Nearly half of Ron Rash’s mesmerizing new story collection is devoted to the eponymous “In the Valley,” a sequel to his 2008 novel “Serena.” If you’ve read that book, you surely remain haunted by its mythic powers. Nominally the Depression-era story of a North Carolina logging heir who returns home from Boston with a daunting new bride, it invested the power-mad Serena Pemberton with otherworldly malign qualities and gave her a big swath of North Carolina’s Appalachian logging country to despoil.
Serena herself, ruling the region on her white Arabian stallion with a trained eagle and lasso for emphasis, cut a bloodcurdling figure. A tall, blond goddess with the heart of Lady Macbeth, she seemed to terrorize every living thing in her path. She hoped to ravage the landscape both economically and physically, with a few human grudge matches for good measure. Her ambition was tamped down in “Serena” only by the fact that through most of the book she wasn’t technically the boss but his wife, no matter how intimidating.
Serena steps off a seaplane into “In the Valley,” returning to her North Carolina logging tract followed by a press contingent. The year is 1931. Any answers about her husband’s death or that of the local advocate for a national park? Does she plan to pay fair wages? The only question she deigns to answer is from a young woman: When will she ever be satisfied? “When the world and my will are one,” Serena answers, reminding the reader that she is a pure Aryan dream.
“In the Valley” is a full-throated cry for help against her brand of ruthlessness. As the locals watch Serena’s eagle kill rattlesnakes for threat and sport, they get an inkling of what she has in mind for everything in sight. All the snakes go wild. The increasing number of tree stumps make “the land look poxed, as if infected by some dread disease.” Rash includes passages solely devoted to related species of wildlife fleeing this doomed place. They are among the least eerie parts of the novella, since the natural world’s survival skills are relatively drama-free. Humans fare worse.
“In the Valley” takes Serena to such a fever pitch of destruction that in a lesser writer’s hands it might seem overheated. But Rash maintains the deep keel that has always distinguished him and has perhaps led to him being characterized as “Southern,” a designation he apparently finds dismissive. He shouldn’t; he’s one of the best living American writers, and his laconic understatement is much more powerful than excess. There’s nothing rash about Rash. The way that influenza deaths figure in “In the Valley” is as terrifying as anything you may find on the subject, even if its crescendo is: “By the time he got the doctor, it was too late. His family was nothing more than three filled coffins.”
The novella’s minor characters, human and otherwise, are all drawn with exceptional care. That’s also true in the nine other stories in this slim volume, though some are very short. “Ransom” amounts to an extended vignette, but it captures the chemistry between a well-off college student and the man who abducts her, hoping to make only one kind of killing. The unexpected happens, as it always does with this author. And these two turn out to be just simpatico enough to leave the captive with a memory guaranteed to endure.
“Ransom” is a new story. Others in the collection have appeared in places as varied as “Best American Short Stories 2018” and the literary review Bitter Southerner (which is ironically named and well worth looking into). The opening piece, a beauty, even found its way into “Best American Mystery Stories 2019” for its way of pitting exhausted Civil War troops against a woman defending her homestead. It’s called “Neighbors.” And it revolves, as so much of Rash’s work does, around secrets held deep within Southern hearts.
The most haunting and darkly funny of these is “The Baptism,” a story that begins and ends with shotguns. The reason for the firepower: Jason Gunter, well-known ne’er-do-well and terrible husband, who is working up to his second marriage. His first wife either hanged herself or disappeared, depending on whom you ask in the rural spot where the story unfolds. One person who wouldn’t like to be asked: Reverend Yates, who knows that Jason intends his next wife to be a very young girl.
What’s more, Jason wants a baptism for this fresh start. In the dead of winter. Given Jason’s track record for marriage there are no enthusiasts for this, but Jason will not be denied. Let’s just say that he gets the exact baptism he deserves and that Reverend Yates’s secret is one he can happily live with forever.