Mine craft: Breece D'J Pancake's stories explore lives defined by their geology. Photograph: Dmitri Kessel/Time & Life Pictures/Getty.
Show Hide image

This year’s Stoner? Introducing Breece D’J Pancake

The publisher who brought John Williams’s Stoner to Random House believes he has found its successor: a “hillbilly” from the US coal belt with a precious talent.

When I first heard about John Williams’s Stoner, like everyone else I assumed it was a book about drugs. I was wrong. It turned out to be a sad American novel, first published in 1965, about a university English teacher who enters into a miserable marriage, has a brief love affair and then dies.

The book become a bestseller in Israel, the Netherlands and France. It sold more than 160,000 copies in the UK last year, ushering in a frenzy for so-called Lazarus literature: reissues of neglected or out-of-print texts. Robert Walser, Elizabeth Taylor, Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig have all enjoyed a posthumous upsurge over the past 12 months, buoyed by imprints such as Serpent’s Tail Classics, Pushkin Press and Melville House’s Neversink Library.

Now the publisher Robin Robertson, who brought Stoner to Random House in 2003, believes he has found its successor.

Breece D’J Pancake was born in West Virginia in 1952. He grew up in an area known locally as “Chemical Valley”, among the region’s many coal mines. An earnest, self-motivated student, he attended Marshall University and taught for two years at a military academy before accepting a fellowship at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. There he wrote 12 short stories, three of which were bought by the Atlantic Monthly (the magazine responsible for the elision of Dexter and John to “D’J” – an printer’s error which amused Pancake for its pseudo-aristocratic air).

When Pancake died, aged 27, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, Kurt Vonnegut wrote to John Casey, the young man’s writing instructor at Virginia: “I give you my word that he is merely the best writer, the most sincere writer I’ve ever read,” he wrote. “What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know.”

Those 12 stories, now published in paperback as Trilobites and Other Stories (Vintage Classics, £8.99), tell of difficult lives defined by geology. “Ain’t nothin’ but coal in this here hole. When we gonna hit gold?” asks a pit worker poignantly, early in the collection. The snappy, rusty vernacular, first-hand knowledge of physical labour’s debilitating effects on the body and spirit, coupled with vivid, painterly depictions of rural Appalachia, are the parts that make the sum of Pancake’s impressive output.

What emerges is an anxiety not so much about being good, but about being inferior. Amid the Southern gentry of Charlottesville, Pancake struggled to define his position. He both relished and detested his status as a “hillbilly”. He wrote to his mother explaining that his landlady had asked him to be a waiter at a party for the English department that should have counted him among its members: “[She] said if I didn’t she’d have to hire a coloured and they don’t mix a good drink. That tells me where I stand . . .”

Like Stoner’s sad professor, Pancake – and so many of his characters – considered himself a disappointment. Now that judgement is out of his hands.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

Show Hide image

Scream Queens: a melting pot of visual references to teen movies and horror films

The TV show’s parodic tone is mirrored in its knowing references to classics of the genres.

The American series Scream Queens is a strange beast: part college drama, part horror, part black comedy, it follows teenagers at a sorority house as a disguised serial killer begins a murderous rampage on campus, picking off a handful of characters each episode. The result: a parade of mean girls in prom dresses, covered in blood and guts. The makers of the show are keen to pay homage to the classics that have influenced them, and many viewers have pointed out deaths that reference major horror films: whether it’s freezing to death in a maze à la The Shining, getting a Hellraiser-esque makeover, or being hacked to tiny pieces in the style of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
But the show takes its teenage dream aesthetic just as seriously, and frequently acknowledges and subverts the tropes and quirks of the high school movie genre, from implicit nods to direct parodies.


Heathers (1988) is an obvious source for Scream Queens: following two outsiders as they systematically murder the most popular kids in school, it’s sardonic, garish and brutally violent. Sorority head Chanel forces her minions to call themselves Chanel #2, Chanel #3, and so on, an overt reference to Heathers's three queen bees (all called Heather). The makers of Scream Queens also repeatedly play with the film’s opening croquet scene in the show’s first episode.

The Craft

Only witches and ritual murderers are that into candles. The teen witch aesthetic of The Craft (1996) continually seeps in to the show, even if it’s at odds with the usual sugary-sweet palette.


It’s hard to think of pretty blonde girls in prom dresses covered in blood without thinking of Carrie (1976). The opening scene of Scream Queens sees a girl in a trance-like state with bloodied hands walking through a pastel party. But in Scream Queens, no one’s that bothered: “I am not missing 'Waterfalls' for this. 'Waterfalls' is my jam.”

Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl (2007-2012) spawned a thousand glossy, bitchy children, and Scream Queens could be its slightly unhinged niece. Chanel #1's silky, preppy wardrobe calls to mind some of Blair's pristine outfits (even if she'd never be seen dead in a pink faux fur jacket), and the sorority house, with its sweeping staircases, soft carpets and luxurious flower arrangements, is strikingly similar to the Waldorf’s apartment. One of the most obvious references to the show is Mrs Bean, Chanel’s maid, who follows in the footsteps of Blair’s maid Dorota, (right down to the old-fashioned uniform). While Blair grows incredibly close with Dorota (she’s maid-of-honour at her wedding), Chanel burns Mrs Bean’s face of in a deep-fat fryer. Lovely.

Mean Girls

Makeovers, hazing, and neck braces: there are several obligatory references to cultural touchstone Mean Girls (2004), including matching pink outfits and vengeful collages

The Powerpuff Girls

What happens when you mix sugar, spice, and all things nice with a mysterious and explosive chemical? Either the Powerpuff Girls, or the Chanels.

Now hear Anna discussing Scream Queens on the New Statesman’s pop culture podcast, SRSLY.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.