Curtis Harrell publishes his first book, “Melpomene’s Garden”


Curtis Harrell has taught Composition II for more than 35 years, 20 of them at Northwest Arkansas Community College, but the longtime teacher has done more than teach others to write throughout his career. He has been writing and publishing his own works in literary journals for as long. It all started with a single poem that Miller Williams, then editor of 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 would explore writing a novel.

This summer, Harrell’s first-ever book, “Melpomene’s Garden,” was published by Sley House Publishing. The Southern Gothic collection released on July 1 contains ghost stories, one-act plays and poetry.

First of all, congratulations on the publication of your first book! The last time we spoke, writing a novel was a priority, but it’s a different kind of writing.

Thanks. Yeah, I’m mostly writing prose here lately. I wrote exclusively poetry for many years.

An interesting exception to this was in 1994 or 95 I was teaching at an experimental high school in Southern California… when I had this nice routine of having breakfast at them and retreating to my den (to write ). One summer, I worked on a collection of short stories, “Stories with ghosts”.

I had a fascination with the supernatural since my childhood. My parents were always incredibly supportive when it came to book fair money, and I loved the supernatural, ghost stories, monsters, all of that…but the stories transcended that.

These tales and stories are a transplant of mystery literature for young adults and the general public. They really weren’t going anywhere. I was more drawn to fiction.

What are some of your influences?

A few of the authors who inspired me to write were two colleagues from Arkansans, (both) graduates of UA: Charles Portis and Barry Hannah. These two writers, I love what they do so much.

I’ve always taught Comp II as a Literature class (in which we always do Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, Southern Gothic through Portis and Hannah. That’s what I love to read.

Compilations and anthologies of short stories are very fashionable at the moment. Do you think development has created a unique opportunity for you to write this kind of book?

Absolutely. Sley House Publishing is run by friends of mine. They published genre fiction, mostly horror, science fiction, fantasy, mystery. They saw the original “Stories with Ghosts” manuscript and said, “We want to publish this.” It corresponds to the genre editor. But they didn’t want to be blocked and knew that I also wrote poetry and drama.

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

And then there are also two plays that I wrote, both performed at NWACC.

I didn’t know that you also write plays. how did you get in there?

I went through a period at (NWACC) where I performed a lot. The highlight for me: I played the main role in “The Giver”, but I also played the museum guard in “The Shape of Things”, I played Gloucester in “King Lear”. I had many roles.

If they wanted me in the room, they had to put a banjo in there somehow. In “As You Like It”, I was the good guy. They reset that in the Louisiana bayou, so I had my overalls, my cap, and my banjo. There’s actually a song in which one of the characters sings, and I arranged it for the clawhammer banjo, so my experiments with acting resulted in writing two different pieces.

“Melpomene’s Garden” has a cool promotional video that gives your ghost and supernatural stories some visuals. Can you tell me about the topics and themes you cover?

When I wrote the ghost stories, I didn’t really expect them all to be ghost stories per se. Some have scary elements. What I was trying to achieve… (sounded like) the most perfect short story ever written, “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner. Just because that ending grabs you. The climax of this story is in the last word. So since I was writing the short fiction, I wanted… those twists at the end.

Many of the ghosts in my stories aren’t the scary kind, but in many ways they’re benevolent, they’re helpful, and they connect the characters to themselves and their pasts. That’s a way of describing a lot of short fiction, while they’re dealing with the supernatural it’s a lot of the main characters trying to figure something out, and the supernatural helps in some way other.

Have you encountered ghosts yourself?

This is what I include in my foreword. I was moving into a rental house in Fayetteville when I was in college, when on our very first night, I saw a man in my bedroom doorway smoking. When I woke up enough, I rushed over to my roommates to see if they had seen the man, but they hadn’t. All windows and doors were locked. Previous tenants were surprised to learn that I saw it so early. I continued to live in the house, where sometimes a phone rang and rang and rang until you took care of it, the furniture was rearranged and mysterious clicking noises and other signs occurred.

What can you tell me about the stories?

“The Killer Tattoo” harks back directly to “Tales From the Crypt.” This giant of a man is a tattoo artist trying to help this guy find his dreams by giving him these different tattoos.

“The Rattlers Tale” is set in the Wild West, where a young Native American girl’s village is terrorized by these gold miners and she has this spiritual connection to rattlesnakes.

Almost every small town has a story about this flat land that, if you park your car there, rolls up the hill. “The Scent of Baby Powder” deals with what happens with it, but it helps the characters work through whatever problems they have.

And the drama?

In “The Corner of Victory and Vaneyes” is an old man in search of redemption, having separated from his daughter many years before.

What is very interesting in “Duke Sims and the Duchess of Russia”, a play between a newspaper boy and an agoraphobic old widow, an inmate… I staged it in the summer of 1969 in Cleveland, Ohio, where his only connection with the outside world is his paperboy. (That was the year that) they had a man on the moon and the Cuyahoga River caught fire because it was so polluted.

I happen to be a paperboy in Cleveland in 1969.

Did you know anyone like the widow?

I did it. She wasn’t agoraphobic, but on my paper route there was an apartment building that I delivered papers to. I had the key to the back door and had to walk up three flights of stairs to deliver the newspaper to her doorstep and collect money for the newspaper.

This gave me the idea of ​​the link between the two.

Do you have favorites or works that really represent the culmination of your efforts?

Yes. The latest news is called “Liar”. This is the one I published a few years ago. The level of language in it and the kind of weirdness of the narrative choices I make are indicative of what I’m writing right now.

Sley House Publishing does an annual anthology of horror stories. Last year was the first, “Tales of Sley House 2021”. My short title story was in there. And of course, that became the title of the book, “Melpomene’s Garden.”

This year I have another story set to appear in Tales of Sley House 2022 called “Hunger”, a historical horror story. The main character is a librarian turned Confederate soldier during the Civil War who is very disenchanted with the way the war is going. And then he comes up against the supernatural on the battlefield.

In poetry there are two that I love. “Insurance Trilogy” was nominated for inclusion in RiffRaff Journal’s Pushcart anthology, which published it several years ago. “Fossil”, the end poem, I really like. A fossil becomes a strange object that connects a grandfather and a grandson.

What’s the crowd favourite?

Of everyone who’s read “The Garden of Melpomene” so far, almost everyone said their favorite short story was “The Daffodils.” [It] by far has been highlighted as what people love more than others.

And after?

Now that the first book is finished, it really inspired and encouraged me to work on the next project. With retirement approaching, it fits well with my schedule.

I’m already working on a second short story book right now. It won’t be the end here. I have five stories and it will be mostly fiction. My current editor says he wants to be the first to see the manuscript when I’m done.

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