The Uncanny Appalachian Folklore Inspiration Behind Bittersweet in the Hollow
When a knife falls, trouble is coming. Peel an apple on Halloween to know your future. Don’t whistle at night. When a bird flies into the house, death is near. Hold your breath when you pass a graveyard. Always leave by the same door you entered through. Never tell your dreams before breakfast or they’ll come true. And if you hear your name called when you’re alone in the woods – no you didn’t.
Appalachia has long-held traditions of both storytelling and superstition. When I was very young, I would beg my mother to tell me about her childhood growing up in West Virginia. There was something magical to me about these stories, A cadence that wove a spell of mist-covered mountains and coal-dusted shadows. And it was during the many trips to visit my grandmother – full of splashing in the creek with my sisters and cousins, catching crawdads, and molding clay pulled from the banks into shapes left to dry in the sun – that the seeds of my own story took root.
Bittersweet in the Hollow is about Linden, a girl who can taste the emotions of others and lives in a rural Appalachian town under the shadow of the forest where she disappeared last summer. She has no memory of what happened, but when another girl goes missing exactly one year later Linden enlists the help of her sisters, each with their own unique ability, to find out who – or what – is responsible. It’s a tale that entwines elements of mystery, thriller, and magic with a thread of romantic tension, but it’s heart is solidly rooted in Appalachian folklore.
Just as wild and wonderful as the land itself, here is some of the Appalachian lore that inspired elements of Bittersweet in the Hollow.
Arguably the best-known legend to come from West Virginia, the Mothman was described by those who claimed to see it as a slender, yet muscular humanoid creature of about seven feet tall with enormous wings and glowing red eyes that left those it looked upon with an eerie sense of dread. In November 1966, gravediggers working in a cemetery first spotted the strange figure in the trees above their heads.
It may all seem a bit campy and tongue-in-cheek now, but my mother was a young child when the first sightings were reported and remembers the television news broadcasts about a monster that seemed very real. Over the next thirteen months, nearly a hundred eyewitnesses came forward to report seeing the Mothman. Then, when the Silver Bridge collapsed in December 1967, resulting in the deaths of 46 people, the sightings abruptly stopped. Many would claim that the Mothman was a bad omen or even a harbinger of death.
And that assertion doesn’t seem quite so farfetched when you consider the many Scots-Irish immigrants who settled in West Virginia. In both English and Scottish folklore there are legends about church grims. These spirits were those of the first person buried when a new cemetery was established and were tasked with protecting the other souls from the devil. In Scotland, this was known as the faire chlaidh, or graveyard watch. They often took the form of a black dog with glowing red eyes, but may also present in the form of other animals. It was believed that, if the church grim appeared in the graveyard, especially to the gravedigger, it was a portent of death.
The Central Pangean Mountains
One of the oldest mountain ranges in the world, the Appalachians were once part of an ancient range known as the Central Pangean Mountains, which also included what are now the Scottish Highlands.
When I first discovered this, I knew I wanted to write something that explored the intersection of the folklore and folk magic traditions between those two places. As I researched, I began to wonder if, when the first Scots-Irish immigrants arrived in Appalachia, to mountains that looked like home, the lore they brought with them could have been more than just stories.
In the rural mountains of Appalachia, when doctors were few and far between, Granny Women served their communities as healers, midwives, and practitioners of folk magic. They knew the healing properties of all the native plants and could whip up remedies for just about anything, from sore throats to broken hearts. Some were even said to be able to stop bleeding or remove the pain of a burn with just a few whispered words.
An amalgamation of knowledge and traditions with European, Indigenous American, and African roots, it has become something inherently Appalachian. Today, while few people practice the old ways, it’s still alive among the ancient mountain peaks and remote hollows, if you know where to look.
Bittersweet in the Hollow was inspired by each of these legends, but explores them in completely new and unexpected ways. I’m so excited for you to read it on October 10! Be sure to check it out and let me know if you saw the twists coming.