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Frédérique Spill et Randall Wilhelm
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Ron Rash
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We want to express our deep gratitude to Ron Rash for trusting us with his stories, for allowing us to publish “French I,” and for speaking with us for the interview.

  • 1 In a letter to Alfred Rice, Hemingway uses this process metaphor to describe his minimalist style a (...)
  • 2 See Mystery and Manners where O’Connor advocates for the writer “to make your vision apparent by sh (...)

1In Ron Rash’s house of fiction there are no loose stones. Every word, every sound, every image finds its destined place, carrying readers along a chiseled path deep into Rash World, a land of haunting beauty and aching hardship, of grim choices and deals with the devil, where the smallest details radiate with a strange luminosity. Rash’s stories are as tough as his characters, as solid and mysterious as the mountains in which they live: a farmer sets a hook in a hen’s egg to catch a thief; a widower in love with a pyromaniac prays for rain; a young boy bonds with the dead in a downed airplane; a group of old timers fish obsessively for something only they can see; a wounded man confronts his past in a farmhouse covered in paintings of strange beasts. Rash is a writer who can create a character in a single sentence, his stories are remarkable achievements in concision and precision, the tales as smooth and polished as Hemingway’s stones,1 as surprising as O’Connor’s “large and startling figures,”2 as profound as Faulkner’s gaze into the abyss.

2Although Rash has earned global praise and critical acclaim for his novels and poetry, his work in short fiction radiates throughout his career beginning with his first collection, the short story cycle entitled The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth and Other Stories from Cliffside, North Carolina (1994) which won the Sherwood Anderson Prize. Told through a succession of three narrators—Randy, Tracy and Vincent—the stories build through accretion of detail as the individual stories ultimately shape a larger picture of a small town in the Piedmont whose heritage and culture are slowly but surely vanishing. In Rash’s second collection, Casualties (2000), the stories become tighter and the themes darker as he explores the toll that living often takes on human lives. With Chemistry and Other Stories (2007), Rash’s distinctive voice as a writer of short fiction amplified to larger audiences and garnered even more critical praise as a Finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. In stories such as “Chemistry” and “Last Rite,” critics admired Rash’s ability to conjure up “a hardscrabble world, tinged with loyalty and love, but ruled by hard justice and revenge” (Donovan 64). As is often the case with Rash’s recycling aesthetic, the collection features two stories that ultimately grew to the larger canvas of the novel: “Pemberton’s Bride,” which found its way into the PEN/Faulkner finalist Serena (2009), and “Speckled Trout,” which won an O. Henry Award and became the first chapter of Rash’s third novel The World Made Straight (2006).

3Rash’s fourth collection, Burning Bright (2010), won global praise and was awarded the Frank O’Connor Prize in Short Fiction, the crown jewel for any short story writer. Rash was praised as a “master craftsman who pares down language to its essential elements in these starkly beautiful stories” (Library Journal), while Kirkus Reviews called the stories “Searing. . . . A nicely varied feast from a master of the form.” Stories like “The Ascent” or “Back of Beyond” deal with the thriving meth scourge in Appalachian communities, while others such as “Hard Times,” “Dead Confederates,” “Lincolnites,” and “Burning Bright” reveal the intersection of poverty, war and violence that teems throughout the region, past and present. The collection also includes Rash’s second O. Henry Prize winning story, “Into the Gorge,” whose protagonist, the octogenarian Jesse, embodies the historical and cultural conflict in southern Appalachia between the “insiders”—people born and raised in the region—and “outsiders,” corporate and government powers that have wreaked environmental and economic destruction of the land largely for financial profit.

4In Nothing Gold Can Stay (2013), Rash continued his deep weave between past and present, connecting historical atrocities to contemporary drug scourges, all featuring characters chaffed from wrestling between moral choice and selfish desire. Robert H. Brinkmeyer called this collection one of Rash’s finest,

where any glimpse of a pastoral idyll is fleeting, if not completely fanciful, the forces of history and time are always emerging to shatter dreams. . . . While some of Rash’s characters, particularly those living deep in the backwoods, far from the madding crowd . . . might have ‘one foot in Eden’ . . . their other foot is placed squarely in the world of woe and suffering, a world shaped not only by large-scale social and economic forces but also by evils lurking in the recesses of the human heart. (219)

5Though most characters in Nothing Gold Can Stay appear to be deeply lonely hearts, the collection displays a remarkable variety of tones, sometimes allowing irony and black humor to thread their way into surrounding bleakness. In 2014, Rash followed the success of Nothing Gold Can Stay with Something Rich and Strange: Selected Stories, a collection featuring thirty-four stories, including three new ones “Shiloh,” “Outlaws,” and “The Harvest.” Selected and ordered by Rash, the collection was conceived as a patchwork quilt where stories, new and old, are placed in new relations to each other, generating new insights and connections between stories written over the last thirty years. Janet Maslin of The New York Times heralded the collection as a major contribution to the American short story, claiming “Ron Rash occupies an odd place in the pantheon of American writers, and you’d better believe he belongs there.”

6Critics have warmly praised In the Valley (2020), Rash’s most recent collection, for its “skillful attention to nuance and surprise” and its “seamless prose and unforgettable images” that allow Rash “to cultivate ways of nurturing fresh soil in even his most familiar territory” (Choate). Stories such as “Neighbors,” “L’Homme Blessé,” and “The Belt” envelop readers into a strangely haunted land of terror and destruction, of wounded bodies and damaged psyches, but also a land that provides moments of human kindness and hope, often from the most unlikely sources. The titular novella features Serena Pemberton’s return from Brazil to finish the ecological and human destruction in the western North Carolina mountains that she had nearly exhausted in Serena. In The Observer, Gonzalo Baeza writes that “[e]xhibiting the linguistic grace of Rash’s poetry and his ability to capture both a world—typically, southern Appalachia—and a mental landscape in a few lines, these stories immerse the reader in vivid settings.” Other critics have agreed, with Janet Maslin continuing her praise of Rash’s work, singling out his “laconic understatement [as being] more powerful than excess,” and the way his characters, “human and otherwise, are all drawn with exceptional care”—observations that lead her to claim Rash as “one of the best living American writers.”

7Although Rash has earned his reputation as one of the hardest working writers in America, one who travels extensively for book tours and readings both domestically and internationally, the ongoing covid pandemic forced Rash to speak from his home with Jonathan Haupt and muse on his latest collection, on reading, and on the specific challenges of the short story form:

People have been very responsive to short stories this year, and part of it is that they are reading more in general. A number of people I know who do not necessarily identify as being big readers have gone back to books and stories during the pandemic. I’ve always thought that short stories were a great contribution from American writers to world literature, under any circumstances. Go back to Poe, for example. His influence on European writers was significant. And, as you get into the twentieth century with Faulkner and O’Connor and Hemingway, all of those writers—it’s something that we seem to do well. It’s my favorite form, so it’s always what I enjoy most as a writer. I think it’s the hardest form to do well, too, but the challenge is part of the fun of it.

8Since the publication of his first story collection, Rash has been faithful to his “favorite form,” which he has consistently returned to between publishing collections of poems and novels; they all indiscriminately sprout from the same acute sensitivity to the place where he has always lived:

So it was that in my earliest attempts at creating an imaginative world my stories were set in the place I knew best. They still are, for almost all my work is set in South Carolina or North Carolina, the two places where my family has lived, worked, loved, and died for over two hundred years. “One place understood helps us understand all other places better,” Eudora Welty reminds us, and she is right, for one of the most interesting aspects of literature is how the most intensely regional literature is often the most universal. The best regional writers are like farmers drilling for water; if they bore deep and true enough into that particular place, beyond the surface of local color, they tap into universal correspondences, what Jung called the collective unconscious. Thus Faulkner’s Mississippi, Munro’s Ontario, and Marquez’s Colombia are both exotic and familiar. (Rash, “On Writing”)

9From one collection to the next, Rash takes his readers through his world which, exotic to most, gradually acquires a wonderful familiarity for all, as he keeps drilling through universal motifs and concerns that address “la condition humaine,” or as Faulkner puts it, “the human heart in conflict with itself” (119). The universal dimension of Rash’s writing also derives from the tribute his stories keep paying to writers that are being read all around the world. Among the intertextual echoes readers will discover in the following essays are references to William Shakespeare, W. B. Yeats, Herman Melville, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Frost, Erskine Caldwell, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Elizabeth Spencer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and many others. It is this sense of echo and continuation, the relentless sense of wonder that Rash’s short stories keep eliciting, collection after collection, surprising us ever again with new findings, that this special issue of The Journal of the Short Story in English means to showcase through a selection of essays that cover his work as a short story writer from its very first steps to the present.

10The essays compiled in this volume are the fruits of American and European scholars invested in exploring the mysteries in Rash’s short fiction. Some of them are familiar to Rash, both the man and the writer; some have been writing about his work for a while; some have worked with him at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee; some live next door to him. Others are new to the recent, yet flourishing, field of Rash studies; not all of them are specialists of Southern writing, and we wish them all a hearty welcome into this sundry collection. This volume therefore intercrosses readings from within and readings from without, which results in a vivid variety of perspectives. Within the following pages, new lights are shed on some of Ron Rash’s most famous stories as “Chemistry,” “Hard Times,” “Back of Beyond,” “The Ascent,” “Into The Gorge,” “Lincolnites,” or “Something Rich and Strange.” But some of our contributors aptly decided to focus on stories that may be less known to Rash’s readers, which may be the case with “Honesty,” “Blackberries in June,” “Not Waving but Drowning,” “Twenty-Six Days,” “A Sort of Miracle,” “Shiloh” or “Cherokee.” Some of the compiled essays develop in traditional form focusing on specific collections; some are single-story readings; some adopt a more thematic approach, highlighting the motifs of traditions and evolutions; the representations of genders, war or death; the motif of vulnerability; the effects of luck, good and bad; or the relentless need for remembrance. Some essays are more inclined to developing poetic aspects of Rash’s short story writing, as his intertextual echoes, the poetics of lights, or his strategic use of narrative gaps, for instance.

11This volume also contains a photographic essay, Martha Eads’s “‘The Epicenter of Who I Am’: Ron Rash’s Roots in Aho, North Carolina,” that provides readers and scholars with various visual landscapes and iconographic elements of Rash’s “spirit country” in the mountains of western North Carolina. In the penultimate section, Frédérique Spill interviews Rash on writing and the short story form with a focus on the new collection In the Valley. The final entry of this volume features a new story by Rash, entitled “French I,” a work that pays a humorous homage to Rash’s privileged bond with France, if not with the French language, and provides readers an occasion to discover or remember his talent for comedic storytelling.

12The essays begin with a focus on Rash’s writing from his earliest story collection in 1994 to the later successes of Chemistry and Other Stories and Burning Bright. In “From Cliffside to Casualties: Ron Rash’s Apprenticeship in Depth and Darkness,” Brian Railsback explores the evolution of Rash’s writing from his first collection of stories, The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth to the publication of Casualties, which he regards as “the groundbreaking work that establishes Rash’s distinctive Appalachian voice, his poetic narrative, and his attention to troubling themes of personal isolation, income/education inequality, and environmental degradation.” Françoise Palleau-Papin’s “‘Their Ancient, Glittering Eyes’: A Story of Hieratic Vision” demonstrates how the opening story in Chemistry “half-mockingly resorts to established intertexts of epic grandeur to turn a burlesque fishing story into a hieratic vision of the sacred, in which decrepit old men act as heroic warriors and gain sacerdotal status, albeit unrecognized in their local community.” Focusing on Chemistry and Other Stories and Burning Bright, CK Walker’s “‘A Wound So Deep and Ragged’: The Vulnerable Body of Appalachia in Ron Rash’s Short Stories” develops as a reflection on Rash’s personal and literary intimacy with the landscape he is familiar with and on the hardship the region faces, inviting us to contextualize the intersection of body, violence, and landscape within the framework of a specifically Appalachian brand of trauma.

13Other essays investigate Rash’s narrative aesthetics, Appalachian deathways, and gender roles from previous collections and in newer works. In “Light Effects in Burning Bright,” Frédérique Spill demonstrates how light, an integral part of Rash’s poetics, is both instrumental to his writing of nature and its minutest phenomena, and a key element of his dramatization of sceneries and plots in his fourth collection. Gérald Préher’s “‘A sure terrain, . . . a permanent landscape of the heart’: Ron Rash’s Poetics of Textual Space” demonstrates, through the close examination of three stories—“Hard Times,” “Into the Gorge,” and “Something Rich and Strange”—how Rash, in the wake of Southern writers like Erskine Caldwell and Eudora Welty, in turn becomes a “mythologizer” of the American South, as his favorite images contribute to stabilizing a changing, if not a vanishing, world. In “Corpse Birds and Cooling Boards: Appalachian Deathways in Ron Rash’s Short Stories,” Randi Adams argues that the representations of deathways emphasize the significant role of the environment, place, community, and Welsh folkloric tradition in Rash’s work. Through a selection of four stories—“Raising the Dead,” “Last Rite,” “The Corpse Bird” and “Something Rich and Strange”—, she also explains how grief and the detachment with death can be reconciled through an understanding of the natural world and humanity’s place within it. Centering its argument on two stories, “The Ascent” and “A Sort of Miracle,” Jessica Cory’s “Blue Balls: Masculinity and Hypothermia in the Short Stories of Ron Rash” shows how the main protagonists’ ideas of masculinity influence their development, arguing that “the way in which Rash incorporates gender roles and expectations into his deaths, particularly deaths due to hypothermia, is unique.” In “Men and Women in Ron Rash’s Civil War Stories in Something Rich and Strange,” Patrycja Kurjatto-Renard offers a critical reading of the evolution of gender roles in Ron Rash’s best known Civil War short stories, including “Lincolnites,” “Where the Map Ends,” “The Dowry,” “Dead Confederates” and “Shiloh,” each of which offers illuminating insights into the rigid fluidity in these behavioral norms.

14Focusing on Rash’s fifth collection, Marie-Christine Agosto’s “Reading, Seeing, Remembering: Aesthetic Experience in Ron Rash’s Stories in Nothing Gold Can Stay” examines the narrative gaps that lie at the core of many of Rash’s stories. Agosto demonstrates how those gaps “inform the reading process, at verbal and visual levels, by appealing simultaneously to affect, cognition and emotion, so as to make sense from and react to the unsaid, the evanescent, and the resurgent.” Marcel Arbeit’s “Good Luck, Bad Luck: Ron Rash’s ‘Cherokee’” develops as a thorough reading of a story from Nothing Gold Can Stay which, as he suggests himself, has been paid little attention so far. Arbeit contends that in “Cherokee,” which uses “a strategy known from O’Connor’s short fiction and masterfully combines it with the existentialist reasoning of another doyen of southern writing, Walker Percy, good luck and bad luck play a prominent part.”

15In “Reconciling Literacy and Loss in Ron Rash’s Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Erin M. Presley centers her attention on “Twenty-Six Days,” “Those Who Are Dead Are Only Now Forgiven,” “The Magic Bus,” “The Dowry,” and “Night Hawks” to contend that Rash “simultaneously uses and critiques common stereotypes about Appalachia’s rejection of education, often challenging the trope of Appalachia’s perceived hostility towards outsiders and formal education and the need to leave the mountains for a better life.” Ultimately, Presley argues that Rash carefully explores this dichotomy as part of “Appalachia’s vexed history . . . to explore ongoing anxieties about the loss of identity and community many Appalachians face.” Finally, Randall Wilhelm’s “‘A place where all manner of strange occurrences were possible’: The Marvelous Real in Ron Rash’s In the Valley” takes us to the burning present of Rash’s latest collection, one that features Rash’s first novella, the titular story where Serena Pemberton seemingly returns from the dead to cast a ghostly vibrancy over the entire collection. While reviews have understandably focused on the novella, Wilhelm demonstrates that all the stories are linked by spatial and metaphorical boundaries and crossings, “of moving between worlds, in and out of time” where “the blending of realism and myth evokes alternative psychological and metaphysical spaces” in an aesthetic he terms “the Marvelous Real.”

  • 3 The autumn 2016 special issue of JSSE, entitled “Representation and Rewriting of Myths in Southern (...)

16In a previous interview for The Journal of the Short Story in English devoted to southern short fiction,3 Rash, playing on the polysemy of the word “nouvelle,” which in the French language both designates the short story and the announcement of news to someone, comments on his own perception of the genre: “I think of the short story as a dispatch. That’s the most concise thing I can say. But, along those lines, I think that because of its brevity and the way a story—a good story, at least—pulls us into it, there is a sense of urgency, the sense that something needs to be conveyed with a degree of quickness” (“Short Story Writing” 303). For nearly thirty years now, Rash’s stories have fascinated readers and thrilled critics with a potent mix of dirty realism and magical wonder. Applying the concision of his poetry to his fiction, Rash has carefully developed his own unmistakable short story writing style where he strikes quick and draws blood from the very first line. Reading Rash’s short fiction draws readers into a writer’s fascinating journey from the comedic small town tale “The Night the New Jesus Fell to Earth” to the most recent spectacular and evocative novella “In the Valley.” Along the many trails, footpaths and streams we wander throughout Ron Rash’s world of fiction, we may find ourselves lingering over a trout wavering in a mountain stream, or gazing aloft at a skeleton in a dogwood, or listening carefully to a couple’s madding desire. In Rash’s world, beauty and pain cohabit in the most intimate of ways; even when picking a flower unfurled the thorns are sure to sew bright droplets of blood. Rash has steadily and surely shaped a cosmos of his own, a land of cruelty and beauty imbued with mystery and wonder, and one from which we have so much still to learn.

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Baeza, Gonzalo. “Ron Rash’s Appalachia.” The Observer 1 Aug. 2020. Web. 10 Feb. 2021.

Brinkmeyer, Robert H. “Discovering Gold in the Back of Beyond: The Fiction of Ron Rash.” Virginia Quarterly Review 89.3 (Summer 2013): 219-23. Print.

Choate, Emily. “Fresh Soil in Old Territory.” Chapter 16. 13 Aug. 2020. Web. 10 Feb. 2021.

Donovan, Deborah. “Chemistry and Other Stories (Review).” Booklist 1 Mar. 2007. 64. Print.

Haupt, Jonathan. “Ron Rash on Environmental Concerns, Short Stories, and ‘In the Valley.’” Southern Review of Books 10 Dec. 2020. Web. 10 Feb. 2021.

Hemingway, Ernest. Selected Letters of Ernest Hemingway. 1981. Ed. Carlos Baker. New York: Scribner’s, 2003. Print.

Faulkner, William. Essays, Speeches and Public Letters. 1965. Ed. James B. Meriwether. New York: Modern Library, 2004. Print.

Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal 18 May 2020. Web. 10 Feb. 2021.

Maslin, Janet. “Lady Macbeth in Appalachia, and Other Tales by an American Master.” The New York Times 2 Aug. 2020. Web. 10 Feb. 2021.

---. “Chained to the Verities of Hunger and Heartbreak.” The New York Times 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2021.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners. Eds. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: The Noonday Press, 1961. Print.

Préher, Gérald, and Emmanuel Vernadakis. Introduction. Representation and Rewriting of Myths in Southern Short Fiction. Eds. Alice Clark, Gérald Préher and Emmanuel Vernadakis. Spec. issue of Journal of the Short Story in English 67 (Autumn 2016): 15-25. Print.

Rash, Ron. “On Writing: The Importance of Place.” Marly Rusoff Literary Agency. Web. 10 Feb. 2021. <>.

---. “Something Rich and Strange: Ron Rash on Short Story Writing.” Interview by Frédérique Spill. Representation and Rewriting of Myths in Southern Short Fiction. Eds. Alice Clark, Gérald Préher and Emmanuel Vernadakis. Spec. issue of Journal of the Short Story in English 67 (Autumn 2016): 301-12. Print.

Welty, Eudora. Stories, Essays, and Memoir. Eds. Michael Kreyling and Richard Ford. New York: Library of America, 1998. Print.

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1 In a letter to Alfred Rice, Hemingway uses this process metaphor to describe his minimalist style and his search for the one true word: “And I have a diamond mine if people will let me alone and let me dig the stones out of the blue mud and then cut and polish them” (833).

2 See Mystery and Manners where O’Connor advocates for the writer “to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures” (34).

3 The autumn 2016 special issue of JSSE, entitled “Representation and Rewriting of Myths in Southern Short Fiction,” includes a selection of papers presented at the conference held at Lille Catholic University in 2013. The short story writers whose stories are commented on in the volume include Richard Wright, Ellen Glasgow, Katherine Anne Porter, James Agee, Erskine Caldwell, Caroline Gordon, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Ralph Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Barbara Kingsolver, Chris Offutt, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ron Rash and Joyce Carol Oates. The Ron Rash interview, which concludes the issue, is preceded by an interview with Lisa Alther. The selected articles demonstrate that, in its remarkable variety, the South of the United States is “a region where a strong tradition of storytelling and myth-making has always been of singular importance: religion and magic, traditional roles and characters, stereotypes and icons, local modes and codes, folktales and folk-songs all brand Southern literature with lore and ideology, prestige and pleasure, mystique, and fantasy” (Préher and Vernadakis 16).

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Frédérique Spill

Frédérique Spill is Professor of American literature at the University of Picardy–Jules Verne in Amiens, France. She is the author of L’Idiotie dans l’œuvre de William Faulkner (PSN, 2009), soon to be published in English. She contributed to Critical Insights: The Sound and the Fury (Salem Press, 2014) and to Faulkner at Fifty: Tutors and Tyros (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014). She coedited The Wagon Moves: New Essays on As I Lay Dying, published in 2018 (L’Harmattan), as well as the spring 2018 issue of The Faulkner Journal. She has also published articles in French and in English on varied contemporary American authors including Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Penn Warren, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, Willa Cather, Russell Banks, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Spencer and Ron Rash. The Radiance of Small Things in Ron Rash’s Writing was published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2019.

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Randall Wilhelm

Randall Wilhelm is editor of The Ron Rash Reader (University of South Carolina Press, 2014), co-editor of Summoning the Dead: Essays on Ron Rash (University of South Carolina Press, 2018), and editor of Conversations with Robert Morgan (University Press of Mississippi, 2019). He holds degrees in both visual art and literature, and has published over forty essays on American, Southern, and Appalachian writers and artists. Wilhelm has written on Rash’s prose and poetry, including the essays “Ghostly Voices and Worker Bodies: Power and Resistance in Rash’s Eureka Mill” (South Carolina Review, 2010), “‘A Boxed and Stilled Forever’: Vision, Death and Affect in the Work of Ron Rash” (Summoning the Dead, 2018), and “Arresting Visions: Film Noir, Visual Detection, and the Invisible Corpse in Ron Rash’s One Foot in Eden” (Detecting the South in Fiction, Film, and Television, Louisiana State University Press, 2019). Wilhelm’s current work focuses on narrative visualities, undeadness, environmental theory, and object-oriented ontology. He is associate professor of English at Anderson University, South Carolina.

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