The Haunted Hillbilly.
Okay, so: The Haunted Hillbilly is put out here in the U.S. by Soft Skull Press, and as a rule, Soft Skull generally does not put out books that are alarmingly crappy. In fact, I've yet to read a book put out by Soft Skull that wasn't a decent ride. I've reviewed two Soft Skull books so far, Lisa Crystal Carver's Drugs Are Nice, and Michelle Embree's Manstealing for Fat Girls, and both provided strongly compelling evidence supporting my "Soft Skull Good" theory.
Because of this, when I realized that Derek McCormack's 2003 novel was about a gay rapist vampire who drugs and rims Hank Williams, Sr., my first thought was "Why, Soft Skull? Why?"
Then I began enjoying the outrageousness of my one-sentence summary a little too much, and gleefully told anybody who would listen exactly what I was reading.
Best of all was when I discovered that Nudie, the gay vampire, was also a real person, costumer Nudie Cohn, who designed performance clothes for Cher, Elton John, Elvis Presley, and Liberace. The real Nudie Cohn may not have been an actual vampire, but it's difficult to argue with the opinion that he probably farted rhinestones.
No, wait! Best of all is the disclaimer at the start of the book that clearly states that the book is a work of fiction. McCormack then goes on to tell us about the main character, "Hank Williams," an aspiring country singer who, at the start of the book, is married to a woman named "Audrey" and is preparing to audition for the Grand Ole Opry. He meets a flamboyant costume designer named "Nudie," whose fashion sense gives Ray Charles eye pain, and together they have adventures involving alchohol, back pain, getting fired from the Opry, a divorce from Audrey, a girlfriend named Bobbie, who has his child, and Hank's premature death at the age of 29. But I'm sure that's just, as the disclaimer says, coincidental to anybody's actual life. And did I mention gay vampire rape?
I'm sure the Williams and Cohn families have an autographed copy of this book on their mantlepiece.
McCormack is quite the hot ticket in the Canadian indie circuit. His extremely spare prose forces the reader to fill in all the gaps left in the narrative, and I enjoyed the contrast between the way-too-busy clothing and the clipped language used to describe it:
The blazer's ablaze. Sleeves studded with musical bars. Staffs are sequins. Notes are glass beads. A treble clef is scores of rhinestones.
The difficulty with such See-spot-run sentences, as any first grader will tell you, is that the author can't help but get to the point quickly. The Haunted Hillbilly is 124 pages long, double spaced, and devotes several pages to fancy chapter title pages with ink illustrations of western-style font and swirly western patterns surrounding it. Not quite a book, then, although marketed as such. I'm not sure it's even a novella.
The Haunted Hillbilly, truth be told, reminded me of a short story dressed up in a big novel's three-piece suit; hat enveloping a little head, shoes swallowing little feet, borrowed briefcase dragging on the floor.
Had this been a short story I found in a magazine somewhere, I would have loved it just as much. During my second read, I even started coming around to the idea that Hank Williams, a man possessed by demons, was possessed in the fictionalized version of his life by an actual demon. But marketed as a novel it fell short of my expectations.
I loved The Haunted Hillbilly, I did. It's just that, in the end, I think I loved it for all the wrong reasons. Gay rapist vampires, y'all! Yee-haw!
The Haunted Hillbilly
by Derek McCormack
published 2003 by ECW Press, Toronto, Canada
published in the United States 2005 by Soft Skull Press