2 min

Nashvillains & crewel jokes

Gothic horror at the Grande Ole Opry

Credit: Paula Wilson

Careful what you wish for.

Poor Hank, his wish comes true. He wants to be a star, a singer on the Grand Ole Opry stage.

And so, after a fateful collision with a bat, he comes under the malevolent influence of a demonic tailor named Nudie, a carnival couturier who has designs on – and for – Hank.

Nudie makes Hank a star. He sews him dazzling suits, gives him confidence, shows him how to play the audience and the media. Nudie also comes between Hank and his loving wife Audrey, enlists the services of the suspicious Dr Wertham and is not above using chloroform as foreplay.

Toronto writer Derek McCormack is back with a new novel about obsession refracted through the sequins and tinsel of 1950s Nashville.

With his keen eye for good fabric cut well, sharp tongue and obsession over a beautiful straight man, you could see Nudie as a stereotypical gay man in the repressive ’50s. But McCormack makes Nudie a wholly other type of monster.

As with his previous works Dark Ride and Wish Book, McCormack delights in showing us his roadside museum of curiosities: carnies and freaks, wax works thugs, dime store gimmicks, the entertainments of a by-gone era. He is an obsessive collector.

But McCormack’s biggest obsession is words. His writing style is unmistakable. Tiny sentences. Most four words or less. The book itself is only 124 pages, each containing fewer than 100 words. The Haunted Hillbilly is a very quick read, but don’t read too quickly. Events happen briskly; every word counts.

Here’s Hank and Audrey before Nudie’s interference. “He lifts her nightie. His head is underneath. He licks. Her panties taste of pee. And Cheer.”

McCormack writes straightforward description, employing nouns with pinpoint accuracy – and some black magic. No purple prose but “lilac mohair,” hypothermia blue” and “blood gone brown.”

The Haunted Hillbilly may sound familiar to McCormack’s fans as it’s the continuation of Western Suit, the gorgeous little suedine chapbook published by Pas de Chance and designed by Ian Phillips. The Haunted Hillbilly picks up where Western Suit ends, just after Hank’s stage debut (Phillips also returns, providing the cover illustration and interior design).

A chief joy in reading a gothic horror tale like this is the mounting tension: How bad are things going to get? McCormack doesn’t disappoint, with surprising twists and nasty sex-filled turns.

Buoying the heavy material is McCormack’s fun with puns of all sorts: a punching bag of punch-inella, “atelier” is heard as “a tell you what?” or a radiator that turns out to be bolts of silver lamé.

And running throughout is an echo of nostalgia, lamenting the cheap glamour of new country’s kewpie dolls overtaking the unadorned heartache of American troubadours.

If over the next few weeks leading up to Halloween you find yourself, like Nudie, armed with a stitch ripper in the creation of alter egos and glamorous personas, take a few moments to read The Haunted Hillbilly and consider the power and threat of such dark arts.

* Derek McCormack reads at Harbourfront’s Brigantine Room (235 Queens Quay W) with RM Vaughan (who also has a new novel out, Spells) and Ken Mitchell (The Heroic Adventures Of Donny Coyote) at 7:30pm on Wed, Oct 1; Bert Archer hosts. Tix cost $8; call (416) 973-4000.


Derek McCormack.

ECW Press. $16.99.