Here is a list of some of good (and not-so-good) fiction in which Charleston is one of the major settings. Obviously, there are plenty of books I am going to leave out. Since this is a list of my personal favorites (and otherwise) feel free to make your own list and send it to me!
WHAT TO READ
THE PRINCE OF TIDES & THE LORDS OF DISCIPLINE by Pat Conroy.
The Prince of Tides follows the story of Tom Wingo, teacher and football coach who is reluctant to help his twin sister’s psychiatrists unlock their dysfunctional family secrets. When his sister attempts suicide, Tom travels to New York to help her and bit-by-bit the psychiatrist pulls the family history out of Tom. Calling the Wingo family dysfunctional is like calling James Patterson a hack … true but an understatment
Discipline pissed off a lot of Charleston people when it was published because it was a little too close to the truth. Charleston people like to be in charge of the mirror and tend to become defensive when someone else describes the reflection. Both books, Tides and Discipline are page-turners. Conroy is, at worst, an emotional and compelling writer.
Great Mischief / Josephine Pinckney.
A perfectly creepy little book that unfortunately is out of print. I had to buy it used on Amazon. The year is 1895, and much of sleepy little Charleston is still lit by gas. Timothy Partridge operates a rundown apothecary shop, where things have’t really changed much since the glory days of Romeo and Juliet; drugs are still hanging from nails on the walls, such as bat wings, hummingbird feathers and strange, fiery potions. Timothy is supporting his shrewish sister Penelope and has a roguish best friend, the drunken doctor Golightly, who is always encouraging Tim to live a little, stop being such a fussbudget, One creepy stormy evening a young woman enters, dashing into the shop in an urgent, insistent plea for some solanum. Tim knows instantly there’s something “off” about the girl, but he has no idea that she’s actually a witch from hell, who will intertwine herself to his life and change it–forever.
Carrion Comfort / Dan Simmons
The War and Peace of the horror genre. One of my all time favorite books. It is December 1980, and a small circle of vampires—not the fanged blood drinkers of legend, but monstrously cruel human beings with the psychic ability to possess and dominate others—gather in Charleston for a reunion, where they score points by comparing the latest acts of extreme violence initiated on their command. It is a page-turning marvel, weaving multiple plot threads and over-the-top action sequences into a narrative of genuine, resonant power. One, Nina, is particularly proud of getting a faceless nobody to assassinate the Beatle John Lennon. But the game soon gives way to a power struggle of an even more ruthless sort. The mind controllers turn on one another, initiating a bloodbath fought with innocents snatched from their everyday lives.
Enter Charleston Sheriff Bobby Joe Gentry, nobody’s top nomination for action hero: An overweight, soft-spoken failed historian, who is baffled and angered by the sudden eruption of madness that has left Charleston littered with nine bodies in a single night. Gentry is out of his depth when his investigation begins to involve conspiracies that involve superpowers and cover-ups at the very highest levels of government power. He is soon joined by Saul Laski, an aging Jewish psychiatrist who has spent his life searching for the Nazi whose psychic powers he experienced during World War II, and Natalie Preston, a young black photographer whose own father was a victim of the massacre in Charleston. These woefully outnumbered three take on a global conspiracy, finding themselves alone in a world where any innocent can be possessed and turned into a murderous assassin without warning.
One of the creepiest characters is ‘sweet little old Charleston lady’ Melanie Fuller, one of the most evil creatures in modern literature.
Porgy / Dubose Heyward
The story of a crippled beggar who witnesses a murder during a dice game and later gives shelter to the murderer’s woman, the beautiful, haunted Bess. The Catfish Row community is united in its opposition to the union, but Porgy and Bess make each other happy, and their happiness only increases when they take in a child orphaned by a hurricane. Their idyll is brief, however. The murderer, Crown, returns for Bess, and Porgy, defending his family, kills him. The police detain him for questioning but never dream that a cripple could have been the killer, so Porgy returns triumphantly to the Row. The triumph turns to tragedy, however, when he learns that, while he was away, Sporting Life, the dope pusher, beguiled Bess with “happy dus'” and took her away to New York City to resume, it is implied,her career as a prostitute. The book, for all it’s melodrama, is beautifully written.
North & South – Love & War – Heaven & Hell / John Jakes
Historical fiction as it should be … well written, and well researched and full of forbidden love, illicit sex, double crosses and other intrigue. In North and South, two strangers, young men from Pennsylvania and South Carolina, meet on the way to West Point . . . The Hazards and the Mains are brought together in bonds of friendship and affection that neither man thinks can be shattered. And then the War begins.
Love & War: From the first Union rout in Virginia to the last tragic moments of surrender, here is a gigantic five-year panorama of the Civil War! Hostilities divide the Hazards and the Mains, testing them with loyalties more powerful than family ties. While soldiers from both families clash on the battlefields of Bull Run, Fredericksburg and Antietam, in intrigue-ridden Washington and Richmond, strong-willed men and beautiful women defend their principles with their lives … or satisfy illicit cravings with schemes that could destroy friends and enemies alike!
Heaven & Hell: The war ends, but there is no peace for the Hazards and the Mains in a nation still inflamed with bitterness and hatred. The defeated South teems with schemers and carpetbaggers … and the North has no place for scarred veterans such as Charles Main, who struggles to rebuild his life in the Plains cavalry, only to be stalked by a murderous nemesis seeking revenge against both families. A gripping portrait of Reconstruction America, and a fitting conclusion to the saga of two mighty dynasties!
Celia Garth: A Story of Charleston in the Revolution / Gwen Bristow
This young adult tale of Celia Garth, a 20 year old woman trying to make a living as a seamstress in Charleston, South Carolina during the Revolutionary war. Celia and her friends survive the seige of Charleston by the British, living through the constant shelling and lack of food until the final surrender. At first, things seem normal after the surrender and Celia begins to build a new life, but tragedy strikes after the British go back on their promises and Celia must start life afresh. This time, while working as a seamstress she is also a bit of a “spy” for the colonials.
Galilee / Clive Barker
Clive Barker has earned a reputation as the thinking person’s horror writer. His novels mix fantasy, psychology, and sheer creepiness in almost equal quantities. In Galilee, Barker soft-pedals the ghoulish in favor of the gothic. His novel (or as the author would have it, “romance”) tells the tale of two warring families caught up in a disastrous web of corruption, illicit sexuality, and star-crossed love, with a soupçon of the supernatural thrown in as well. On one side are the wealthy Gearys–a fictional stand-in for the Kennedys–and on the other are the Barbarossas, a mysterious black clan that has been around since the time (quite literally) of Adam.
Galilee chronicles the twisted course of this centuries-old family feud, which centers around the magical Barbarossa matriarch Cesaria and her son Galilee. Indeed, it’s the latter figure–one part Heathcliff to one part Christ–whose relationship with the Geary women sets a match to the entire powder keg of hostility and resentment. Mixing standard clichés of romance and some deep-fried Southern gothic, Baker created an intelligent and shameless potboiler.
Settling Accounts: In at the Death/ Harry Turtledove
This is the last novel of the Settling Accounts tetralogy that presents an alternative history of WWII. It brings to a conclusion the multi-series compilation that is sometimes referred to as Timeline-191. This alternative history began with the Confederate States of America winning the Civil War in 1862, followed by a war between the United States and Confederate States of America in the 1880s which is also won by the South. In the conclusion, the United State detonates an atomic bomb in Charleston, wiping the city off the map, in retaliation for starting the War Between the States in 1861.
Forbidden / Rebel Sinclair
Full disclosure … this novel was written by my wife. So … I admit a major amount of bias. Still, it’s a page-turner.
After witnessing a murder plot in Regency London, Lady Madeline Winchester flees to Charleston, South Carolina and the protection of Magistrate Exchange Agent, Nicholas Gales. Afraid and alone but for her starchy lady’s maid, Madeline is drawn to her dark, moody guardian and his plantation home of Myrtle Downs just as she is repelled by his society of prejudice and slavery.
In a world where breeding and birthright mean everything, there is no possibility of a future with a man like him – especially since Madeline is betrothed to a duke in her homeland. Drawn together by passion, yet torn apart by social differences and dreams of the past, Nicholas and Madeline have only each other to shield them from a darkness that has been orchestrating their lives in this perilous 19th century tale of intrigue and betrayal.
The Fallon Saga / Reagan O’Neal (Robert Jordan)
Great historical fiction on the same level with North & South. Written by Charlestonian James Rigney, Jr, more popularly known as Robert Jordan, author of the massively successful fantasy series, The Wheel of Time. Jordan died in Sept. 2007. Sharp-eyed tour guides often got a glimpse of him walking Tradd Street.
In The Fallon Blood, escaping brutal English overlords, 1760s Irishman Michael Fallon becomes an indentured servant to Charleston merchant Thomas Carver, where his infatuation with Carver’s sensual daughter Elizabeth causes life-changing complications. In The Fallon Pride, Michael Fallon’s son Robert Fallon survives years at sea fighting Barbary pirates and enduring the siege at Tripoli. He then returns to America with an Irish wife, Moira McConnell, and goes into business in Charleston where he raises a somewhat troublesome family. In The Fallon Legacy, James Fallon, the last scion of the Fallon line, strikes south and west, adventuring in New Orleans, Missouri, and finally Texas (then still part of Mexico). He loves and loses women, ranches and breeds horses, and becomes entangled in the schemes of shady men and women. Enemies made by Michael and Robert during their lifetimes converge upon James, who must find out if he has strength enough to stand against them.
WHAT TO AVOID
South of Broad / Pat Conroy. The worst book Conroy has written (so far!)! Avoid like a syphilitic whore.
Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCaig. This is AWFUL!! One of the worst novels I’ve ever tried to read. Silly and poorly written. The narration is fuzzy and the story is well … silly. Why can’t they leave Gone With The Wind alone? First there was Scarlett by Alexandria Ripley which was a snore-fest and now this “Authorized Novel”. Rhett Butler should challenge the Margaret Mitchell estate to a duel for this insult!
All of the ‘island” books by Dorothea Benton Frank. You know … those books that have the fill-in-the-blank plot lines; the major change in each book is the characters’ names and the sea island she uses as the setting. Frank is the female James Patterson – books written for the barely literate.
All of Mary Alice Monroe’s Oprah-fied low country-based, let’s-save-the-turtles fiction.
William Gilmore Simms – praised in his time (1800s) by none other than Edgar Allan Poe, Simms is virtually unreadable today.