Want to hear a paradox? Writer of rural noir grows up in the suburbs. Doesn’t seem possible does it? And it’s certainly not the wisest thing for an author of a crime series set in the backwoods of Georgia to divulge, but there’s no point in hiding it. The first seven years of my life were spent in Georgia, living in lower middle class neighborhoods outside of Atlanta. At seven, after my father received a promotion, we moved to Montgomery, Alabama to a much nicer neighborhood where the residents kept rose gardens, walked leashed Chihuahuas, and fed chemicals to immaculate lawns. A far cry from the rough mountain setting I describe in my first novel, Heaven’s Crooked Finger.
So, how did I have any clue about the backwards religion, crazed preachers, and hidden mountain caves that populate protagonist Earl Marcus’s stomping grounds? Simply put, I did what all authors do. I experienced some of it first hand and made up the rest.
Despite coming up in the sterile suburbs, the mountains were never far away. Both sets of grandparents lived in North Georgia, and when my nuclear family visited, which was often, I found myself experiencing both fear and deep fascination at the people—some of whom were my relatives— and the old-time religion I found at my maternal grandmother’s church. One of the most fascinating of those relatives was a man I never met, but because of my grandmother, I came to feel as if I knew him intimately.
Any time my brother or I complained about doing one of Granny’s many chores, she’d say, “Lazy, just like your Uncle Earl.”
If we showed some sign of not being good upright young men, she’d say, “Psaww, just like your Uncle Earl.”
Maybe one of us had displayed an argumentative streak or shown a tendency toward contrariness (probably me). It wouldn’t take long before I’d hear the words tumbling from her wrinkled lips: “You’re just like your Uncle Earl.”
I don’t think Granny meant to make Uncle Earl a legend in my mind, but somehow that was exactly what happened. If I was so much like Uncle Earl, maybe he wasn’t all that bad? Maybe he was just misunderstood. Better yet, maybe he was actually smart enough to have figured out some of the bullshit. I think these ideas, this fascination toward a man whom I never met were the seeds that some thirty years later bloomed into Earl Marcus, the titular character and narrator of Heaven’s Crooked Finger and the second in the series, In the Valley of the Devil.
But that was far from the only influence on Heaven’s Crooked Finger that I took from those trips to visit my grandparents. The experiences in that little Assemblies of God Church have stayed with me for a lifetime, and I suspect that they’ll never really leave me alone. I exorcised some of the more difficult ones by casting Earl Marcus as a reluctant member of a church that was a version of my grandmother’s church gone wild. I’ve never handled snakes, or even seen anyone else do it, but I have endured preachers while they stomped and cajoled and did everything short of lightning themselves on fire to make clear that hell was real and the end times were coming, nay, they were upon us. I’ve watched, frozen, as people fell to the floor of the church in the throes of something that I could not explain, and I’ve walked slowly to the front of the sanctuary for an altar call that tore me apart inside. I did not want to go up. I also did not want to go to hell.
Which isn’t too dissimilar from what Earl Marcus deals with in Heaven’s Crooked Finger. He wants to believe, but there’s a part of him that just can't. Other days, he doesn’t want to believe, and that’s when he is incapable of not thinking about the part of him that despite all odds still does. More paradox, which I’ve always believed makes for the best fiction because the prevalence of paradoxes is just about the only thing that you can count on in this world.
Which may explain why this series means so much to me. I’m exploring my own paradox as I write them. Because despite all the negative memories I have of the religious aspect of North Georgia, it will always be home, and the people there, I realize will always be my family. They’ve shaped me. Even when I feel as if I’m shaping myself, I realize that it’s just a reaction to how they shaped me to begin with. Reacting to this idea or this memory, trying to figure out a straight line means that sometimes you’ve got to turn yourself inside out or just make a left turn now and then. Because there’s no escaping home. There’s no escaping family. And somehow I find that a comfort.
About Hank Early:
Hank Early spent much of his youth in the mountains of North Georgia, but he never held a snake or got struck by lightning. These days, he lives in central Alabama with his wife and two kids. He writes crime, watches too much basketball, and rarely sleeps. Heaven's Crooked Finger is his first novel.