"Something Rich and Strange" (Ecco), by Ron Rash
For those unfamiliar with the beautiful and searing short stories of Ron Rash, "Something Rich and Strange" is a generous, well-timed introduction.
Rash's stories tell in crisp, gripping prose the emotional travails of life on the Appalachian outback from Civil War days through the Great Depression, the Vietnam War and encroaching modern urban plagues. All 12 of the stories previously collected in "Burning Bright" (2010) are included in this new collection, as are most of those in "Nothing Gold Can Stay" (2013) and many of those from his other highly praised books over the past 20 years.
It's a near-comprehensive collection of the best of Rash's short fiction, a real boon to readers new to this Southern writer of the first rank.
A poet and novelist as well as a master of the short story, Rash is releasing "Something Rich and Strange" almost simultaneously with the publication of "The Ron Rash Reader" by the University of South Carolina Press. Edited by Randall Wilhelm, it offers a look at an additional range of Rash's poetry and prose.
Then there's "Serena," Rash's best-selling 2008 novel. It is the basis of a movie released this fall and starring Jennifer Lawrence as Serena, the sultry, scheming siren of the haunted Appalachian highlands.
Rash, who teaches at Western Carolina University, has won literary acclaim but, with the exception of the novel "Serena," has remained mostly off the national radar. That's not unusual for short story writers, but Rash has written stories worthy of our best American anthologies.
The first story in this new collection, "Hard Times," is a good example. It is unsparing and unforgettable. Like a simply framed Depression-era snapshot, it burns in the memory, but wrenches the heart even more painfully.
Rash's short tales from Civil War days resonate with a human dimension both poignant and fearsome. Among these, "Where the Map Ends" is about two runaway slaves: One is older with hair "close-cropped, like gray wool stitched above a face dark as mahogany," the other a teen with "a lighter complexion, the color of an oft-used gold coin" and hair with "curls tinged red." These differing shades will map their fate.
Among stories set in more current times, "Into the Gorge" tracks the loss of innocence as well as property as a man's homestead of the 1900s is leveled for gated communities, while "Chemistry" is a glimpse into a mentally distraught schoolteacher's struggle to find spiritual peace at a snake-handling Pentecostal church in the mountains. Both are powerful and beautifully told.
The scourge of meth is an element of destruction in some of Rash's stories. These are not always among his best, but one exception is "The Ascent." In it, a lonely boy stumbles upon a small airplane that crashed in snowy woods. He is in flight from drug-sick parents who have wrecked his home. Inside the plane, inside the home, more discoveries will unfold.
"Something Rich and Strange" is filled with many more such chilling and revelatory stories, all with a well-earned place on any bookshelf.