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April Wallace: Curtis Harrell publishes first book, ‘Melpomene’s Garden’

Longtime teacher turns his hand to tales of ghosts and mystery by April Wallace | October 30, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.
“Melpomene’s Garden” is a collection of short stories, drama and poetry written by Curtis Harrell over the course of three decades. The works are Southern Gothic tales that feature benevolent ghosts and the supernatural. (Courtesy Photo)

Curtis Harrell has been teaching Composition II for more than 35 years, 20 of those at Northwest Arkansas Community College, but the longtime professor has been doing much more than teaching about others' writing throughout his career. He's also been writing and publishing his own works in literary journals just as long. It started with a single poem that Miller Williams, who as then-poetry editor for the Arkansas Times, published in 1978 or 1979.

When Harrell was featured in the Profiles section in 2015, he told the Democrat-Gazette that if he had an extra hour in the day he'd explore writing a novel.

This summer, Harrell's very first book, "Melpomene's Garden," was released by Sley House Publishing. The Southern Gothic collection published July 1 has ghost stories, one-act plays and poetry.

First of all, congratulations on the publication of your first book! Last time we talked, writing a novel was top of your mind, but this is a different kind of writing.

Thank you. Yes, I've been writing prose mostly here lately. I wrote exclusively poetry for many years.

One interesting exception to that was in 1994 or '95, I was teaching at an experimental high school in southern California ... when I had this nice routine of getting them breakfast and I would retire back to my den (to write). One summer I worked on a collection of short stories, "Stories with Ghosts."

I'd had a fascination with the supernatural since I was a kid. My parents were always incredibly supportive when it came to money for the book fairs, and I just loved the supernatural, the ghost stories, the monsters, all that ... but the stories kind of transcended that.

These tales and stories are a graft of young adult and mainstream mystery literature. They didn't really fit well anywhere. I was drawn more to fiction.

Who are some of your influences?

A couple of the authors who triggered my wanting to write were two fellow Arkansans, (both) UA graduates: Charles Portis and Barry Hannah. Those two writers, I just love what they do so much.

I always taught Comp II as a literature class (in which we) always do Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner, from the Southern Gothic up through then Portis and Hannah. That's what I love reading.

Compilations and short story anthologies are very trendy now. Do you think that development created a unique opportunity for you to write this kind of book?

Oh, absolutely. Sley House Publishing is run by some friends of mine. They published genre fiction, primarily horror, sci-fi, fantasy, mystery. They saw the "Stories with Ghosts" manuscript originally and said, 'We want to publish this.' It fits the genre publisher. But they didn't want to be keyholed and knew I also wrote poetry and drama.

So as we started working on a manuscript, we had at its core the short fiction, which was mostly the collection I had written in the '90s. I added a couple of fairly recent stories. Virtually all the poems had been published in other magazines in the past (from) when I was in grad school in the '80s up until the present.

And then it also includes two plays that I wrote, both were performed at NWACC.

I didn't realize that you wrote plays too. How did you get into that?

I went through a period at (NWACC) where I performed a lot. The high point for me: I performed the lead in "The Giver," but I also played the museum guard in "The Shape of Things," I played Gloucester in "King Lear." I had a lot of roles.

If they wanted me in the play, they had to work a banjo into it somehow. In "As You Like It," I was the good dude. They reset that in the Louisiana bayou, so I had on my overalls and my cap and banjo. There's actually a song in that one of the characters sings, and I arranged it for clawhammer banjo, so my experiences with the theater culminated in writing two different plays.

"Melpomene's Garden" has a cool promotional video that gives imagery to your tales of ghosts and the supernatural. Can you tell me about the topics and themes you cover?

When I wrote the stories with ghosts, I didn't really anticipate them all being ghost stories per se. Some have elements that are spooky. What I was trying to get at ... (was akin to) the most perfect short story ever written, "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner. Just because how that ending just grabs you. The climax of that story is in the last word. So as I was writing the short fiction, I wanted ... these plot twists at the end.

A lot of the ghosts in my stories are not the creepy kind, but in a lot of ways they're benevolent, they're helpful, and they connect the characters to themselves and their pasts. That's a way to describe a lot of the short fiction, that while they deal with the supernatural, a lot of it is the main characters trying to resolve something, and the supernatural helps in ways.

Have you encountered any ghosts yourself?

As a matter of fact, that's what I include in my foreword. I was moving into a rental house in Fayetteville when I was in graduate school, when on our very first night, I saw a man in the doorway of my room who was smoking. When I woke up enough, I rushed to my roommates to see if they had seen the man, but they hadn't. All the windows and doors were locked. The previous tenants were surprised to hear I saw him so soon. I continued to live in the house, where sometimes a phone would ring and ring and ring until you got right up to it, furniture would be rearranged, and mysterious banging noises and other signs occurred.

What can you tell me about the stories?

"The Killer Tattoo" goes right back to "Tales From the Crypt." This giant of a man is a tattoo artist who is trying to help this guy find his dreams by giving him these different tattoos.

"The Rattlers Tale" is set in the Old West, where a Native American girl's village is being terrorized by these gold miners and she has this spiritual connection to rattlesnakes.

Almost every little town has a story about this level piece of ground that if you park your car on it, it rolls up hill. "The Scent of Baby Powder" deals with what is happening with that, but it helps the characters resolve issues that they're having.

And the drama?

In "The Corner of Victory and Vaneyes" is an old man searching for redemption, since he was estranged from his daughter many years before.

What's very interesting about "Duke Sims and the Duchess of Russia," a play between a paper boy and an old agoraphobic widow, a shut-in ... I set it in the summer of 1969 in Cleveland, Ohio, where her only dealings with the outside world is her paperboy. (It was the year that) they had man on the moon and the Cuyahoga River caught fire because it was so polluted.

I happened to be a paperboy in Cleveland in 1969.

Did you know someone like the widow?

I did. She wasn't agoraphobic, but on my paper route there was one apartment building I delivered papers to. I had a key to the back door, and I had to go up three flights to deliver the paper on her doorstep and collect money for the paper.

That gave me the idea about the bond between the two.

Do you have any favorites or work that really represents the culmination of your efforts?

Yes. The last short story is called "Liar." That's one I published a couple years ago. The level of language in it and the sort of oddity of the narrative choices I make are indicative of what I'm writing right now.

Sley House Publishing does a yearly anthology of horror short stories. Last year was the first, "Tales of Sley House 2021." My title short story was in that. And of course that became the title of book, "Melpomene's Garden."

This year I have another story set to appear in Tales of Sley House 2022 called "Hunger," an historical horror story. The main character is a librarian-turned-Confederate soldier in the Civil War who is very disenchanted with how the war is going. And he then runs afoul of the supernatural on the battlefield.

In the poetry there's two I'm fond of. "Insurance Trilogy" was nominated for inclusion in the Pushcart anthology by RiffRaff Journal, which published it several years ago. "Fossil," the very ending poem, I like a lot. A fossil becomes an odd object that connects a grandfather and grandson.

What's the crowd favorite?

Of all the people who have read "Melpomene's Garden" so far, almost everyone has said the short story favorite is "Daffodils." [It] by far has been pointed out as what people like more than others.

What's next?

Now that the first book is a done deal, that has really inspired and encouraged me to work on the next project. With retirement coming up, it works well with my schedule.

I'm already working on a second book of short stories right now. This isn't going to be the end of it here. I've got five stories and this will be mostly fiction. My current publisher says they want to be the first to see the manuscript when I'm through with it.

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‘Melpomene’s Garden’

You can find Harrell’s first book at, Barnes & Noble, Kindle and Nook.


Print Headline: Hidden Gems: A Book Column


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