The Beyonders by Manly Wade Wellman (1977)
My choice this week for a Forgotten Book brings us to the Appalachian Mountains that Manly Wade Wellman loved so much. The isolated town of Sky Notch, population 250, doesn't have much going for it -- a general store, a gas station, a small barber shop, a tiny church, but the school has closed and the only doctor is retired and practices only when needed. On the plus side, the people are friendly, the area is beautiful, and there's plenty of hunting and fishing. About five miles off in the wood live the even more isolated Kimber clan, a strange group addicted to privacy and their own religion and customs. The Kimbers do grow the best vegetables in the area and provide the most popular "blockade" -- the local term for moonshine.
Only one member of that family lives in town; Slowly Kimber, actually related to the family by marriage rather than blood, is the town clerk, and does odd chores and cooking for Doc Hannum. Slowly is one of the better things about Sky Notch and most of the men in town are in love with her, including Duffy Parr and Gander Eye Gentry, neither of whom are ungentlemanly enough to declare their affections. The small town's population grows by one with the arrival of James Crispin, an artist who has rented a house in town. Crispin is good-looking, cultured, and friendly, and it soon appears that he is the one that Slowly likes. But Crispin is a man of secrets and has an agenda for the town folk and for the Kimber clan, in whom he seems unduly interested.
Gander Eye Gentry begins to notice some strange things, including an odd shining shape rising from the bushes in the distance, a shape that belongs to neither man nor bear, a shape that leaves no track -- its only trace some browned grass near where Gander Eye had seen the shape. Then there was the strange figure that tossed a large chunk of gold -- a large, warm chunk of gold -- at Gander Eye. And in the woods, off the path that leads to the Kimber territory, there's a large pile of rocks supported only by poles, a pile large enough to bring about an avalanche if released, crushing anyone unlucky enough to be heading to the Kimbers at the time. Another stranger, a large hairy man named Struve, who claims he represents a company called Beyonders, Incorporated, encounters Gander Eye in the woods, and tries to enlist Gander Eye in some unnamed project that would be a boon to Sky Notch, while promising untold wealth and power to Gander Eye. At the house rented by Crispin, flowers bloom riotously in the desiccated ground
Crispin talks Captain Kimber, the head of the Kimber clan, into allowing Slowly to escort him to view the clan's secret baptism ceremony -- something no outsider has been allowed to see in over 100 years. (Somehow Crispin manages to include a few secret words into his conversation with the Captain that allowed him to gain the Captain's trust.) It turns out that the ceremony is powerful, brief, and performed in the nude. Gander Eye, jealous, has secretly followed Slowly and Crispin, and views the rite from a distance.
Back at Sky Notch, in a totally unnecessary plot element, Crispin decides to paint the baptism scene he saw and asks Gander Eye to pose for him. Gander Eye agrees, as long as he poses alone. Crispin also talks Slowly into posing separately. Another unnecessary plot element, although based on a true story and quite funny, involves Duffy Parr, drowning his sorrows in blockade, who suddenly becomes the unwilling half of a shotgun marriage -- a scene that Wellman evidently thought too good to eliminate.
All the strange doings in and around Sky Notch are due a century-old plan of invasion by creatures from another universe. (I had read one review that claimed the invaders were Lovecraftian. If you are not too sure what a Lovecraftian monster is and if you squint real hard in the dark while looking in another direction, well...yeah...Sort of...Maybe...Nah, not really.) A gate between the universes had opened in the mountains and the invaders are now ready to conquer the planet. All that stands between the aliens and Earth's doom are Gander Eye and a few other mountain men and their guns.
This book was a pleasure to read because of Wellman's love for the area, its people, and their customs; few people treat those subjects better than Wellman. As for the main plot?...well, that leaves something to be desired. Read it for the well-drawn characters and setting, as well as for the action and Wellman's clear, flowing writing style.