Eight Strange Tales of Appalachian Gothic Weirdness

Billions of years old, stretching from Canada to Georgia, lie the Appalachian Mountains. It’s an area of vast forests, precarious mountains, and its own sense of mystery, magic, and even weather. For centuries, it’s also played host to a variety of people, all with their own cultures, beliefs, and sense of ritual. It’s remote, but also close-knit. It’s also the sort of place where anything can happen.

With its strange history, strange weather, isolated mountain communities, and a sense of place all its own, Appalachia represents the perfect backdrop for a uniquely American brand of folk horror. Far from being simply Southern Gothic with a mountainous locale, Appalachian Gothic takes a much weirder bent–the traditions are older, the presence of God is a little more sinister (and might be covering for some weird eldritch deity–check out Old Gods of Appalachia for more on that), and there’s a cool, methodical, eerie atmosphere to the stories told in these mountains. With the publication of Daryl Gregory’s recent novel Revelator, we thought we’d share some of our other favorite tales from this gorgeous, dangerous region. 

My Heart Struck Sorrow, John Hornor Jacobs (from A Lush and Seething Hell)

The second half of Jacobs’ one-two punch A Lush and Seething Hell, Sorrow follows two researchers from the Library of Congress as they digitize the estate of a dead folk musicologist. But the relatively simple discovery of “extra verses” in the classic murder ballad “Stagger Lee” spirals into a maddening, hallucinatory odyssey of murderous legends, sinister tent revivals, and eldritch horror.

Jacobs’s hypnotic, compulsive novella flips back and forth between Cromwell and his assistant Hattie in the present day and the journal of Harlan Parker in the past, creating a bizarre but ultimately intriguing work about obsession and culture. It also gets its hooks in early and holds on tight, so be prepared to go through this one in one sitting.

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Mr. Splitfoot, Samantha Hunt

Hunt’s unnerving, atmospheric gothic novel begins with the daily life of two teenagers in a religious cult in upstate New York and sets the tone nicely for what’s to come. And what’s to come is a beautiful, disturbing story that shifts between the past and the present, switching points of view between a scarred young woman named Ruth who fakes seances with her adopted brother, and Cora, Ruth’s niece in the present who embarks on an unusual roadtrip when her scarred and suddenly mute aunt re-enters her life after years of absence.

Splitfoot is a slow-burner, to be sure, but the balancing act Hunt walks between the beauty of the upstate New York location and the methodical and eerie plot involving con men, demons, and disfigured teenagers makes every second worth it. 

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 The Fisherman, John Langan

Langan has a gift for the gothic, as anyone who’s read his work can attest. The Fisherman, his second novel, puts that gift to good use with the story of Abe and Dan, two men dealing with the loss of their loved ones who find some solace in fishing together. Unfortunately for them, Dan’s choice of a strange location called Dutchman’s Creek sets them on a collision course with a terrifying local legend and will change both their lives for good.

The conversational tone the book takes gives The Fisherman the feel of a perfect campfire story, something driven home by both the gorgeous backdrop of the Catskill mountains and the quirky locals of the town near Dutchman’s Creek, doing a lot to flesh out the history of the area with small digressions and asides right before the rug gets yanked right out from under the readers. 

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 Sineater, Elizabeth Massie

In a small and highly religious mountain town, a man known as the Sineater works by eating meals from the bodies of the dead, so he can consume their sins before they pass on to the afterlife. By custom, the Sineater lives in the woods in his own shack, because it’s a sin for the living to even see him. But Avery Barker, the current Sineater, has a family (also a sin). His youngest son Joel even goes to school among the regular children. But as Joel tries to live a normal life among the townspeople, a series of disturbing events and threatening messages rock the community, all pointing to their interactions with “the unholy.” Someone or something is clearly angered by the Barkers’ presence, and will stop at nothing to ensure “natural order” is restored.

Massie’s novel unfolds slowly, outlining the town of Ellison and their weird customs chapter by chapter, but the extra time spent getting to know the Barkers, their fellow townsfolk, and the world they inhabit helps give the story a sense of place and allows the horror to hit a little harder. Combined with her gift for some absolutely gorgeous rural images, Massie makes Sineater a beautiful slow-burner of a gothic mystery.

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 Beneath, Kristi DeMeester

DeMeester’s got something of a gift for the surreal, with her nightmarish imagery and impressionistic passages adding an unusual atmosphere to her already bizarre short horror stories. Beneath continues the streak with the story of Cora Mayburn, a journalist with a dark past tied to her religious upbringing and an equally dark claim to fame who is tasked with investigating an Appalachian cult of snake handlers. Intertwined with Cora’s story is that of Leah, a young woman born into the cult, who finds she’s caught the attention of her town’s lecherous pastor.

DeMeester’s novel is awash with dark, apocalyptic imagery, from the snakes slithering and twining around numerous people, to her eldritch gods, to the blood moon in the novel’s opening scenes. But DeMeester saves the best for the intimate moments when someone’s either by themselves or with one other person, moments with their own tension, darkness, and uncomfortable horror. 

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The Curse of Crow Hollow, Billy Coffey

Written in dialect and with a folksy tone of someone telling you a good yarn, The Curse of Crow Hollow follows a group of teenagers who decide to have a party on a cursed mountain where the spirit of a witch is supposed to dwell, only to unleash much more than they bargained for.

Coffey sets up the action quicker than most, striking a good balance between showing a group of teens with nowhere to go and laying the groundwork for some occult teen horror with B-movie flavor. The off-kilter atmosphere, solid use of tropes to build the story, strong characters, and Coffey’s gift for dialogue and description make this one a delightfully creepy page-turner and one hell of a ride. 

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Moriah, Daniel Mills

In the isolated community of Moriah, Vermont, the Lynch brothers put on seances at the Yellow House with the help of their spirit guides and a device known as a “spirit cabinet.” Silas Flood, a journalist haunted by traumatic experiences during the Civil War, is assigned by his newspaper to cover the Lynch brothers and their unusual seances. But upon Flood’s arrival, both he and the Lynches get more than they bargained for, as the spirits from the assembled guests’ troubled pasts appear from the Lynches’ cabinet and there are things at the Yellow House that should perhaps stay buried.

Mills’s methodical pace keeps an atmosphere of dread building from the moment Flood witnesses a train accident all the way through the book, and his timing is impeccable, drawing out the nightmarish scenes to allow the reader the full experience in all its twisted glory. 

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 Revelator, Daryl Gregory

Deep in the mountains lies a peculiar church with an equally peculiar occupant. The church is taken care of by the Wallaces, an offshoot of the Birch family, who have owned the land since the Civil War. In this church is a mysterious creature known as the God in the Mountain, a spiderlike monster who is murderously protective of its territory and caretakers. Stella Wallace used to be one of those caretakers, raised by her grandmother Motty until a disturbing incident estranged her from her family. When Motty dies, Stella returns to the mountain church, drawn into a mystery involving a ten year old girl with unusual powers that Motty took care of.

Gregory’s always had a gift for depictions of familial bonds (both chosen and otherwise) that makes the Wallace clan and their associates pop right off the page, and his take on the Smoky Mountains is as bewitching as it is full of human and supernatural dangers alike. Revelator is a gorgeous, strange, and sometimes painful book about family, religion, and  that will linger in your memories long after sundown.

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