The truth is, there's a good chance that many of the happenings described by Brian McCréight in his new book The Legend of the Lowcountry Liar didn't really happen -- even though this collection of 13 tall tales set in and about the Lowcountry features locations and people many will find quite familiar. What ear attuned to local language could resist stories of conjures, haints, and Hessian gold? The age-old hook of the storyteller's art lies in the place where fact and fiction have become kneaded so completely into the same dough that the two are indistinguishable. And telling tales is something that McCréight has a knack for.
This storyteller's toolkit is a vast one. He begins each amid the everyday surroundings of the Carolina coast and spirals into the phantasmagoric. The tone is conversational, warm, and inviting, as if you're hearing it told on the back porch of the local yarn-spinner.
The premise of the book, after all, is that these are all tales told to him by his good friend, Jim Aisle, an imaginative lad of Huguenot heritage, who might on any day sail his "sloop, christened the Coota, anywhere from the Edisto estuaries to the Isle of Palms archipelago." The name of his friend's boat, of course, is the local term for the creature that Yankees call turtles. By either name, these sagacious reptiles are well known to be tricksters in folk tales found the world over. McCréight might appear just a simple soul, but the fact that he is well-schooled in mythology and the less-traveled paths of world literature shines through all the same.
The collection begins with the tale it's named for, that of the Lowcountry Liar himself, and how he came to tell tales. The story's roots lie in an Irish fairy tale and speak of those being caught in a place where they ought not be and the consequences that follow. In this case, the place is Buzzard's Roost Point, where select root doctors, and they alone, may gather ingredients needed for various acts of conjure. McCréight places it in such a way, on "...the very tip of the northeast corner of Johns Island. That a put it facin' West Ashley on the north bank and James Island on the east bank of the same elbow-bent ribbah," that a local with a boat might be tempted to trace his path "down Wappoo Creek where it cuts to the Stono" and see it firsthand. Better not take the chance.
Another story, "The Wreck-Construction of the Ashley Ribbah Bridge," recalls European devil-lore involving bridges as well as telling the story of why it is the Cooper that is crossed in the annual Bridge Run. Other tales speak of mansions thought to be haunted and palmetto bugs dancing. It is all good fun, better still when read aloud.
Best of all, of course, would be corralling McCréight himself and convincing him to relate the adventures in person. Hearing it direct from the yarn-spinner extraordinaire is, as they say, another story altogether.
Brian McCréight will sign copies of Lowcountry Liar at Barnes & Noble in Mt. Pleasant's Town Centre on Fri. Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. He'll also be telling tales in person at the S.C. Storytelling Festival this weekend at Charles Towne Landing. See City Picks page 23.