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“A place where all manner of strange occurrences were possible”: The Marvelous Real in Ron Rash’s In the Valley

Randall Wilhelm
p. 203-217

Résumé

Le pouvoir enchanteur de l’écriture de Ron Rash auprès des lecteurs et des critiques est en partie dû à ses métaphores et allusions qui évoquent une étrangeté singulière. À travers l’exploration du dernier recueil de Rash, In the Valley, cet article tente de montrer que cette étrangeté narrative prend forme à travers l’usage que fait l’écrivain du « réalisme merveilleux », une forme personnelle du « réalisme magique » qui lui permet de se mouvoir dans le temps et en dehors du temps, en mêlant réalité, mythe et éléments surnaturels. Ce mélange engendre des formes spécifiques d’espaces psychologiques et transitionnels d’où surgissent des événements « merveilleux ». Cette contribution examine comment le réalisme merveilleux de Rash constitue un espace qui requiert une forme de voyage. Elle dirige également notre attention sur les structures et tropes visuels qui confèrent au recueil une immédiateté haptique par le biais de laquelle images et objets acquièrent une solidité qui fonde en retour leur importance narrative. Dans certains cas, ces images et objets constituent des points d’entrée dans le réel merveilleux.

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Ron Rash
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Texte intégral

“I like the idea of journey—of walking back and forth through time”
Ron Rash (Personal Interview)

Having twice traveled the sea,
battle-bloodied, swords bone-dulled,
Branwen buried inside her
square-sided grave, having heard
the three birds of Rhiannon,
they came into a great hall—
sea-facing, hero worthy,
two doors wide open, one closed,
and like snow warmed by the sun
all they had seen and suffered
melted away. No sorrow
could harbor inside that hall.
No beard grayed, night and day merged
into vast fields of twilight
beyond time, though a time came
they chose to open the door.
A cold sea stung their faces.
Memory settled like ravens
upon their shoulders: kinsmen
and friends who died by their side,
woes of age, old wounds, heart grief
whose sudden weight so staggered
they wondered it ever borne,
and knew they were finally home.
Ron Rash, “From The Mabinogion,” Among The Believers (41)

1It may seem strange to begin an essay on Ron Rash’s short fiction with a poem, but Rash’s love of “journey—of walking back and forth through time” and its expression in verse channeled from the otherworldly medieval text The Mabinogion (ca. 1350-1410) offer a productive entry point into his abiding fascination with the specifics of place, states of being, “betweenness,” and the power of myth as central elements of his artistic vision. Rash’s poem visualizes a mythic journey by a nameless cast of seafaring warriors, forlorn of the goddess figures Branwen, the “white, blessed raven” and having heard “the three birds of Rhiannon” whose “songs can wake the dead and lull the living to sleep” (196). Rash also evokes specific places (the twice-traveled sea, the great hall, the world of sorrow reentered) and objects (the blunted swords, the beards that do not gray, the raven of memory) culled from The Mabinogion to shape a new narrative that celebrates their heroism to face the fierce world as much as it mourns their pain and grieving. Even more important, though, is the poem’s emphasis on doors, spaces, and liminal zones, the moving between worlds, both in- and outside of time. These narrative strategies serve to illuminate a fundamental aspect of Rash’s work regardless of genre—the blending of realism, myth, and an evocative supernaturalism to fabulate alternative psychological and transitional spaces in an aesthetic that can be called “the Marvelous Real.”

  • 1 Di Chirico’s style of painting was eventually termed “Metaphysical,” but his largely empty Italian (...)
  • 2 In his essay Carpentier makes an essentialist argument where the marvelous is located in a specific (...)

2The term, of course, has a complicated and multivalent history, ranging from the fantastical literatures of the medieval ages to modernist art theory to twentieth-century Latin American fiction to Karl Marx’s critique of the capitalist dynamic. Although the German art critic Franz Roh coined the term “magic realism” to describe modernist paintings breaking from the dominant Expressionist mode as in the work of Giorgio di Chirico,1 it gradually shifted to the literary world, especially to Latin American fiction and the nationalist definitions shaped by Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier in his influential 1949 essay “On the Marvelous Real in America.”2 The urge to define has troubled scholars for decades, though, often culminating in lists of specific attributes that often contradict each other, as in Angel Flores’s attempts to place the colonial narratives of Columbus and the cerebral tales of Kafka alongside native writings of the colonized and post-colonized (109-18). As this essay will make clear, Rash’s “marvelous real” is not a borrowed Latin American “magic realism.” His work is more realistic and less theatrical than most of the characters and events coursing through the texts of magic realist writers such as Julio Cortezar, Isabel Allende, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Juno Diaz, and a multitude of others. Rash’s use of the “marvelous” is not overtly political or nationalistic either, despite Appalachia’s historical condition as an othered region of the country, colonized by outside financial powers, its natural resources plundered for corporate profit.

3While Rash’s marvelous real does not feature impossible fictional creations such as an old man with enormous wings, it is no secret that Rash trades in mystery and wonder, the rich and strange in his work deepening the mysteries of life at the core of his narrative art. Steeped in Southern and Appalachian Gothic, Rash’s stories often propel readers into spaces of fear, trauma and ghastly revelations: a drowned child decomposing in a river’s hydraulic; a boy dying of hypothermia in a downed plane piloted by frozen corpses; a reservoir bottom littered with dead animals, trash, and a cast off refrigerator, its door yawning like an open mouth. Such imagery is informed by Rash’s engagement with myth and supernaturalism as much as twentieth century art movements like surrealism, and it feeds off Medieval and ancient conceptions of the “marvelous” for much of its uncanny power. In fact, Rash draws on the visual tradition of the Old French fantastique, and its roots in medieval Latin and Greek—phantazein: to “make visible”; phantazesthai: “to have visions, imagine”; and phantos: “visible”—as the primary vehicle for actualizing the spaces of the marvelous.

Rash’s Mirable Dictu

4In his recent collection In the Valley, Rash’s emphasis on vision reaches a fever pitch, especially in the hundred and two page titular novella that features Serena Pemberton’s return to the western North Carolina mountains to clear the last remaining patch of timber from her once vast holdings, a presence that charges the entire volume with a ghostly vibrancy. The revenant Serena is a sign of wonder, a possessor of bodies if not souls, a figure of death on a pale horse, accompanied by her enormous Mongolian eagle and her literal “right hand man” Galloway. Readers of Rash’s novel Serena will be familiar, of course, with such a sight, but his introduction of a new logger from the southern lowlands, Quince, brings fresh eyes to the spectacle of destruction playing out in this ravaged mountain valley turned moonscape. After circling the camp and arriving in a Commodore Seaplane like some Valkyrie let loose from Wagner’s Rhineland, Serena is next seen by Quince sitting imperiously on the white Arabian horse framed against the surrounding near-treeless wasteland. Rash then draws a dramatic visual scene where Quince first sees the eagle soaring over “the lower ridge, its shadow rippling” over the valley floor before it “paused” and “tucked its wings and javelined earthward . . . talons stretching to seize and crush a rattlesnake’s head” (130). What affects Quince the most is the “unnatural” conjunction of object, sound and image as when Serena blows into the “metal whistle [and] raptor and serpent rose as one, as though the reptile’s body were revived and sudden-winged, evoking the fire-drakes of Albion” (130, emphasis added).

5Rash’s surgical use of metaphor here is rich in myth and deep in allusion, providing a signature means of access into the spaces of the marvelous real. In Rash’s hands, to evoke is akin to a ritualized summoning of a dazzling array of mythic and literary intertextualities. In Teutonic myth, “fire-drake” refers to a fire-breathing dragon, a fantastical creature Rash imports to “Albion,” or “White Land,” referring to the cliffs of Dover, the earliest recorded name for the island of Britain the Romans learned from the Gauls and Celts. The Welsh root “Albio,” or “elfyyd,” which means “earth, world, land, country, district” adds another spatial layer to the evocation, particularly when seen in light of Serena’s global ambitions. What Quince thinks he sees is actually more akin to a wyvern, another fire-breathing dragon of myth but this version flies closer to home. With its visual image as a sign of heraldry in England, Scotland and Ireland, the wyvern has layered depths as well, but its physical shape—a creature with the head of a dragon, the tail of a snake and a body with wings and two legs—is what terrifies Quince as he realizes this was “a place where all manner of strange occurrences were possible” (133).

  • 3 Frédérique Spill’s The Radiance of Small Things in Ron Rash’s Writing is replete with detailed obse (...)

6Rash’s mirable dictu (“wonderful to tell”) In the Valley depends on such evocations and allusions, and flourishes in echo and parallel as much as in gaps, omissions, and ambiguities. The collection travels “back and forth through time” in a structure that includes a triptych of stories set in the nineteenth century that frame and separate two other triptychs of stories set in contemporary times, and concludes with the novella in late July 1931. Originally planned as the middle part of the collection, the novella is not an end piece separate from the preceding nine stories but a larger part of the carefully tuned textual economy. As Frédérique Spill has brilliantly argued, the connective tissues in Rash’s work are manifold, from large-scale thematic concerns to geographical sites to the smallest narrative detail such as a drop of water on a leaf.3 With In the Valley Rash sutures stories in a dense weave with one foot firmly planted in the ground of realism and the other foot raised, sometimes hovering near and other times plunging deeply into the borderland of wonder. Rash’s Marvelous Real is a space where wondrous events may occur but one must typically “travel” in some form to get there. Rash’s intense focus on vision and visualization charges In the Valley with a type of haptic immediacy where images and objects assume a solidity that registers their narrative import and which, in some cases, provides portals into the marvelous real.

Wonders, Mysteries and Marvelous Moments

7The Marvelous can arise at any moment in a story. Although Rash often paces a narrative towards a kind of revelation or repercussion in the conclusion, with In the Valley he signals the presence of the marvelous with atmospheric effects from the beginning of the first story “Neighbors,” where a “a low swirling fog made the horses mere gray shapes, those mounted upon them adrift, like revenants” (3). Death, violence and cruelty haunt this mountain community as Union-supporting Lincolnites and increasingly desperate Confederates find themselves in an internecine conflict, all of them victims of a destructive tribalism that evokes contemporary America’s contentious political divide. The “revenants” quickly assume bodily form as the focus shifts to the widowed Rebecca and her two children who hear their fierce pounding on her cabin door. Rash’s fascination with visuality is transferred into a strategy of treating the narrative image as a painterly one in an attempt to charge the text that unfolds across time with the primal immediacy of the image itself. In this respect Rash’s images “shine,” or “radiate” on the page, especially when representing certain types of objects placed in specific spaces within a story’s narrative arc.

8In “Neighbors,” Rash imbues one object—a button from Rebecca’s deceased husband Elijah’s uniform—with powerful undead energies. When Colonel Allen confronts Rebecca he assumes she is a Lincolnite and that her husband may be hiding in the area, perhaps even one of the ridge snipers that had recently fired on his troops. Only after a sergeant brings forth a small box found under the floorboards of the cabin does Allen’s understanding swiftly and powerfully shift. Initially chastising Rebecca for keeping evidence of her disloyalty, Allen misinterprets the button as a war trophy. During this sequence the otherworldly fog “began unknitting into loose gray strands and all could be seen—the outhouse and spring, [and] the barn” (5). Significantly, Allen begins to see clearer as well, realizing after reading Elijah’s letters to Rebecca that Elijah had been a Confederate soldier killed at Fort Donaldson: “‘Why didn’t you tell us?’” he asks (10), never realizing that the button had already spoke, had already traveled across time and space from western Tennessee to Shelton Laurel on a last errand to ensure the safety of his wife in a world where brother fights brother and entire communities seethe with suspicion and betrayal. The button performs as a miniature portal into the marvelous, where the dead speak and the living understand, if only for a short time (as in the poem “From The Mabinogion”) before re-entering again the harsh and loud world of violence, grief and sorrow. As an undead object, the button compresses time and space, breaks through the porous boundary between the living and the dead, and serves as a dispatch from the realm of the marvelous to the loved ones who remain behind.

9In the fifth story of the collection, “The Baptism,” atmospheric effects are again at work signaling the spaces of the marvelous. Instead of fog, the world of “The Baptism” is entrenched in bitter cold that recalls the ice-laden dreamscapes of William Gay and reveals Rash’s channeling of Nathaniel Hawthorne through the figure of a religious protagonist, his “manse,” and a young girl named Pearl. The opening paragraph sets the stage for this rural winter drama by introducing a series of specific objects that will have tremendous import for the story’s conclusion. When Reverend Yates lowers a “metal well bucket, it clanged as if hitting iron. A leashed pitchfork, cast like a harpoon, finally broke the ice. He was bringing the water back to the manse when Jason Gunter came out of the woods on horseback. Reverend Yates took the bucket inside and returned with a shotgun that, until this moment, had never been aimed at anything other than a fox or rabbit” (64, emphasis added). Not yet thirty years old, Gunter is an object of scorn for Yates since he suspects the younger man of killing his first wife and “nearly” the second one (64).

10The Hawthornian surround in this story evokes the atmosphere of “Romance” described in the prologue to The Scarlet Letter, but it does so in a muted way. Hawthorne defines this kind of narrative space as “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbues itself with the nature of the other” (35). Rash reserves this type of space for the story’s conclusive action as Reverend Yates, several men from the area, and Gunter, his new wife, Pearl, and her mother Eliza walk to the river for a baptism at the hands of the begrudging preacher. When they reach “[t]he river’s deep bend that served as the baptism pool,” it “was completely iced over, the snow-limned surface unmarked but for the tracks of a single raccoon” (73). To the men, the sight is “unnatural” and clearly a sign from God to cancel the baptism, especially since they know Gunter is a non-believer and a killer of at least one woman. Yet Gunter remains undeterred, declaring “‘It’s just ice’” (74) before placing a booted heel on the surface of the ice-shackled river.

11The story’s opening paragraph had staged a scene that involved a metal well bucket blocked from retrieving water until a harpoon breaks the ice. This domestic scene becomes powerfully charged when Gunter appears in the Reverend’s yard, emerging suddenly out of the forest, shades of “Young Goodman Brown.” The scene is then punctuated by Reverend Yates’s aiming the shotgun at what he deems a figure of evil, hinted at in the previous line with the telling object/metaphor “pitchfork/harpoon.” Later at the bend in the river, a shotgun returns to the scene, this time as an offering of help to Gunter who wants to use the hickory stock to break up the ice. After uttering his last words, “damn you” (74), Gunter plunges the shotgun onto the ice surface and immediately a portal into the marvelous opens:

The sharp report of shattered ice was instantly followed by another crack. The sounds crossed the river, echoed back. Gunter still gripped the iron barrel. He appeared to stare down at it intently as gray smoke encircled his head. He gave a violent shudder and fell forward, the webbed ice opening to accept the body. Gunter slowly sank. Soon the only sign of him was the water’s pinkish tinge. (74)

12The daunting whiteness of the scene, combined with the previous mention of “harpoon” and the culminating action of a bizarre drowning evokes the work of Herman Melville, particularly themes coursing through Moby Dick. Still, when the river’s ice gives way to a single blow, the space of Romance emerges again as the world, for a moment, becomes unmoored from temporal and spatial boundaries, the river turned void, vortex and abyss as Gunter sinks in his watery grave.

13Such border crossings are freighted with meaning in the stories of In the Valley and, in some cases, may provide literal and metaphoric entryways into spaces of trauma and healing. Rash’s fascination with cave art, prehistoric animals, and the shaman who painted them finds perhaps its greatest expression in the story “L’Homme Blessé’” (“The Wounded Man”). Influenced by the work of cultural mythologist Joseph Campbell, Rash’s interest in the first makers of art is an attempt to understand or to connect with a useable past in its most primal state. As Thomas Mann tells us in the first volume of his mythically conceived tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, “Very deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless? . . . The deeper we sound, the further down into the lower world of the past we probe and press, the more do we find that the earliest foundations of humanity, its history and culture, reveal themselves unfathomable” (3). This story drills deep into the “mystery,” as Rash likes to call it, of creative expression and human trauma, and evokes a type of supernaturalism where magical, or marvelous, synchronicities can occur.

14When art professor Jake Yancey gets a call from his former student, Shelby Tate, he agrees to drive into the country to look at what he initially thinks will be local folk art painted on the interior walls of a soon-to-be razed farmhouse. What he sees startles him and peaks his curiosity to learn more about the colorful and strange beasts sprawling across the walls. Learning from Shelby that her uncle Walt had served in France during World War Two, Jake initially sees the images as “amateurish” doodlings: “A zebra with red spots instead of stripes, a small spiked fin on its back, a shaggy elephant with down-curving tusks, a deer with the snout of an anteater, a thin-legged boar” (46). Yet, as his eyes adjust to the darkness of the room, Jake sees the animals more distinctly: “A mastodon, not a hairy elephant; a bison, not a boar. Despite the fin, the spotted horse too was familiar” (46-47). The painted beasts cast a curious spell over Jake, and after returning home he conducts Internet searches of prehistoric cave art in France. After calling an old friend for expert advice, Jake learns the identity of the cave as Pech Merle, a site discovered only in 1922 with no color photographs available until 1951, six years after Walt had painted the colorful figures on his bedroom walls.

15Thus begins a slow-opening portal into the spaces of wonder where the story, firmly grounded in its realist elements, nevertheless begins to emit a special kind of strangeness that for Rash is the hallmark of the marvelous. Imagination begins the journey where Jake’s friend surmises “The only way to know all those details would have been visiting the cave itself” (52). Traveling to visit an army buddy of Walt’s they discover Walt had been in Pech Merle after the war, and had been found at the very back of the miles-long cave where he had lain curled up on the stone floor asleep. Walt’s thoughts and feelings in the cave can never be known, a mystery wrapped in wonder that haunts the text and Jake as well. In his fascination Jake visits the farmhouse three times, and asks to stay alone after his last meeting with Shelby. One never knows his thoughts in this last scene either, but surely his own emotional life, devastated by the recent death of his wife, draws him to lie down on the moldy mattress that was Walt’s bed under the looming gazes of his prehistoric menagerie.

16Time and space become elastic in the farmhouse as Jake notes, “[t]hough it was mid-afternoon, the room was darkening. The animals began receding, as if summoned elsewhere” (61). What Jake is thinking Rash never tells, but in the silence of the page another image from Pech Merle arises, a pictograph Jake had seen on a previous Internet search “of a man leaning or falling. Vertical lines—spears, perhaps arrows—passed through the figure’s torso” (55). When Jake makes contact with the mattress, he makes contact with Walt, and by extension with the wounded man on the cave wall, a sign of all human suffering. Still, this miraculous reaching across time and space, this bonding of affective energies across the borders of life and death, is announced in the most humble of ways, as “[t]he springs creaked and a thin layer of dust rose and resettled” (62), shades of Emily Grierson. Notably, Jake falls asleep in the darkening room and awakes seemingly at peace with the world “[i]n the day’s last light” (62). Passing through thresholds, Jake stops at the border between the marvelous and the real, driving “slowly to the creek” and pausing “at the water’s edge. Oak trees lined the opposite bank” (62). Jake’s final vision offers promise for healing and rebirth, a gift from his experience traveling in the realm of wonder: “In their upper branches, mistletoe clustered like bouquets offered to the emerging stars. He paused there a few more minutes, then went on” (62).

Into the Valley of Death

17Longer, broader and deeper than the nine short stories, “In the Valley” showcases Rash’s marvelous real in ever larger glimpses, chapter after chapter building to a striking scene and a marvelous object that displays his hallmark use of the gothic and fantastical for sensational affect and thematic resonance. This is a world of Serena’s making, a realm of power, exploitation, cruelty, vengeance, and environmental and human degradation. It is clearly a nightmare space where death lurks predatorily in the slash and waste of a pocked landscape, where copperheads and timber rattlers slither on the valley ridge or writhe in the sky clutched in an eagle’s talons. Even by night the valley reveals itself as a cemetery writ large: “Below, the whole valley could be seen, thousands upon thousands of stumps. In the moonlight, they looked like gravestones” (158). Later, as the deadline approaches, ghostly forms emerge from the camp graveyard,

but they did not walk like men. They approached, arms limp, gaits hesitant, like specters summoned from the deepest of sleeps. Fog unraveled around them like shroud cloth . . . [and] [a]s they became more visible, Snipes and Henryson saw no chests or stomachs but skeletal alternations of slants and gaps. (206-07)

18The vision is harrowing but is only one such glimpse into this valley teeming with undead energies. When Serena and Galloway stalk Meeks under a hunter’s moon, for instance, his death by water offers entry into the spaces of the marvelous as Rash channels Charon and the River Styx, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark and Suttree:

Meeks eyes were still open, but they did not see. . . . Nor did Meeks see [Galloway’s] one hand wield a hickory branch like a peavey stick, prod his body out of the shallows into the river’s main current, and, as Meeks drifted downward, his eyes, though looking upward, did not see the morning sun when its angled beams gilded the river. He did not see in that same sky the first dark forms assembling, then slowly kettling downward, somber-suited ferrymen, who asked of him no coin as they accompanied him on his passage. (159-60)

19Although Rash typically eschews overt political commentary, when writing about the natural world and the forces that threaten it (as embodied in Serena’s will to power), a sympathy arises in the struggle between workers and capital. With Serena’s three-day return to the valley of the shadow of Appalachian death, “In the Valley” foregrounds a Foucauldian biopower that regulates, measures and surveils its worker population in ways that also suggest Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics of the living dead. This double bind is achieved through different power systems but none so disorienting as Serena’s “stealing time” from the workers through a confiscation of their personal watches and timepieces and by removing the clock from the mess hall. Rash’s workers are a motley lot but their performance as chorus reveals levels of experience and learning that burst notions of dated Appalachian stereotypes. The foreman, Snipes, for instance, may believe that bright colors ward off snakes, but he also reads the papers enough to know about the relativity of time, “‘What that Einstein fellow in Switzerland’s argued. . . . He claims you can stretch time out like it was taffy’” (176).

20Serena’s control over these (mostly) docile bodies is strengthened by imposing a timeless work schedule for the workers, a crueler version of the cotton mill “stretch out,” and it further plunges the valley into the fantastical: “First light smudged the eastern sky as the [worker’s] torches made a widening constellation across the valley floor” (173). At twilight the workers are allowed to descend in darkness again and “[w]hen the[ir] torches reached level land, their flames came together as if funneling back into their initial source” (177). The effect suggests workers as hellspawn or perhaps, more accurately, “lost souls” trapped in a fiery cauldron, released in darkness and returning to darkness. Serena’s land of the lost evokes Karl Marx’s Marvelous Real, his trope for the capitalist dynamic, or what Marshall Berman in All That Is Solid Melts into Air has called “the experience of modernity” (27). In Serena’s valley, the coercion of bodies, the stealing of time, the sudden and startling violence, and even the dense fog that disorients nearly everyone evoke Marx’s vision of a brave new world. In this version of marvelous real, the material world is transformed into a realm teeming with “transmogrifying power” and “radical fluidity. . . . a world gone buoyant, wispy, exhilarating—but also a world ungrounded, vertiginous, maddening” that operates through “constant, violent upheaval that was the true legacy of the modern ownership class” (Watson 49).

21Twinning Serena’s goal of dominating the worker class is her continued search for Rachel and her child, Jacob, aided by Galloway’s blind mother whose mystic visions guide their hunt. The “old crone” is the most marvelous of figures in In the Valley. Despite her diminished and shabby appearance, the workers regard her with fear and loathing, a strange hag whose blind eyes see farther and deeper than their own. Her augury to Galloway and Serena, “‘if we don’t find that child soon, there’ll be a time when that child finds us’” (183), charges the novella with a distinct supernaturalism, one intimately tied to vision, objects, and images. Although Rash takes care to keep his narratives steeped in realism, when characters dream the realm of the Marvelous is clearly on display. In Chapter Five, Rash allows a glimpse into Galloway’s childhood involving a bizarre Flannery O’Connor-like experience at a traveling carnival. More importantly, though, is Galloway’s bedtime ritual of attempting to soothe the phantom ache from his stumped forearm, where energies between the living and the dead swirl as the chopped off hand begins to reanimate. His mother “had him bury it with the palm facing up. That way it’ll know which way to dig, she’d told him” (166).

22What follows is one of the most marvelous scenes in In The Valley as Galloway thinks “about the hand digging out of the sand, watched it in his mind like a picture show. First a couple of black fingernails, then the fingers, and last the full hand. . . . Galloway watched the hand flip over and crawl up the bank, head over the mountains into Tennessee to pick up the trail” (166-67). The episode becomes more darkly marvelous as the hand continues its journey:

When it got to a creek or river, the fingertips touched the surface and crossed over like a water strider. There’d be hungry foxes and raccoons and maybe even a panther, but the index and middle fingers would rear up like fangs and the animals would back off same as they would a tarantula. Maybe the land would level out or maybe it wouldn’t, but the hand would know exactly where to go. (167)

23As Galloway enters full sleep the intensity of the hunt reaches its crescendo as

the hand finally found its prey. . . . The Harmon girl was asleep, the child beside her. The hand crawled through an open window and then over the floor and up the bedpost. It killed the girl first. Then scuttled across the covers and latched onto the child’s throat, and in that instant hand and wrist were one flesh and he was whole again. (167)

24Such a passage stands out for its unusual theatricality, but the push and pull of realist and magical elements in this novella are magnificently balanced. Following Galloway’s shock theatre dream, Rash shows Rachel’s more Poe-esque vision:

Last night she dreamed that her and Jacob were looking at the ocean when a wooden ship appeared, far out but coming toward shore. It had only a single sail and that sail was black. A man stood on the wooden bow, a silver cross dangling from the necklace he wore. Grinning, the man raised his stumped forearm and waved. As the ship entered the harbor, Rachel looked up and down the shore and saw that she and Jacob were alone. (169-70)

25Later, Rachel dreams the same dream, “except Galloway wasn’t alone. Beside him stood a tiny woman, her face concealed inside a black bonnet” (196-97). Galloway’s mother provides a balance for her son; Jacob for Rachel; Snipes for Quince; Brandonkamp for Serena. Yet, Rash’s balancing acts are not mere doublings. The trope is an aesthetic derived from his interest in the Anglo-Saxon poetic line with its surprising kennings, metrical caesuras, and evocations of a violent but mystical world. Rash’s spacing of italicized passages that feature a reverse fabulation of Noah’s ark where the nonhuman world, from top predator to the humble milk snake, leave the valley “one by one” not only balances the novella’s action but also shifts the narrative to another plane, a world unnoticed perhaps but a world with its own mysteries and wonders, and one destroyed at our own peril.

26The most arresting image in the novella reveals the potency of Rash’s balancing aesthetic. After Quince dies from a rattlesnake bite cutting the last ridge, Ross begins to sharpen his ax before entering the mess hall one last time. Slipping a note to Henryson that reads “Get me back home,” Ross moves quickly toward the back where Serena, Galloway and his mother sit, “paying little notice to the scene before them” (215) of bruised and sleepless workers scattered like so many spare parts of the Pemberton Logging Machine. Ross’s direct line here balances the circular movement of the eagle’s flight in the opening scene, and shifts the power from one direction to another as Ross meets Galloway, “clambered onto the table, scattering dishes and platters as he gained his balance” (215, emphasis added). Galloway balances Serena on one side and his mother on the other, but when he leans towards Serena’s defense the triune’s power becomes unbalanced to devastating effect.

27In this scene swirling with the din of breaking glass, scattered plates, shouts of men, and struggling bodies, Rash drives the narrative to its crescendo:

Ross pulled back the ax and paused, making a final calculation. Then the fresh-honed blade flashed toward her throat, entering just beneath her chin, slicing through the black bonnet’s silk tie-string, then through skin and bone before the blade embedded itself in the wooden table. Ross released the ax handle and stepped back. The men rushing toward the door froze, as did the Pinkertons. All watched as the crone’s neck and shoulders sagged and, like a tent-show magic trick, her head appeared to levitate. (215-16)

28The image is earned as Rash would say, a cruelly wondrous vision where the crone seems to defy gravity and death as well, as if here were a creature beyond mortal kin with a power beyond human reproach. Ross’s act is met with a swift vengeance as the Pinkertons fire repeatedly into Ross’s body, “filling the air with blue smoke and the odor of cordite” (216). Despite Ross’s death, the head of Galloway’s mother reappears for an encore performance as a memento mori, one that evokes a host of intertextual wonders from “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” to Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” to a reversed John the Baptist. The final vision in this mess hall of chaos and destruction is a look into mystery itself as “[t]he bonnet had slipped off, revealing a pate hairless and pale except for a scrimshaw of purple veins. Then her body spasmed and folded over itself. The head remained where it had been, balanced on a blade bright as a silver platter” (216).

29In the Valley reveals Rash’s prominence as an image-maker and master weaver whose stories accrue dense thematic textures through a focus on and a repetition of key elements, some of which can lead to experiencing the marvelous. Although this article has focused on five selections, all the stories in In the Valley glow with material and marvelous elements such as a swingset awaiting its unborn child; a flying machine that drops presents from the sky; a game warden who sprouts the shadow wings of a raven; a nowhere station where an abandoned young woman transforms from discarded object to human being; an abduction where confinement and “magic pills” lead to a most unlikely relationship. The last of the short stories, “The Belt,” was originally intended to conclude the collection, and it provides an appropriate ending for the present analysis as another talismanic object providing a direct and literal portal into the marvelous.

30Old Jubal considers himself a lucky man, having been saved in battle from a Confederate minie ball that lodged in his brass eagle belt buckle instead of taking his life. When rainwaters flood the valley Jubal must take his grandchild on a journey for survival as the once solid world fills with water. As Jubal strains for a last handhold above the rising water, he touches the buckle and tells it “‘Be lucky one more time’” (126) before Rash closes the scene. What follows is a last passage that showcases Rash’s brilliant balancing of the real and the wondrous that reveals the marvelous powers of love:

They found him late the next morning. The sun was out and something flashed from within a stand of poplars. Some kind of signal, the two men in the flatboat thought, and lifted their oars and made their way across the drowned farm. At first they thought it an apparition caused by fatigue, because the child seemed to be hovering above the water. Then they saw the belt around the tree trunk, heard a soft whimpering, and they marveled at a child held aloft and alive in the grasp of an eagle. (126, emphasis added)

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Bibliographie

Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. 1982. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin, 1988. Print.

Carpentier, Alejo. “On the Marvelous Real in America.” Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Eds. Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 75-88. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. Primitive Mythology. 1959. New York: Penguin Compass, 1987. Print.

Flores, Angel. “Magic Realism in Spanish American Fiction.” Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Eds. Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 109-18. Print.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850. New York: Penguin, 1986. Print.

Mann, Thomas. Joseph and His Brothers, Vol. I, The Tales of Joseph. 1936. New York: Knopf, 2012. Print.

Rash, Ron. In the Valley: Stories and a Novella Based on Serena. New York: Doubleday, 2020.

---. Among the Believers. Oak Ridge, TN: Iris Press, 2000. Print.

---. Personal interview with Ron Rash by Randall Wilhelm. Clemson, SC, 27 July 2020. Audio.

Roh, Franz. “Magic Realism.” Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community. Eds. Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy B. Faris. Durham: Duke UP, 1995. 15-33. Print.

Spill, Frédérique. The Radiance of Small Things in Ron Rash’s Writing. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2019. Print.

The Mabinogion. Trans. Sioned Davies. Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2007. Print.

Watson, Jay. William Faulkner and the Faces of Modernity. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2019. Print.

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Notes

1 Di Chirico’s style of painting was eventually termed “Metaphysical,” but his largely empty Italian piazza-scapes with their giant fragments of statuary, ominous shadows, and forlorn towers register a mystery for Roh that “does not descend to the represented world but rather hides and palpitates behind it” (27).

2 In his essay Carpentier makes an essentialist argument where the marvelous is located in a specific place and is “an amplification of perceived reality required by and inherent in Latin American nature and culture . . . where improbable juxtapositions and marvelous mixtures exist by virtue of Latin America's varied history, geography, demography, and politics—not by manifesto” (75).

3 Frédérique Spill’s The Radiance of Small Things in Ron Rash’s Writing is replete with detailed observations and insightful connections between Rash’s work in poetry, short story and novel, and remains the most elucidating account of Rash’s work to date in book length form.

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Pour citer cet article

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Randall Wilhelm, « “A place where all manner of strange occurrences were possible”: The Marvelous Real in Ron Rash’s In the Valley »Journal of the Short Story in English, 74 | 2020, 203-217.

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Randall Wilhelm, « “A place where all manner of strange occurrences were possible”: The Marvelous Real in Ron Rash’s In the Valley »Journal of the Short Story in English [En ligne], 74 | Spring 2020, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2022, consulté le 22 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/jsse/3132

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Auteur

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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