Burning Bright by Ron Rash
Text Publishing $30
A dozen short, sometimes very short, stories that will take you only a couple of hours to read but far longer to forget. They're set in the woods and hills of the Appalachians, where isolation and harshness turn many people into survivors or casualties. Think several variations on Winter's Bone.
They range from the Civil War wife who plunges a handle of needles into the heart of an attacker to the pawn-shop owner who cleanses a farmhouse of his nephew and other human litter.
Characters in Rash's quiet, bone-bleak tales endure life rather than live it. "They hadn't lost everything ... but they'd lost enough." A Depression family are reduced to bare feet and "ragged clothes hanging loose on bony frames". The child of methamphetamine-ravaged parents settles himself to die in the snow. A man watches death while he helps loot a Confederate graveyard.
Poverty or crisis strips protagonists of almost everything - except pride. Even a junkie with "stubbed brown ruin" in her mouth still has some self-esteem.
When that pride is threatened, the natural order cracks.
So the stories flicker with violence, which is all the more jolting for being rendered in Rash's flat, understated cadences. A farmer baits a hook to find who is stealing his eggs, and discovers what he never could have imagined. A man follows his wife to her classroom with a knife.
A macabre, menacing spookiness also permeates the narratives. A black beast of prey is half-seen. A "corpse bird" calls from a tree on a new sub-division. Halloween is not to be mocked. One of the most startling features is the grace which even the most brutish characters are capable of. A soldier slips a cross into the mouth of a dead enemy. A dog is killed with a movement both horrifying and lyrical. The blend of dignity and degradation is remarkable.
A dark, yet dazzling small collection, that has you exclaiming aloud with revulsion and admiration.