Ron Rash's haunting dream-of-guilt novel
A review and an interview
by Rob Neufeld
(This article appeared in slightly shorter form, with a different author photo, in the print edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times, Sept. 18, 2016)
RON RASH EVENTS: Ron Rash talks about his new novel, “The Risen," at:
UNC Asheville’s Humanities Lecture Hall, 7 p.m., Wed., Sept. 21 (call Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 828-254-6734 about the ticketed event)
Jackson County Public Library, 310 Keener St, Sylva, 1 p.m., Sun., Oct. 1 (call City Lights Bookstore at 828-586-9499)
Ron Rash’s new novel, “The Risen,” features some seriously troubled people engaged in the question of whether redemption is achievable.
The title, “The Risen,” may refer to a corpse, a repressed memory, or an uplifted person, so the issue of the outcome is always in doubt.
It’s the seventh novel and 19th book for the author who grew up around here and who now teaches creative writing at Western Carolina University.
“How did you get the idea for this novel?” I asked Ron in a recent interview.
“There’d been a murder about 20 years ago, near where I was living, where two men were accused of killing a young woman,” he said. “The thing that struck me, almost immediately, when it became clear that no one was going to be arrested, was what if those two men did do it and got away with it? What would it be like to live knowing you got away with this, if you had some kind of conscience? Not only to live with it but also to know that there was another person who knew and might at any time, for whatever reason, decide to confess.”
“The Risen” opens with Eugene Matney, a 62-year-old alcoholic, reading a news item about the discovery of a skeleton of a woman he’d met while fishing, with his older brother, Bill, 46 years before. He had thought the woman—who had called herself Ligeia—had taken a bus to get out of town.
Eugene is the narrator, and it’s his mind and memory that begins to fill the interim with two parallel narratives that run as smooth and deep as a stream.
“In some ways it was,” he said. “I’ll tell you why. Once that happened 20 years ago to that young woman, I knew I’d eventually write something about it.”
“You knew that 20 years ago?”
“Yeah, about a year after, when it became clear that no one was going to be charged, I knew I’d be writing about it...But what struck me, about two-and-a-half years ago, was I thought, what if (the two men involved) were brothers. And during those 20 years, about every four to six months, I’d dream I killed somebody.”
“What does that mean?”
“I think it means my subconscious was working on the book, telling me, ‘You’re going to write about this.’ It wasn’t that (in the dream) I killed that particular young woman. It was just that, years ago, when I was pretty young, I’d killed somebody and gotten away with it, and I was just remembering it. It was a really disturbing dream, and I kept having it. But once I started the book, I haven’t had it since.”
It isn’t unusual for Rash to live in his dream world and his professional world at the same time. His first novel, “One Foot in Eden,” had grown out of a dream of a farmer standing in his field in which his crops were dying.
Despite the fact that some of Rash’s press photos make him look like a character in “Deadwood,” Ron’s a guy who has a lot in common with John Keats.
“As my colleagues and family will surely tell you,” he says, “I spend a lot of time daydreaming... walking around in a daze. People are used to it by now.”
Summer of Love
Eugene Matney had been the first one to spot Ligeia in what Rash names Panther Creek in 1969. She’d been nude, and had appeared to be a hallucination when Bill had followed up with a futile search.
“From the beginning,” Chapter One opens, “Ligeia’s ability to appear or disappear seemed magical.”
Rash is tapping the myth of Ligeia, the siren; as well as of Edgar Allen Poe’s refusing-to-die beauty of that name.
When Bill and Eugene returned to their fishing spot a week after Eugene’s vision, they discovered the real girl, clothed in a bikini this time. Her given name was Jane Mosely. Her Daytona parents had sent her to the North Carolina mountains to live with her uncle, a preacher, and his family.
Though the fantasy proved, in reality, to be as mundane as an A-frame and an addicted teen, the enchantment doesn’t end for Eugene, who claims Ligeia as his “mermaid.”
One of the fascinating aspects of “The Risen” is that the narrator is such a doofus; and that’s a kind word.
Eugene is foolishly susceptible to Ligeia’s opportunistic charms; succumbs to brother-envy; and unsuccessfully nurses the soul of a Thomas Wolfe wannabe. (His mother had named him Eugene because she had loved “Look Homeward, Angel.”)
You can understand, though not condone, Eugene’s plunge into licentiousness because it had been the Summer of Love, about which he’d known nothing, for it had come to such places as Sylva, North Carolina a couple of years late. On top of that, he’d lost his father long ago, and was disparagingly compared, by his brutal grandfather, to his all-star brother.
“What,” I asked Ron, “did the late 60s mean to places such as Boiling Springs [where Rash had been at 16] and Sylva?”
“What I remember,” he said, “was the sense of all sorts of things going on in the country—good and bad—yet feeling, except for Vietnam, insulated from it; and not necessarily wanting to be insulated from it. The newspaper in Shelby actually printed where they had sighted a hippie on Highway 74. They had seen this guy with long hair in a minivan.”
“Were there no long-hairs in your high school in 1969?”
“I think it was the next year that the first guy wore his hair long. These things happened, but it was tape delay.”
“The murder that inspired you took place 20 years ago,” I said. “How did you decide to put it in 1969?”
“It was such an interesting time. It was one of those last moments where someone could feel outside of the United States while being inside of it. What I was attempting to do was put the 60s—everything from Manson’s murders to the love child—in one summer. I wanted it all to come to Eugene in this one summer.”
“There are such things as watershed years and watershed events, don’t you think?”
“Yeah. I remember the excitement of that year vividly. I was sixteen—and wow, there were no more rules. You could pretty much do whatever you wanted, if you weren’t in Boiling Springs. It’s like a big party you weren’t invited to... I’d listen to the radio at night, and it was like messages in bottles. I’d pick up WLS in Chicago, so I’d hear Jefferson Airplane, The Doors and a lot of those West Coast bands. It was great music. There was a sense of limitlessness, that everything could change, seemingly in good ways; but then, that same summer, with Manson and Altamont, I started seeing the darker side.”
It should be noted that at age 15, Rash was reading Dostoevsky. In fact, the epigraph to “The Risen” is from “The Brothers Karamazov”: “And after that the punishment began.”
The Dostoevsky quote spotlights Rash’s interest in how conscience works, without copping out with the police show’s pat resolution of a forced confession.
“The Risen” also looks at other aspects of human psychology: how people’s true selves sometimes come out in moments of unguarded grace; how power can become an evil force; and how people respond to abuse.
The latter two subjects relate to the Matney boys’ grandfather, the long-time general doctor and controlling boss in small-town Sylva.
Once, when Eugene had gotten an inch-long shard of wood in his foot while exploring a haunted house with Bill, Grandfather ordered Bill, age 13 to Eugene’s 7, to do the surgery, beginning with a painkilling shot.
“I said I wanted my mother,” Eugene recalled, “and between wiping tears off my face pleaded that the splinter didn’t hurt anymore and I wanted it left in. Grandfather lifted the steel lance from the tray, nodded at the syringe in Bill’s hand.”
He said Bill could do the cutting with or without painkiller—which would it be? Then, in a small act of heroism, Grandfather’s nurse stuck a needle into her own vein to show Bill how it was done.
People didn’t mess with Dr. Matney. There had been a soldier whose gas mask tube had been cut in World War I after his inattentiveness had caused Matney to lose parts of two fingers to an enemy grenade. So, enough said.
Grandfather was going to make a surgeon of Bill and torment Eugene about his wussiness; and no one was going to gainsay him.
“We don’t see the grandfather redeemed in any way, do we?” I asked Ron.
“In fact, not only that, he has a sidekick who’s even more mysteriously evil than he is.”
“Was it important to you to represent pure evil as a force?”
“In a way,” Ron explained, “because it has such an impact on the two boys. This is another interesting part of life. How is that one person can respond to being abused as a child—in this case, psychological intimidation—and get through it, while another can’t get through it? That affects the way you view Eugene. I wanted the grandfather to be a scary character. The fact that he was a town doctor—I’ve never had a doctor like that, but it struck me one day, the kind of power a small town doctor would have had had he or she chosen to be that way.”
“How do you create villains?” I asked.
“I think one of the most important aspects,” Ron said, “is you don’t over-explain them. You don’t give the reader a single cause for why they are the way they are because, once you do that, it’s an easy out for the reader. The most frightening evil is the inexplicable, like Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country for Old Men.’ We don’t know what his childhood was like. One thing I learned from Shakespeare is that, with almost all his characters, there’s a part of them we don’t know, we can’t completely understand.”
“And that applies to the grandfather?”
“I could have said that World War I had changed the grandfather, but I knocked that down. The grandmother said that he was like that before. There’s a French philosopher I like a lot, named Gabriel Marcel. He had this theory that there are some people who will themselves toward evil. They’re seeking to be that way. I think Serena had that. I don’t know. The grandfather was a scary guy to write.”
The grandfather is responsible for some of the horrifying revelations in the book, but there are others kinds of revelations as well.
Rash’s nearly religious view of nature surfaces at times.
Before Eugene first saw Ligeia at Panther Creek, Eugene relates, “the midday sun fell full on the pool, so we waded in up to our waists, heat and cold balanced as if by a carpenter’s level. That was the best sensation...Years later at Wake Forest, when I still believed I might create literature, I’d write a mediocre poem about...moments in church and afterward the ‘baptism of nature.’”
Eugene’s unusual casting as a screw-up enables Rash to introduce some comic scenes before things get desperate.
When Eugene had prepared for a second encounter with the comely Ligeia, Bill advised him, “With all that Aqua Velva you splashed on your face, my Aqua Velva, I might add, you could probably get drunk just licking around your lips.”
Once again, with “The Risen,” Rash shows his ability to extend literary and psychological themes to a wide audience, such as the teenagers at Madison County High School who read “The World Made Straight” (Rash’s third novel) and decide that they’d like to read more.
Rob Neufeld writes the weekly book feature for the Sunday Citizen-Times. He is the author and editor of six books, and the publisher of the website, “The Read on WNC.” He can be reached at RNeufeld@charter.net and 505-1973. Follow him @WNC_chronicler.
PHOTO OF RON RASH by Kate Vukovich.