Maybe anything Ron Rash published after “Serena” would seem pale. Four years later, I can still feel the heat radiating off chapters of that Gothic masterpiece about a timber baron and his rapacious wife. But who could maintain that feverish symphony of blood-soaked mayhem? Once you’ve dared to unleash a Komodo dragon into the North Carolina woods, it’s time to step back and calm down.
Which may explain the relatively tepid demeanor of Rash’s new novel, “The Cove.” A brief prologue offers an appetizer of gore, but what follows is much more subtle. Laurel Shelton, the quiet heroine of this sad tale, has a special fondness for Carolina parakeets — colorful little songbirds that Serena’s pet bald eagle would have ripped apart for fun. (But enough with “Serena”!)
This story takes place in the closing months of World War I in a cursed hollow of the Appalachian Mountains. “There wasn’t a gloamier place in the whole Blue Ridge,” Laurel’s late mother had told her. “The Cherokee had stayed away from the cove, and the first white family to settle here had all died of smallpox.” So far so creepy. This is a place “where ghosts and fetches wandered,” but Laurel lives there with her brother, Hank, who’s returned from the trenches in France with just one hand. Together, they’re trying to get the old 100-acre farm in order before Hank gets married. Yes, in spite of the curses and the ghosts and the rotting bones, a little happiness is about to descend on the cove.
Rash is particularly good at capturing the hazy space where otherworldly phantoms mingle with plain old human meanness. As spooky as the cove feels, Laurel’s real trouble stems from the prejudice of the townsfolk who’ve ostracized her since she was a little girl. A birthmark on her shoulder inspired cruel taunts that eventually got her expelled from school. Now she puts on a brave face, but her reputation as a witch has made her “feel a lavish of aloneness,” as Rash says in the arcane diction that laces this narrative. “Days would pass and Laurel wouldn’t see a single living soul,” he writes. “People avoided her, crossing the street, moving to another barn corner.”
With deep sympathy for her plight, Rash creates a lovely young woman desperate for change, for affection, “for her life to begin.” Despite his facility with monsters and entrails, he can be just as careful handling the hearts of tender, kind people. When Laurel finds a ragged man gravely ill in her woods, she can’t help but imagine their future together. Although he’s mute, he plays the flute so beautifully that “the whole cabin suddenly became less gloamy, as though the music pulled in more light through the windows and chink gaps.”
While those lovebirds tweet away in the cove, Rash breaks away periodically to build up his villain in town. He’s a patsy named Chauncey Feith — perfect name — whose rich daddy got him a safe stateside job as a local recruiter. Puffed up with cheap patriotism and xenophobia, he’s an early version of the wealthy warmongers of our day who bluster about the glories of war, so long as somebody else is doing the fighting. Sgt. Feith is that most dangerous of people: capable of boundless self-delusion but obsessed with the opinions of others. Problem is, Chauncey doesn’t stand a chance in this novel. Rash sets him up as a buffoonish character and exposes all his vain, self-serving thoughts as if gutting a deer.
We’re told that “the cove was a place where only bad things happened,” but for far too many pages hardly anything happens at all. Hank works on the farm; Laurel bakes a pie; Chauncey entertains fantasies of glory; the light drains from the sky and seeps into the dark floor of the woods. I love atmosphere — I’m as fond of good atmosphere as Al Gore — but this big valley needs more to fill it up than proof that Chauncey is arrogant and Laurel is sweet. We can see the sergeant’s eventual confrontation with Laurel’s mute lover from three hollows away.
An accomplished poet as well as an honored fiction writer who’s won the O. Henry Prize twice and come close to winning the PEN/Faulkner Award a couple of times, Rash never lays down a dull or clunky line. But he seems oddly constrained in “The Cove,” determined perhaps to avoid the dramatic excess of “Serena.” When a novel opens with skulls and witches, though, it’s got to give us more than parakeets and moonshine for 200 pages, or we’re liable to think the author is a tease.
Only at the very end do these pages ignite, and suddenly we’re racing through a conflagration of violence that no one seems able to control except Rash. The plans of evil men are just as brittle as the dreams of good ones, and we’re left trying to catch our bearings on a landscape completely transformed. It’s all here in the last 20 pages — vicious and shocking — but that’s too long to wait. If you want an imperiled young woman looking for love in these mountains, walk over to “Nightwoods,” Charles Frazier’s tense little novel from last year.
Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
Ecco. 255 pp. $26.99