By Mike Templeton

The intellectual and creative heart of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition consists of scholars from within the academy and scholars whose education comes from the streets and hills that shaped them. A full understanding of urban Appalachian life and Appalachian life and culture in general requires the contributions of all kinds of people. Speaking only for myself, I have come to favor those who are working outside the realms of official scholarly endeavor, and this interest led me to stumble upon the work of Edwin Callihan who, as we will see, combines the creativity of an artist, the sharp observations of a scholar, and the experiences of his life in Eastern Kentucky to offer an intellectual and creative amalgam that is truly unique. 

Edwin Callihan lives in Eastern Kentucky. He lives in Flatwoods, Kentucky, in Greenup County, to be exact, where he grew up, and other than a couple of trips to Florida, Callihan has largely stuck around Flatwoods. In one of his essays Callihan describes features of a childhood in which he would “explore the crick in search of crawdads, roam the grove of apple trees with a posse of hound-dogs, and listen to the bluegrass station on an old radio.” But he also spoke to me about a life growing up as “a skateboarder, comic book kid that listened to extreme metal.” We will get to the Appalachian identity thing, but suffice to say that being from Flatwoods, Kentucky in this day and age does not necessarily put a young person on track to play the banjo. Callihan describes a “dark energy” to the area in which he grew up, and this dark energy comes through in his writing in the best possible ways. Perhaps most notable for this is his fiction collection, Histories of Mgo.

Callihan subtitled Histories of Mgo as The wrong world…And it is. It is the wrong world to be in, and it is the world gone wrong. Or maybe it is our world staring directly back at us from the mirror. This last possibility is the really troubling one. Mgo is a collection of stories, for sure, but the nature of the stories defies description. While nihilistic horror and post-apocalyptic nightmare are terms the lit crit smarties throw around to talk about things like Callihan’s work, they do not quite fit for Mgo. Callihan is the folklorist of his own worlds, a Brothers Grimm of places and times that never existed but come close enough to our world to make us extremely uncomfortable. What if Flannery O’Connor got ahold of some Thomas Ligotti and Stephen King and decided that was the direction for her? You get what I mean. And these fictions are only a part of what Edwin Callihan does as a writer.

His online magazine, Pessimysticism covers any and all terrain Callihan sees fit to include. And the title is apt. While his views of things may appear nihilistic or pessimistic, he has enough imagination and intellect to see something more than just the dim and the terrible. There is magic even in the worst of things, and this is what lifts Callihan’s writing above the common lot and what grabbed my attention. It is very easy to point out all that is wrong. It requires an uncommon imagination to transform all that is wrong into ideas and concepts worth considering and to continue creating something new. His reflections on being a writer in “Can’t Knock the Hustle” quickly becomes a legitimate critique of the ways the digital world has devalued writing and even the very idea of creating stories. Callihan puts his finger on the culture of the image that devalues writing in the same way it has devalued everything else.

I asked Edwin Callihan about the influence of Appalachia and being Appalachian on his work and his life, and he has written about this topic on Pessimysticism. Callihan explains that “(t)he region is so vast and large, that the identity can’t be just one culture. So trying to pigeon-hole ‘being Appalachian’ into a singular identity is wild to me and honestly, absurd.” He emphasized this point in his essay “Hillbilly Washing: Who’s your favorite possum” in which he states that “Appalachia isn’t limited to the cultural archetype of the hillbilly. How could it be? There are technically eleven states in the region…ELEVEN!” What has happened, according to Callihan, is that the image of the rural Appalachian hillbilly has become big business and what we have now are “a lot of people guilty of trying to exploit that for capital, especially artists, musicians, and politicians. And in the age of social media and content creation and marketing, culture moves fast.” At the same time, Callihan was quick to tell me that we should in no way attempt to move on from the concept of Appalachian identity; more to the point would be to move away from the exploitive image machine. I suppose the same image machine that devalues writing and writers.

As Callihan says in “Hillbilly Washing,” “So many politicians and organizations promote this capitalistic venture into regional wealth with initiative to build a better Appalachia but really, they just paint a big mural on the side of every building.” And after the politicians and the big-money folks have had their fill of yet another way of exploiting Appalachia, “we will all still be here, trying to figure out why things aren’t getting better.” Yet, it seems to me, and perhaps Edwin Callihan might agree with me on this, if the artists, writers, and poets of today who are committed to create some things that are honest about who and what we are today, we might begin to see an Appalachia—a whole bunch of Appalachias—emerge that have something to do with the people, who they really are, and what they truly care about, and this will organically come out of a huge region that is due for some measure of prosperity and contentment. This is certainly the future the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition works to create, and we can look to folks like Edwin Callihan as one who is carving out spaces to make it all happen.

Histories of Mgo is published by Castaigne Publishing and can be order on the website at this link:

To read and follow Pessimysticism, follow this link:

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of The Chief of Birds: A Memoir, available from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iff Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s Cultural Directory. He lives in West Milton, Ohio with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city and the country snapping photos. She looks up at the grandeur above, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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