tee shirt.  With a two-day stubble and his matted grey hair, he looked like a B-film horror character.  Terror in Appalachia.  The truck had no heat, and he could see his own breath.

“Why the fuck did you hide it way out here?”  Zeke asked him.  The truck weaved around hairpin bends as it climbed up the mountain.  The old man sat between the two brothers.  With the windows rolled up against the weather, the cab reeked of stale booze and cigarettes.

Jem threw an elbow into his chest.  “Answer the man, you old cuss!”

He caught his breath and said, “I didn’t know what this place was when I buried it.”

“Well, what is it?”  Jem pulled hard on the wheel to get around a narrow bend.  They were high on the mountain now, the dirt road nearly at its end.

“A haint’s lair.”

Another elbow.  The old man wailed. “I ain’t gettin’ smart with ya,” he weezed out.  “Theys a haint lives up here.  It’s real.  When I got out, I waited a long time before I come back here, count of what an old country boy told me in the joint.  This hill belongs to a haint.  Anything up here is hers, he said.  Got me scared.  When I finally got the nerve to come back, that haint run me off.”

Zeke pulled on a bottle of Beam and handed it across to Jem.  “Do you think we’re gonna be took in by that dumb fuckin’ wives tale?  What?  You think we’re not from these hills, too?  People been tellin’ tales like that since before Kentucky was a state.”

“Maybe so,” the old man said.  “But theys a haint up here, and were as good as dead if we try to dig up that box.”

Jem shook his head in disgust.  “Well, we’ll just have to roll the dice,” he said.  The road ended at a huge sandstone formation and the men piled out.  “Lead the way, haint killer.”  Zeke prodded him with the shovel.  Half drunk now, they laughed and goaded the old con.

“I guess you’re probably gonna hurt me,” the old man said. “But I feel got to warn you one last time.  Let’s not do this.  That guy in the joint told me she expects a tribute when you come up here.  I shoulda never buried that box on this mountain.  She considers it hers now.”

“You’re right,” Jem said.  “We are gonna hurt you.”  He kicked the old man viciously in the leg and he fell.  “Get the fuck up and take us to it.”

Cold ripped through his skinny frame, but he continued on until he got to the tall sycamore where he had buried the box years ago.  “It’s right here,” he said.

“Then start diggin’, before that haint catches on were here!”  More laughter.  The men passed the bottle back and forth as the old man worked the spade in the cold earth. When he had cleared the lid of the wooden box, he reached in and pulled out a heavy sack.  The men grinned when they heard the sound of gold pieces rattling around.

“Is that all?” Jem asked.  “You got any more precious metals in there?”

“There’s more metal, but it ain’t precious.”  The old man pulled a .38 from the box and put three shots into each of the brothers.  The hill got quiet then, except for some soft groaning. Cordite hung heavy in the cold air.

“I guess me and Zeke are the tribute, you old sonuvabitch.  You’ll get your loot after all,” Jem managed to choke out.

“You two rednecks are hardly a tribute, but I’ll leave you for the bobcats.  Hell if I’m takin’ this gold with me, though.”

He threw the gun and the bag back into the box and set to burying it.

As the sun began to set, he thought he saw some movement and a shock of long white hair disappear behind a tree on the ridge high above him.