John Sparks is a part-time writer and former preacher who spent 10 years researching and writing a history of the “Old Time” Baptist Churches in Southern Appalachia. As a lab technician, he finished the book The Roots of Appalachian Christianity: the Life and Legacy of Elder Shubal Stearns (University Press of Kentucky, 2001) while his union was on strike. Appalachian scholar Loyal Jones encouraged him to send the manuscript to the University Press of Kentucky. It was published as part of its “Religion in the South” series. The book went on to win the prestigious Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Literature at Morehead State University, Morehead, Kentucky, in 2004.
In November 2005, Sparks published a biography of “Raccoon John” Smith, the most famous and flamboyant preacher in Eastern Kentucky during the frontier era, and in the fall of 2008 “On Edge,” a “long” short story that won honorable mention at the 2005 Appalachian Writers’ Association, was published as a novelette by the Blue Cubicle Press of Plano, Texas.
In his one historical fiction novel, The Last Dance of Gus Finley (April 2009), John has created a fictionalized account of events leading up to the 1885 hanging of Gus Finley, the last judicial execution ever to occur in Floyd County, Kentucky. John narrates the event by being the voice of Finley and the eyes and ears of an Appalachian community. Frank Harman and John Addington, cousins of sorts, set out to attend the grand festival, the hanging of Gus Finley for the murder of Jim Hunt. For Frank and his friend, the event is traumatic and haunts Frank for the rest of his life.
John also completed a third nonfiction biography, entitled Kentucky’s Most Hated Man: Charles Chilton Moore and the Blue Grass Blade and released by Wind Publications of Nicholasville, Kentucky, in August 2009. In November 2010 this work received the Kentucky Historical Society’s “Class A” Publication Award of Merit. Kentucky’s own village atheist and the nineteenth-century equivalent of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, Charles Moore was one of old Kentucky’s most remarkable historical figures.
Two other short stories by John have been published in periodicals of Blue Cubicle Press, and a fourth and fifth have been included in anthologies published by Bearhead Publications of Louisville. More recently, several of his stories and a poem have been accepted for publication in Ashley Parker Owens’ “Kentucky Story” anthologies. He’d finally scribbled down enough of these tales for a two-volume collection, also published by Parker Owens’ KYStory, and if he ever writes a memoir he’ll be sure to call it “A Million Little Preachers.” He and his wife Sheila live at Hager Hill, in Johnson County, Kentucky, from which they periodically venture out to try to catch up with two urbane city-dwelling daughters.
“The Common Tater” column appears every Tuesday in the newspaper Around Paintsville. After it’s published there, it winds up here.