My mother was born in Hatchett Holler in a house barely larger than a shack, now 70 years later dangerously leaning and bereft of paint. I come from the world of tent revivals and singings where simple folk and their homes, nature, God and medication played the leading roles. Actually, I’ve just come back from that same place: from Sheldon Lee Compton’s The Same Terrible Storm.
Told mostly in male first-person or third-person narratives—although there are a few surprises, such as “Place of Birth” told in the second person and “A Tree Born Crooked” told by a female character—Compton’s short story collection is a melodious, somber ballad of place. I’m tempted to call this a rural southern place, and it certainly is. But there’s a deeper place Compton describes in such rich detail. It is the burning place in the characters’ minds that they all seek to soothe. The persistence and medication of pain, witnessed but ignored by nature—and I will venture to include God as disinterested bystander—are at the core of almost all of these stories.
Also at the core of The Same Terrible Storm is a seething, pent-up anger, like the gun in Greg’s pocket from “A Dark River’s Silt,” one of the longer stories in the collection. Greg is a man trying to make things right, to get clean, to find God. Convinced by a dream his girlfriend will leave him for a man of more brawn, he decides he needs a gun. But first he must make a choice between right and wrong. His grandmother’s guitar—the Hummingbird—is hanging on the wall at the pawn shop. Music/family or violence—which will be the antidote that saves him? Of course he buys the gun, which imbues the story with Hitchcockian suspense.
The ending of “A Dark River’s Silt” is explosive, baptismal in a way the reader might not expect. In the same way, the ending of “Intruder” is both devastating and beautiful. Compton’s need to “get the chords just right” has produced a work of finely tuned description. I could quote a hundred passages, but I’ve chosen this one from “Remodeling” because I think it shows Compton’s focus on the home as character. In this passage, the house has retained the residue of anger, as if the room has been ravaged by a storm:
People had certainly lived here. Families. In an area that served as a kitchen there were four chairs that seemed blown about the room. Two tilted against a far wall and the others sat upright but on opposite sides of the room. There were dishes in a cancerous sink.
But there’s hope, and I’ll go ahead and tell you Compton has saved the antidote that will calm the storm until the last story, the last stroke. Redemption and the relief from pain come through family, through a moment shared between father and son. Is this a message? Am I allowed to look for one? And if I’ve found one, does it matter if none was intended? I know one thing: if I were a character in one of these stories, I’d be looking for a sign from God that one day all my efforts would pay off, that I would someday be whole.
Christopher Allen, a native of Tennessee, lives in Germany. His fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in numerous places both online and in print. In 2011, Allen was a Pushcart Prize nominee and a finalist at Glimmer Train. He blogs at www.imustbeoff.com.