Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Jan. 31, 2023

Catskills Thrillers: Reading Along with Kelli Huggins

Catskills Thrillers: Reading Along with Kelli Huggins

Washington Irving was an early author to set his fictional tale in the Catskills, but he certainly wasn't the last. If Rip Van Winkle were alive today, he'd have no shortage of contemporary Catskills suspense stories to help keep him awake. Kelli Huggins is on a mission to read all things "Catskills," and she hankers for horror. If a novel features a Catskills town, hotel, or reservoir, it will likely make it onto Kelli's reading list. 

Here's a short list of Kelli's recent faves:

Just Like Mother, by Anne Heltzel
The Hotel Neversink, by Adam O'Fallon Price
Echo, Thomas Olde Heuvelt
The Grave Keepers, by Elizabeth Byrne
Bellweather Rhapsody, by Kate Racculia
Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

Kelli was a speaker on one on Lize Mogel's Walking the Watershed tours, where she recommended some watershed horror tales! She's a social media specialist for the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmers' Museum in Cooperstown. 

Thanks to our sponsors: 

Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway
The Mountain Eagle

Photo by rikka ameboshi: https://www.pexels.com/photo/opened-book-on-tree-root-3358707/

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Kelli Huggins  0:03  
I use my subscription through the New York Public Library. And this is a hot tip. Also, for any listeners who are New York State residents. You can have a New York Public Library card and a Brooklyn Public Library card even if you are not in the city.

Brett Barry  0:17  
More hot tips and a slew of Catskills based book recommendations on this week's Kaatscast with local bookworm Kelli Huggins, stay tuned. Kaatscast is sponsored by the 52 mile Catskill Mountains Scenic Byway following New York State Route 28 through the heart of the central Catskills for maps, itineraries and links to area restaurants, shops and accommodations, visit sceniccatskills.com and by the mountain Eagle covering Delaware green and Schoharie counties, including brands for local regions like the Windham weekly Schoharie news and Catskills Chronicle. For more information, call 518-763-6854 or email mountainEaglenews@gmail.com. Winter in the Catskills is a great time to curl up with a good book. And Kelli Huggins has no shortage of suggestions. We met up at her home in Delaware County, where she shared some of her latest pics. Kelli Huggins, I first met you through the Catskills center where you were a visitor experienced coordinator. And relevant to this conversation, a curator of their Catskill Bookstagram page, which said each week our visitor experience coordinator Kelli brings you a new book in her quest to read all things Catskills. You'd left that Catskills center position in 2022, but has the quest to read all things. Catskills continued? Yes.

Kelli Huggins  1:46  
I started that project at the Visitor Center out of personal interest, I realized I was reading a lot of books set here. And not even intentionally there was just a slate of new fiction in particular that was set here. And when I started to look for other books that in the Catskills I realized how many there were and I pitched it as a series as we were looking to revamp some of our social media. Yeah, it's it's stayed with me. It's kind of my personal passion project.

Brett Barry  2:23  
So there are of course many nonfiction books about the Catskills, but you focused on fiction. How much of a role do the Catskills have to play in order for you to consider it a Catskills book?

Kelli Huggins  2:35  
I'm pretty liberal with my definition of Catskills. In my mind, something at least significant in the book has to happen in the Catskills some kind of connection. When I was doing the series for the visitor center. I had books that I would put a little disclaimer on to say there's only a brief section here, but it is significant. One of those was the other black girl, which was a new thriller that came out last year or the year before the majority of it takes place in New York City. But there is a pretty significant portion that takes place in and around Catskill, so I figured it was my series my rules, so I counted that one.

Brett Barry  3:22  
Okay, so looking at some books on your list. There's no indication from the cover or even the flap copy on some of these that the Catskills are featured. I'm looking at one book you sent me called just like mother by Anne Heltzel. It's a mystery thriller with a really creepy doll head on the jacket and nothing about the cover says Catskills so how do you even find the books that don't look Catskills but perhaps feature them in the narrative?

Kelli Huggins  3:48  
So I have a couple of methods, all of them are probably more obsessive than the average person would want to get. So one is I just subscribed to a lot of book email lists. So every day I'm getting book blurbs in my email, just out of personal interest. Also, there's a great tool through a lot of public libraries called novelist. I use my subscription through the New York Public Library. And this is a hot tip. Also, for any listeners who are New York State residents, you can have a New York Public Library card and a Brooklyn Public Library Card. Even if you are not in the city. I did not know that until only a few years ago. I use it through the New York Public Library. And it's a really powerful search tool. And you can search by genre, you can search by keyword, all sorts of things that give you recommendations of similar books. So periodically, I will do a Catskills keyword search. And that is a great way for bringing up really obscure things as long as it's somewhere tagged in there. Some of them have also been recommendations. So once I started doing this people would send me "oh, you should read this this one too". So it's a pretty comprehensive list, but I'm sure there are ones that I'm missing also.

Brett Barry  5:07  
Can you give a little history behind Catskills fiction most people know about Rip Van Winkle an early Catskills tale by Washington Irving. How did the Catskills fiction begin? And what were some of those key titles?

Kelli Huggins  5:18  
So, Western fiction really begins with Rip Van Winkle. So Washington Irving setting that in the early 1800s, then very soon after James Fenimore Cooper, who wrote the pioneers and multiple other books, those two are really, I hate to say the father's of early Catskills fiction, both with Rip Van Winkle and Natty Bumppo. And those are very much sort of set and rely on this idea of this sort of untamed wilderness. But not too long after that, as we know, through Catskills history, we start to see a lot of tourism, a lot of development. And with that changes some of the ways that people are representing the area in books. So by the end of the 19th century, you start to see books like the Catskills' Fairies, and kind of other pieces that are a lot less man survives the elements. By the 20th century, there is a lot more science fiction, particularly in the early part of the century, a lot of that fiction isn't being published as books, it's being published in pulp magazines. Actually, there are two HP Lovecraft stories set in the Catskills. He didn't think fondly of the area and its inhabitants but they're there. Then when you get to the Borscht Belt era, you see more fiction, obviously set in the Borscht Belt becomes an important subject matter for representation of Jewish authors and communities in fiction, then it just sort of snowballs from there really in the latter half of the 20th century, and really up until a few years ago, where we've seen a lot more books in really all genres romance Horror, Mystery. There's a lot to choose from now.

Is there a resurgence in Catskills tales recently? And would there be a genre that's most associated with Catskills fiction at this time?

There has been as far as I'm concerned, and what my spreadsheet shows, for adult fiction, really, in the last five years, I've been seeing a lot more titles coming out. And what is interesting to me is a lot of them fall into mystery thriller and horror instead of literary fiction, though, I do hate to sometimes make distinctions between genre fiction and literary those are pretty arbitrary borders. There are actually multiple mystery series everything from cozy mysteries to more hardboiled detective mysteries and multiple horror stories, you know, really making use of isolation in this area. So I think with a little bit of a resurgence in tourism, in this area, we've also seen kind of that mirrored in in fiction.

Brett Barry  8:17  
I was on a watershed tour with Lizzie Mogul, and I can put a link to that series in the show notes. And you were a speaker on one of those tours and referenced some books that specifically deal with former reservoir towns and some mystery that comes from from that history. Can you talk about those books in particular?

Kelli Huggins  8:42  
Of course, yeah, those are three of the books that I find most interesting in this resurgence. Over the last few years, there have been I would classify all three of them as horror, and I think their authors would as well, three horror fiction novels about the reservoirs two are specifically about the Ashokan and then one is an imagined Catskills reservoir called the Chillawaukee, but still draws very much from real history. One of those Ashokan ones is John Langan's, The Fisherman and he is a local author kind of in this area. And that follows two grieving widowers who have bonded over their shared loss, but also over a love of fishing. And they come up to the Catskills and have a fishing trip that goes very wrong. And there is a lot of flashback to explain what's happening to them. That dates back to the creation of the Ashokan reservoir. So that's one if you are interested in that history. Obviously I don't personally believe there was a supernatural event to the creation of the Ashokan but you do get a really nice feel for what that displacement was like and it ends up being a really potent metaphor for grief in that book. The other book about the Ashokan deals with the last town of Olive. And it's a  y/a book called Imaginary Girls. And it's by Nova Ren Suma. And that one follows a relatively dysfunctional set of sisters. And a girl who drowned or maybe didn't drown in the Ashokan, that there is some sort of supernatural pull with this lost town under the water. Now that one definitely plays with some of the myths a little bit more about there still being buildings under the water, which if you know about the construction of the reservoirs, you know that there might be an occasional foundation or something, but things were demolished. They didn't just flood the towns as they were. So that's a nice one. I think it reads also kind of adult, it's very surreal. So if you're worried about picking up y/a, I wouldn't. And then the last one is The Chill by Scott Carson. And that one is it's actually blurbed by Stephen King. So it's much more in that King esque kind of horror. And there is I don't want to give anything away, but the body count rises for that one. Yes.

Brett Barry  11:20  
What are some examples? Aside from the reservoir based books of the roles the Catskills play in the more recent books that you've discovered?

Kelli Huggins  11:29  
Part of it is that isolation, right? The idea of a getaway often that has gone very wrong. There are a few books in that there's one called The Perfect Getaway that involves a failed road trip the ends in and around the town of Catskill there and that one is more mystery thriller. Rachel Harrison's The Return is set in a very funky hotel in the Catskills, which I did ask her if it was based on the Roxbury and she said it wasn't, it's actually based on a different hotel altogether. But when I was reading it, that was what I had in mind. So there's this idea, right that you go on vacation, you're cut off from the world, there's no cell service, which we're improving, and then whether it's the environment or something else, you're isolated, and things go badly. So that's definitely one of the tropes. One of the others is this mystery kind of series, particularly the cozy mysteries I find interesting, though, even though they're not my cup of tea. Normally, there's a new series. That's a lot of fun, called the Catskills Pet Rescue Mysteries, there's another set in the Borscht Belt in the 1950s. And those use the setting very differently, obviously, than the horror novels, because those are much more in that quaint small town vibe. There might be sort of bad things happening again, they're cozy mysteries, so it never gets too grotesque. But you have these small communities full of quirky characters. So it's interesting to see authors play with this setting in completely different ways.

Brett Barry  13:18  
And in terms of the books that you've discovered lately, do you have a short list of recommendations?

Kelli Huggins  13:24  
Sure. One of the most recent you mentioned at the beginning is Just Like Mother by Anne Heltzel. And that one is very much in the Thriller Horror genre, lots of trigger warnings for sexual assaults and things like that. But I read a lot of horror, and it takes a lot to freak me out. And that was one that hit some very personal fear things for me. So that doesn't sound like a recommendation. But that is set as a high recommendation coming from me.

Brett Barry  13:58  
And in that one, for instance, what role does the Catskills play? Is it background? Or does it have a starring role or...?

Kelli Huggins  14:04  
It does for the majority of the action of the book. It doesn't take place exclusively in the Catskills. But the main character is through a couple of tragedies that you come to realize maybe were not accidents, ends up spending time with a close friend who I can't give too much away that relationship who is running sort of seems like kind of a new agey women's empowerment retreat in this big grand house in the Catskills very isolated and again, things are maybe not quite what they seem. So if you if you like a good cult novel also that's not giving too much away. That's a good choice also, but that's one that definitely plays on the isolation for sure. One of the books that's also sort of recent came out in 2021. That is more have multi generational family drama is Elisa Friedman's Last Summer at the Golden Hotel, which is very much in that Borscht Belt literature legacy, but an updated take. And it's these two intertwined families whose patriarchs founded this Borscht Belt hotel. And as we unfortunately know, from much of the history of the Borscht Belt are struggling to deal with the decline. So you get the perspective of multiple members of each of their families and the secrets and all of these things that they have hidden over the years as they really try to figure out what to do going forward. So that one is a lot of fun. And if you're not into all of the spooky books, I am that is just a really good literary fiction read,

Brett Barry  15:52  
And maybe one or two other spooky books that since that's your genre choice. 

Kelli Huggins  15:56  
Yes, one of them is also kind of a middle grade book but doesn't read middle grade, also very surreal and strange. It's Elizabeth Byrne The Grave Keepers and I feel like I don't see enough people talk about this book. It came out in the 20 teens I believe Elizabeth Byrne, her grandparents I believe lived outside of Windham. So she has these memories, even though she's not from the Catskills of being in this area. And though she fictionalizes, the town that the book is set in. It's very much that area of kind of the Northern Catskills, the Greene County Catskills. So if you know that area and you read it, you're like, Oh, I know what you're talking about. The premise of that one is basically it's this family. And they are caretakers of the cemetery, but it's in this culture, there's this strange culture of grave keeping. So basically, when you come of age, you get your grave. And you there's a ceremony with it, and you sort of personalize it and people will spend time alive in around their graves. So it's to really interesting it's not particularly scary. It's a little spooky, but not not scary, but a really interesting take. And very Catskills. I wish more people knew about that one. And then one of my favorites and actually one of the books that sparked this project was The Hotel Neversink by Adam O'Fallon Price. This is a novel but also functions as interconnected, short stories, and it's another kind of failing Borscht Belt hotel through multiple generations of this family. But there's also this undercurrent of through the years some children have gone missing. So there's a little bit of a mystery. It's a family drama, it is a little bit gothic horror. And there is one chapter in particular, that I have read multiple times because it is brilliant, and it's told from one of the characters but as he's doing sort of a Borscht Belt comedian set that slowly could becomes maybe too personal and not so funny and reveals a lot but the the writing of that is really, really brilliant. I highly recommend The Hotel Neversink.

Brett Barry  18:30  
Where do you get your books? Do you buy them or library or I see a stack of real books here. So I know you know, you're not using an e-reader. 

Kelli Huggins  18:39  
It is really a mix. I am a huge library supporter. Both are local libraries. And as I mentioned, New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library for physical books. I try to go to the library first and foremost, if I want to own something or if there's something I can't get through the library, local bookstores, please support any of our local bookstores mine is Briars and Brambles Books in Windham, so a little shout out to them recommend checking it out. I also am a huge audiobook listener. So if something is available on audio that tends to be these days even my preferred format as I you know commute it's it's a good good way to get a lot of words in

Brett Barry  19:22  
Audiobooks are great for Catskill drives. You yourself are a writer with as your website bio states, a penchant for the bizarre and forgotten, and you're a specialist in animal history. What does that mean, and how does it tie into your latest writing project?

Kelli Huggins  19:38  
Sure. So I am a historian by training. So I love stories and words and the past and the things that I gravitate toward do tend to be from sort of the fringes of history, I guess you could say. My first book is it's about the city. The of Elmira where I was living at that time, but it's all sorts of strange stories about that town. Lesser known histories. I am working on a project in animal history right now doing a little reconceptualizing of it. But it is about canine celebrity in the late 19th century focusing on two train riding dogs from New York's Capitol district. We veered into nonfiction hear the sounds made up but it is true, I promise. So that is around the back cultural history of the Gilded Age. But I'm also working very slowly on a series of nonfiction essays about horror in the Catskills, because, as you can tell, that is an interest of mine. But this kind of use of the Catskills as a setting for horror goes back much further than the books that have come out recently. Like I think you can read Rip Van Winkle as a horror story, for example. So that one is something I'm plugging along very slowly on. But I do have research interests that are related to a lot of this also.

Brett Barry  21:11  
Can you talk a little bit about that one dog in particular that you're researching and has its own companion site that launches from yours? 

Kelli Huggins  21:17  
Yes, so the book is a dual biography of Oni who is the postal mascot who is relatively well known, he had his own postage stamp has been the subject of many children's books, and his contemporary who actually predated him slightly railroad Jack, who was a train riding terrier out of Albany, who has been largely forgotten, except by people like me. 19th century dog enthusiast, and there is sort of an enduring mystery about him, because when he died in 1893, his body was taxidermied and then somehow lost. So I have been trying to determine what happened to a 130 something year old dog corpse, unsuccessfully so far, so if any listeners have any moth eaten taxidermy in their attic, you know, I'm interested if you think it might be railroad Jack, not not any taxidermy, other than that only very specifically 1890s Dog taxidermy. That project is ongoing, but hopefully we'll be finished sometime soon.

Brett Barry  22:27  
And in addition to your research and writing, you've taken a new job in Cooperstown. So tell me about that. Sure. So

Kelli Huggins  22:35  
I am in the communications department and the social media specialist at the Fenimore Art Museum and the farmers Museum in Cooperstown. I've been there since July. So I am in a really nice position where I get to both be able to look at folk art, when I want and all day, I have access to our research library, and then also be able to go over to the farm and see the cows and the sheep and ride the carousel. It's a pretty nice work setup, if I have to say so myself. So really, my job is just kind of spreading the word about all of the the cool exhibits and programs that we have going on.

Brett Barry  23:17  
Great. And how do we keep track of you, Kelli? 

Kelli Huggins  23:19  
Sure! So I have a website, which is Kellihuggins.com. And it's k-e-l-l-i, h-u-g-g-i-n-s, and I am still on Twitter. And that is @ Kelli Huggins. You can find me at either of those places.

Brett Barry  23:37  
Kelli, thank you so much. It's great to see you again. And I'm looking forward to reading a couple of these suggestions.

Kelli Huggins  23:43  
Yeah. We'd love to know if anybody tries any of them out and what you think

Brett Barry  23:48  
You can find links to Kelli's book pics in the show notes. For more, check out kaatscast.com where you can search all our shows. Sign up for our newsletter, make a donation or just say hello. Kaatscast is a biweekly production of Silver Hollow Audio. This episode edited by Alison Aaron. I'm Brett Barry. Thanks for listening, and we'll see you next time.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / AA