MILTON, W.Va. -- Breece D'J Pancake was a blossoming young writer when he shot himself on Palm Sunday in the spring of 1979.
Prior to his death, only two of his powerful short stories about Appalachian life had been published. The thin, bearded writer, only 26, also had completed three chapters of his first novel.
Since his death his reputation has grown.
Two more of Pancake's short stories have been published. A book containing a dozen of the 16 short stories he wrote is scheduled for release in late February.
Most of the stories Pancake wrote center around rural West Virginia and Milton, the town of 2,178 people near Huntington where he grew up with his parents and two sisters in a white, wood-frame home on U.S. Route 60.
The stories paint haunting word pictures of desperate people living lonely, seemingly hopeless and sometimes violent lives: steelworkers, prostitutes, stumblebums, coal miners, truck drivers, farmers, drunkards and cripples.
There are no happy endings -- just the harsh realities of life set in the crude and impoverished surroundings of Appalachia.
'Breece was very kind and very compassionate,' said his mother, Helen Pancake, who now lives alone in the family home. 'The troubles of other people worried him to death.'
Pancake felt he had to experience the torment of others to write accurately about their dismal lives, Mrs. Pancake said.
He went hungry, spent nights out in the cold, hitchhiked, visited a coal mine and a steel mill, and took vegetables to the bums living on the Ohio River.
'It's really extraordinarily passionate writing,' said novelist John Casey, who was both a friend and teacher to Pancake. 'One of the things that makes these stories good is that they are rich in characters.
'He knew a good deal about the pre-history and the geological history as well as the social history of West Virginia. He spent a good time outdoors. There's just a powerful sense that the act of hunting or fishing or being in the woods was a mystical adventure.'
The four short stories published appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. The book is to be released by Little, Brown and Company, in association with The Atlantic Monthly Press.
'In 30-some years at The Atlantic, I cannot recall a response to a new author like the response to this one,' Phoebe-Lou Adams, a member of the magazine's staff, writes on the cover of Pancake's book. 'Whatever it is that truly commands reader attention, he had it.'
No one is certain why Pancake pulled the trigger in the spring of his life. His mother and Casey speculate that career pressures may have played a role.
At the time of his death, he was teaching three classes at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, working a concession stand, writing his first novel and reading to prison inmates, youths and college students.
'He was working himself to death,' Mrs. Pancake said. 'He worried about not getting a job writing' after his graduation.
In an interview with a Richmond, Va., newspaper three months before his death, the young writer said:
'Sometimes I wonder what's more important -- writing or eating. I don't know ... I guess I've got the millstone around my neck.'
'I think he would have gone on and on,' Casey said. 'It's impossible to say with any certainty which way he would have gone, but certainly he would have gone a long way.
'It's pretty rare that a publishing house will publish a book of short stories as a first book. It's also very rare that they'll publish when there's not going to be a followup. That's some indication of just how good the book is.'