Honey from the Lion: A Companion Soundscape

As the holidays approach, so does the time to curl up with beautiful and necessary books like Honey from the Lion, Matthew Neil Null’s debut novel from Lookout Books. The book, about a rebellion at a logging company in the West Virginia Alleghenies, is both lyrical and suspenseful, an elegy to the ecological devastation and human tragedy behind the Gilded Age.

Our solstice gift to you is an annotated soundscape for the book, expertly produced by folklorist, writer, media producer, and Ecotone contributor Emily Hilliard. Listen to the sounds of crows, trains, and fiddles and imagine yourself right into the world of Honey from the Lion.

0:00 Environmental sounds: Crows, great blue herons, steam trains, crosscut saw, axes.

An overture to situate us in place aurally.

1:22 “On Johnny Mitchell’s Train” by Jerry Byrne, recorded by George Gershon Korson at Buck Run, Pennsylvania, 1946. Song from the 1902 Anthracite miner strike. Via the Library of Congress.

The 1902 strike by the United Mine Workers of America in the anthracite coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania was supported by nearly 80 percent of miners in the area, and it would have been fresh in the minds of the timber companies and loggers represented in Honey from the Lion. The character Judge Randolph is said to have studied the strike, fearing the power of unions: “There’s always a copperhead in the woodpile.”

4:00 “Jesse James” by Ballard “Pappy” Taylor, recorded by John Harrod in Kenton County, Kentucky, 1989. Via the Digital Library of Appalachia.

The protagonist Cur makes reference to Frank and Jesse James to explain a “cowboy book” he’s reading. The notorious duo would have been something akin to pop-culture icons in the days of Cur’s youth.

7:09 “Old Greasy Coat” by Edden Hammons.

Edden Hammons, the fiddler of the famed Hammons family of West Virginia traditional musicians, makes a cameo in Null’s novel. A lyric from the popular fiddle tune “Greasy Coat” (or “Old Greasy Coat”) is also referenced (“Tell the preacher, tell the pulpit, I don’t wear no greasy coat”). It’s a fitting selection for the town of Helena’s Commercial Street with its brothels and taverns; a “greasy coat” was slang for a condom.

8:53 “Ughniyah li al-Atfal (Song for Children)” by Nicholas Debs, recorded in Jacksonville, Florida, 1940. Via the Library of Congress.

A song for Lis Grayab, the Syrian peddler.

11:38 “Nathan Killed the Bell Cow” by Phyllis Marks of Gilmer County, West Virginia. From Phyllis Marks: Old-time Songs of West Virginia, Augusta Heritage Recordings.

Phyllis Marks is, according to folklorist Gerry Milnes, the last active ballad singer left in West Virginia who learned “by heart,” via oral transmission from her family members. Her repertoire includes both English Child ballads and songs of the frontier, such as this one she got from her father-in-law. She says it is a play-party game from the Civil War era.

 13:11 “Puncheon Floor” by Manon Campbell, recorded by John Harrod in Letcher County, Kentucky, 1970s. Via the Digital Library of Appalachia.

A puncheon floor, made of logs split with a broad ax, is one of the domestic elements of early West Virginia that has become embedded in my mind. This is probably attributable to the imagery in the song “Come All You Virginia Gals,” which warns of the rough ways of West Virginia boys and describes their frontier homes, “clapboard roof and an old slab door, sandstone chimney and a puncheon floor.” It turns out that the song appears in numerous regions of the country, always cautioning young women off Arkansas boys or Texas boys or Mormon boys, with the West Virginia iteration appearing in 1928. I chose the “Puncheon Floor” fiddle tune, which originates a little closer to home. This version of the popular West Virginia and Kentucky dance tune comes from Manon Campbell of Letcher County, Kentucky.

14:46 Little Pink by William May of Mingo County, West Virginia, recorded by Gerry Milnes in West Virginia, 1990–1991. From Folksongs & Ballads, Vol. 4, Augusta Heritage Recordings.

“I never will marry no logging man who drives a four-horse team.”

16:59 “Peg ’n Awl” by Melvin Wine of Braxton County, West Virginia, recorded at the Berea College Celebration of Traditional Music, 1989. Via the Digital Library of Appalachia.

This is another fiddle tune named after what would have been an everyday term in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in West Virginia. A peg and awl were tools used by a cordwainer, or leatherpunch, to make shoes. The tools appear as names to songs of the era—one with lyrics celebrating the mechanization of shoemaking, and the other being this fiddle tune, here played by legendary Braxton County fiddler Melvin Wine.

“Looking up, Cur waved lightly to a leatherpunch, who sat on a stoop working shoes with a peg and awl. The man was old enough for everyone to call him uncle.”

19:03 “Come and Go to That Land” Congregational song, recorded at the eighteenth anniversary of the Gospel Harmonettes in Demopolis, Alabama, 1992. From Wade in the Water, Volume 2: African-American Congregational Singing, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.

A song for the Choirboy.

22:13 “#26BT Social Band,” Harmonia Sacra singing from Elkhart, Indiana, recorded 2006. From Joyfully Onward I Move.

Cur sorts through Grayab’s books—a Bible, Aesop’s fables, Greek myths, a Mennonite hymnal. At that time in West Virginia, that hymnal would likely have been the shape-note Genuine Church Music, published by Joseph Funk in Winchester, Virginia, in 1832. The form was subsequently renamed Harmonia Sacra and is seldom practiced today, save by a few Mennonite communities in Virginia and Indiana. This recording happens to be from a “sing” in my hometown of Elkhart, Indiana.

24:19 Environmental sounds: storm, church bell, ax.

25:20 Thurmond drainpipe, recorded by Emily Hilliard in Thurmond, West Virginia, 2016.

I made this recording of a drainpipe in the circa-1920s rail and coal boom town of Thurmond, West Virginia. Much of this New River town is now owned by the National Park Service, and only a few homes are inhabited. The rest of the town—bank and store fronts, one-room schoolhouse, old hotel, and coal tipple—is a preserved shell of what it once was, bearing that certain eerie beauty that all ghost towns seem to share. As it goes, even the drainpipes are uncanny, wind and water echoing against the old brick facades, alluding to what once was.

“Viewed from that peak, the land was a mutilated sea. Naked Mount Spruce in the distance, biting clouds, highest in the state. They saw no deer, no livestock, not even a carrion crow. The horrible tranquility of it all. No birds sang. Nothing but the sound of their own voices, their own thoughts. They had emptied their world like a jug.”

—Emily Hilliard

We’re a little bit excited over here…

Clare Beams’s We Show What We Have Learned is a finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lion’s Fiction Award! The prestigious prize is awarded each spring to a writer age 35 or younger for a novel or a collection of short stories. Congratulations to Clare and to all of this year’s finalists: Brit Bennett, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Karan Mahajan, and Nicole Dennis-Benn! “From high-concept premises, to the exploration of heartbreaking family dynamics, each of these debut novels [and story collection!] exemplifies the power of the written word.”

Congratulations, Clare. We’re thrilled the literary community sees all of the beauty we do in this incredible book.


Catch the Publishing Lab on C-SPAN!

The C-SPAN Cities Tour came right here to Wilmington to highlight our literary culture, including a segment focusing on the Pub Lab with the Lookout Practicum and director Emily Smith.

Check out the video here, and the rest of the segments too, including:

  • Dana Sachs, “The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam”
  • New Hanover County Library’s North Carolina History Room
  • Literary Walking Tour of Wilmington with Old Books on Front Street Bookstore

A Very Lookout Halloween

Clare Beams’s debut collection, We Show What We Have Learned, hit the shelves this week, and we’re looking forward to her launch party as part of UNCW’s Writers’ Week, Halloween night in Wilmington, Lookout’s hometown. The stories are rich with haunting imagery, and we thought it might be fun to imagine Clare’s characters out trick-or-treating. Here’s what you’ll need to bring her characters to life in your neighborhood.

corsetA Corset — “Hourglass”

Ingénues at a boarding school who bind themselves to their headmaster’s version of perfection. “From within it, she produced a hollow stiff shell, trailing long tentacular laces…There was a flourish in her wrists as she held it out to me. A new form, right in her hands, ready for the taking.”

A Wedding Dress — “The Drop”

A bride glimpses her husband’s past when she wears his World War II parachute as a gown. “The dress wasn’t bad looking, in Emma’s opinion. It didn’t look much like a parachute unless you had your eyes peeled for the resemblance. The white of it dazzled, as white does. Mrs. Bolland had given it pretty sleeves with points at the wrists, a drop waist that made Lily look streamlined and almost elegant, like something turned on a lathe. Also, a fetching neckline, dipping to a V, just low enough, framing the collarbone.”

bathingbeautiesDepression-era Bathing Costumes — “The Saltwater Cure”

As Amanda Nelson recaps, in Bookriot, in this story “a teenaged boy becomes infatuated with an older woman at the fraudulent health spa run by his mother.” “She was swimming slowly, straight away from him. No bathing cap today: her wet hair was a dark indiscriminate color, like the head of a seal. Rob blundered into the marsh as fast as he could; he hoped to be covered before she noticed the skinniness of his arms and legs…”

Plague Doctor — “Ailments”

In this story, as the starred Kirkus review reads: a young woman becomes obsessed with her sister’s husband, a doctor, during London’s Great Plague. Dr. Creswell’s wife mends his plague-doctor’s coat and his sister-in-law explores the bird-mask he wears, “a clumsy homemade thing of stained and stiff brown leather. Its eyes were a dull red glass, one webbed in small cracks. Down the beak ran a line of stitches. A mouth sewn closed, but smiling slyly.”

Whatever you decide to dress as, everyone at Lookout wishes you happy haunting and safe trick-or-treating!

(Images courtesy Library of Congress.)

Goodreads Giveaway – We Show What We Have Learned

Like free books? We will be giving away fifteen preview copies of Clare Beams’s debut story collection, We Show What We Have Learned, on Goodreads! Here’s how it works:

  • Jump on Goodreads to enter.
  • The giveaway is open from Monday, October 3, until Thursday, October 18.
  • Follow the instructions on Goodreads and sit tight. They’ll announce winners when the giveaway closes on October 18. Fifteen lucky people will receive copies of We Show What We Have Learned.
  • We’d love to hear from you! Please post a review on Goodreads, or e-mail us directly at [email protected] to tell us what you think.


We Show What We Have Learned hits shelves on October 25 and is available for pre-order now via Lookout’s website. Check back here–or Lookout’s Instagram account @LookoutBooksUNCW–for a new digital broadside every Tuesday leading up to the book’s release.

Lookout’s Next Title!

We Show What We Have Learned final coverYou may have heard the news by now, but we wanted to do an official announcement here on the blog: we’re thrilled to broadcast the details about Lookout’s next book, the debut story collection, We Show What We Have Learned, by Clare Beams. The stories blend the fantastic, the historic, and the literary, and capture the true strangeness of being human. From bewildering assemblies in school auditoriums to the murky waters of a Depression-era health resort, Beams’s landscapes are tinged with otherworldliness, and her characters’ desires stretch the limits of reality.

Clare’s editor here at Lookout, Beth Staples, published the title story from the collection years ago during her time at Hayden’s Ferry Review, and was even more excited to work with Clare on a newer story for Ecotone, called “Granna.” The success of that relationship, and the Ecotone/Lookout team’s enthusiasm for Clare’s work, led to the acquisition of this fabulous collection. And now, after many months of editing, publicizing, designing, and planning, we’re all so excited for October 25, when the book will make its way to readers.

We’re not the only ones excited. In a starred review Kirkus calls the collection, “A richly imagined and impeccably crafted debut.” Publishers Weekly adds, “Beams is an expert at providing odd and surprising details that make her stories come alive, and the result is a powerful collection about what we need from others and, in turn, what we can offer others of ourselves.” And Amanda Nelson of Book Riot says, “These stories are angry and odd, and I loved them.” Head to Clare’s website to read all the love, including quotes from Joyce Carol Oates, Chang-Rae Lee, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Mary Laura Philpott of Parnassus Books, and Rachel Richardson of Hub City Writers Project.

We’ll be giving all of the details about Clare’s tour and reading schedule shortly, but you can have a look at what’s planned so far here. We’re also so excited that Clare will be here in Wilmington as part of UNCW’s Writers’ Week.

And you don’t have to wait until October 25 to find your copy–you can preorder the collection now. We hope it will delight, challenge, and surprise you in all the best ways.

News Roundup

We’re finishing up the first full week of school at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the home of Lookout and Ecotone, and are gearing up for a semester of literary action! We’re just a little over a week away from the release of Lookout’s debut novel, and we’ve got news and events aplenty:

Honey from the Lion makes the Literary Hub’s Great Booksellers Fall Review along with books by Jonathan Franzen, Ron Rash, Joy Williams, Lauren Groff, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Marilynne Robinson! Thanks to Mary Laura Philpott of Parnassus Books for the pick. She says, “Lookout Books publishes just one or two books a year, so it’s always interesting to see what they choose to put their faith in next. Matthew Neill Null’s debut novel Honey from the Lion demands your attention from the first page and keeps it until the last, with beautiful prose conjuring an atmosphere that’s rugged and desperate. I could see this being turned into a dark HBO miniseries.”


A proper library has more than just books! Find out what Matthew Neill Null deposits on his bookshelves, what book he’d rescue from a burning building, and a few forgotten books he thinks deserve a revival over at The Quivering Pen’s My Library series.

Want a free copy of Honey from the Lion? The Goodreads Giveaway ends this Sunday, Aug. 30. Head on over and get in the running!

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