Ah, the ’60s. Girls with flowers in their hair. Quaaludes and Dexedrine. Free love and Jefferson Airplane. And finally, of course, murder. Murder by Charles Manson and his minions, the murder of MLK. Or the murder in Ron Rash’s chilling novel, The Risen. The slippery slope from liberty to catastrophe has seldom been so well depicted.
In North Carolina, adolescent brothers Eugene and Bill come across a mermaid-like young woman swimming. Hailing from Florida, Ligeia wants to introduce them to grooviness. Soon she seduces the virginal Eugene and presses him to raid her grandfather’s pill stash. Then she goes missing. Five decades later, local authorities exhume her and rule her death a homicide.
The novel thus becomes the community’s quest to determine the killer. Eugene by now is an alcoholic and a failure. But older brother Bill remains married and has a medical practice. Rash manipulates the reader’s prejudices about the likely culprit. Is it the hapless wastrel or the pillar of the community, trained to cut throats?
“Four things can destroy the world,” wrote Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian. “Three of them are women, whiskey and money.” The Risen attempts to corroborate this. Ligeia gets Eugene started on alcohol, is careless about sex, and presses him for money. The two boys’ vulnerability to this is plausible. Ligeia is less rounded; she seems a throwaway understudy for Eve.
Yet Rash holds your attention and keeps you guessing. By its end, the novel stands as a parable for the freewheeling ’60s and its backlash. In Ligeia’s murder, we see writ small the murders at Kent State and countless others.
On another level, the novel is a story of how we all lose the dangerous paradise of innocence. It is also a fine portrait of rural North Carolina at a time when it was still remote. Written in simple prose, it is bound to have a wide audience—even among readers for whom the 1960s feel as distant as the Civil War.