Ghost Riders is the latest novel in Sharyn McCrumb’s “Ballad Series.” Ghost Riders is different from the others in the series in that there is no mystery (in the “mystery novel” sense of the word) to be solved. In the other books, the storyline goes back and forth between past and present, the stories linked sometimes obviously and sometimes tenuously. Usually in the “modern” story there is a mystery which the story in the past fleshes out or provides with a new insight. In Ghost Riders there are two separate tales from the past and a storyline set in the present. The narratives set in the past are linked by a chance meeting but still remain separate tales. One of these stories has a direct influence on the present. There are various characters, past and present, whose lives intertwine briefly in interesting and occasionally surprising ways.
McCrumb is obviously very interested in folk tales, ghost stories and the Celtic telling of these stories, both in Europe and as the stories have been re-told in America. Her fascinating Web site makes it plain that she has done her folklore homework. Of particular interest to McCrumb in the ballad series in general, and Ghost Riders in particular, is what she describes on her Web site as the state of “betwixt and between,” or liminality. McCrumb writes on her site that the inclusion of this state in her early books was instinctive. Those she was writing about were “people of Scots descent, keeping to the old ways, and this border concept is central to their world view.” She quotes a passage from Elizabeth Sutherland’s book Ravens and Black Rain: The Story of Highland Second Sight on the Celtic sense of being between two states, emphasizing that the same ideas are an integral part of Appalachian culture as well. This idea is a key element in Ghost Riders.
In this novel McCrumb moves from the mystery genre — with a touch of magical realism — to a ghost story in which magic plays a part in the lives of the characters. This move probably horrified booksellers who want to shelve books by genre and those readers who must have every book fall in a neat slot. I have a secondhand, though telling, story of how the author feels about this. A friend of mine is a member of Southern Sisters in Crime, a Birmingham, Alabama, mystery writer’s group. When they asked Ms. McCrumb to come speak at the first mystery writers conference they were holding in Birmingham she — according to my friend — politely but firmly responded that she did not consider herself a mystery writer and didn’t want to be considered solely on that basis by others.
One of McCrumb’s historical threads in Ghost Riders is that of Zebulon Baird Vance, a poor mountain boy, though of good family, who rose to become governor of North Carolina. Vance’s ambition to extricate himself from his impoverished background, and his truly Southern insistence that he was actually more “genteel” than his present circumstances indicated really made this character come alive for me. His loyalty to his poor mountain upbringing coupled with the desire for all the fine things that wealth can bring — including the manners and surroundings of a gentleman — gave him a complexity that easily could warrant a novel all to itself.
The second historical tale is that of Malinda “Sam” Blalock, a woman who disguised herself as a man and followed her husband first into the Confederate army and then into the mountains, where they joined a group of raiders who attacked Confederate supporters. Hers too is a fascinating story. She is a famous, though by no means singular, example of women fighting in the Civil War. McCrumb gives the Blalocks a certain nobility and certainly provides an interesting voice for Malinda. However, I found that when viewing their actions dispassionately — especially those of Keith Blalock — they seemed more like brigands and thugs than heroes fighting for a cause.
The people the Blalocks attacked were, of course, known to them — some were relatives. It is this aspect of the war that is emphasized in Ghost Riders: the long burning hatred which makes the often bandied term “brother against brother” come to life. McCrumb, in her “Author’s Note,” says, “In Appalachia the war was farm to farm, neighbor to neighbor, up close and personal, and when your kinfolk were killed or your livestock stolen, you knew exactly who did it — by sight and by name. This made the conflict more like Bosnia and less like, say, World War II.”
The Blalocks in particular illustrate this peculiar and horrific aspect of civil war. Theirs is not the setting in which sons of a wealthy household join different sides and fear that they might meet in battle, sad though that would be. The war of the Blalocks and others in that place and of that economic group was a gritty, vengeful, often illegal fight, which regularly meant that unarmed women and children had the last of their food taken by armed men just because their husbands and fathers had chosen a different side in the conflict. Some of the statements McCrumb makes in this book about why the Civil War was fought and who fought for each side are not very popular, though she backs them up with a good bibliography and well thought out conclusions.
Ghost Riders opens with a scene from the not too distant past — the boyhood of one of her reoccurring characters, Rattler, a mountain healer who is able to see spirits but doesn’t approve of talking to them. As a boy, Rattler is offered a place in a band of strange horsemen, which he refuses. We see these horsemen again, of course, both as live people in the past and as malevolent spirits in the present, feeding on the hate that’s left over from this war that caused so much suffering and grief in the mountains — because it was so personal there.
McCrumb makes several good points about outsider or Yankee attitudes towards those who are less wealthy and therefore obviously less civilized or intelligent. One of these outsiders who moves to the mountains for the “simplicity” and the view pays quite a price for his arrogance.
This is obviously a theme close to McCrumb’s heart. On her site she mentions that one of the writers she admires most is Charles Dickens, not because of his writing but because of his philosophy: “Dickens wrote best sellers in order to change the world.” McCrumb says that she is delighted in part when her books become best sellers so that she, like Dickens, can change attitudes. In her case this means changing the harmful impression people have of mountain folk. “I think one of the best ways to combat this negative portrayal is to educate the general reader about the real character of the region, and particularly about the history and origins of Appalachia and its people both culturally and environmentally.”
One of the themes of the novel is that hate doesn’t die just because the incident that caused it is over. In Ghost Riders the long-lasting hatred of the war in the mountains is causing a rift in the fabric of time in which the past (those who actually fought in the war) and the present (the reenactors who are reliving this past time for whatever reason) are swirling together. This rift cannot be mended without a blood price. Who ultimately pays this price could, I suppose, be a mystery in the story but not in the conventional chain bookstore “every book in its proper category” sense.
McCrumb is at her best telling a good ghost story, and I enjoyed this aspect of the book very much. She is adept at setting a mood and in incorporating the spectral into everyday life. She also made her historical characters truly come alive, especially Zebulon Vance, with one foot on the mountain and the other in the governor’s mansion. If at times the book seemed to be telling three different stories rather than one story seen from three sides, that did not diminish the fact that it was a fun and informative tale.
I don’t know if McCrumb intends to write any more mysteries or if she intends to veer permanently into magical realism or perhaps carve out a new New South genre of her own. Her latest book is an interesting and edifying addition to her works that tells a good tale as well.