A Shadowed Land
By Jonathan Woods.
Burning Bright, Ron Rash, Ecco 2010
In Burning Bright, Ron Rash’s fourth collection of stories, we are insider witnesses to the haunted, forest-bound peaks and shadowed valleys of the Appalachian mountains and the inner darkness of the people who inhabit that rugged terrain. This is a strange, exotic world to most of us, residing as we do in high-tech urban or suburban comfort zones. Occasionally we may venture into the countryside for a weekend getaway, but always accompanied by our laptops, smart phones and Wi-Fi links back to the “real” world.
While most of the twelve stories in Burning Bright are set in the contemporary moment, any and all forms of 21st Century electronic gear and connectivity are conspicuously (and refreshingly) absent. Life in Rash’s dark valleys and forested ridgelines is utterly harsh and subject to sudden explosions of violence. In the opening story, ‘Hard Times,’ a farmer suggests that the dog of a destitute neighbor named Hartley might be stealing eggs from the farmer’s henhouse.
“So you reckon my dog.”
… [Hartley] pulled a barlow knife from his tattered overalls. He softly called the hound and it sidled up to him. Hartley got down on one knee, closed his left hand on the scruff of the dog’s neck as he settled the blade against the throat. The daughter and wife stood perfectly still, their faces as blank as bread dough.
“I don’t think it’s your dog that’s stealing the eggs,” Jacob said.
“But you don’t know for sure. It could be,” Hartley said, the hound raising its head as Hartley’s index finger rubbed the base of its skull.
Before Jacob could reply the blade whisked across the hound’s windpipe. The dog didn’t cry out or snarl. It merely sagged in Hartley’s grip. Blood darkened the road.
Exaggerated pride in an unforgiving world flashes into Old Testament blood letting. The harshness of this moment in the first story echoes throughout the remaining stories in the collection.
When the 21st Century and its accoutrements enter the lives of Rash’s mountain dwellers, the result is conflict and the disarray and destruction of rural lives. In two of the stories, ‘Back of Beyond’ and ‘The Ascent,’ the arrival of methamphetamine on the rural landscape brings misery and worse, though the local pawnshop owner in ‘Back of Beyond’ reaps an unexpected benefit as the country addicts pawn everything they can find or steal to feed their addiction.
In ‘Into the Gorge’ an aging countryman sets out to harvest a ginseng patch planted by his great-aunt a half century earlier. Unfortunately the ginseng grows on land that is now part of a national park. Tradition and innate family rights come into direct conflict with modern government and its unbending mandate to protect the parkland from exploitation.
The ghost of William Faulkner haunts Rash’s pages. Recalling Faulkner’s story about the pyromaniac Abner Snopes, in Rash’s title story ‘Burning Bright’ someone is starting fires in the forest. The story that unfolds beautifully and ironically pits a local woman’s sense of personal slight by the community against the county sheriff’s search for the arsonist. In ‘Waiting for the End of the World,’ a farcical tale of a wild night of rock & roll in a local honky-tonk, Rodney the roadhouse owner is described thus:
Watching him operate, it’s easy to believe Rodney’s simply an updated version of Flem Snopes, the kind of guy whose first successful business venture is showing photos of his naked sister to his junior high peers.
Rash writes a pared-down, fast-moving prose that carries the reader forward through each story, while calling up an elegiac feeling of place and a long sense of history of the rural Appalachian world. He conjures up incredible depths of emotion in a few simple sentences. Here a woman’s grief for a stillborn child is miraculously captured:
She knows that only two people remember that child and that now even she has trouble recalling what he looked like and the same must be true of [her former husband] Richard. She knows there is not a single soul on earth who could tell her the color of her son’s eyes.
Rash laces his stories with folk wisdom. A black snake killed and draped over a fence is an offering for rain. An owl in a tree outside the room of a sick person is a corpse bird presaging a forthcoming death. Ghosts and visions inhabit the deep woods.
Inevitably each reader of Burning Bright will have his or her favorite story. But all of these stories are wonderfully strong. None fall by the wayside. My own favorite is ‘Dead Confederates,’ a darkly humorous Poe-esque tale of grave robbers. Taken as a whole these stories call up a dark and melancholy human world tied to a hard unforgiving land. As the narrator of ‘Dead Confederates’ sums it up: “There’s always a price to be paid for anything you get.”
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jonathan Woods is the author of Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem [New Pulp Press, 2010]. When not writing he works part time at a small art gallery: Dahlia Woods Gallery.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 5th, 2010.