“The Gospel of Rot” Is A Surreal, Transcendental Addition to Appalachian Literature

A surreal, mind-bending tale, The Gospel of Rot by Gregory Ariail is the story of Amelia, a 71-year old recluse who finally leaves her home in the North Carolina mountains. Amelia emerges to a nearly deserted world-gone-strange. As she traverses an apocalyptic landscape, she encounters a few strange figures — a neighbor trapped in an apple tree, her doppelganger, and eventually, a dying Sir Walter Scott with whom Amelia explores her new, dystopian world. However, The Gospel of Rot doesn’t carry just another dystopian plotline of the individual against seemingly impossible odds and environmental changes. It is a Dalí painting in words, where sexuality, religion, tradition, and devotion to family merge and swirl to create a new type of Appalachian literature.

Forging The Gospel of Rot is the story of Amelia’s relationship with Elodie, with whom, at 18, Amelia fell desperately in love. Their romance unfolds slowly and passionately, and Elodie brings a world of education, culture, and sophistication to Amelia. However, their relationship not only faces challenges from a society that would never understand or accept them, but also from Elodie’s marriage. The relationship grows even more complicated after Elodie conceives a child, and Amelia and Elodie’s relationship strains and fractures as Elodie places her affections elsewhere. What readers encounter at this point is a prosaic depiction of one young woman’s psychological unraveling. They see young Amelia unravel as her relationship with Elodie ends, and her path to healing is Emersonian as she retreats into nature, a retreat that eventually establishes her path toward a reclusive life on her and her father’s property.

At points like this, The Gospel of Rot dangles Appalachian stereotypes in front of readers only to abolish them. For instance, early in the novel, Amelia establishes that she and her father “believed travel outside of Appalachia, for instance, would not edify the mind.” She advocates, “Close observation of oneself and one’s immediate surroundings is the key to parting the curtains of mystery, however briefly.” These Emerson-like ideas lack everything but the Transcendentalists’ spiritual pursuits through solitude in nature. While Amelia acknowledges that she and her father recognized “the laws of nature can change at any moment,” she subtly criticizes Christianity, and her interpretations of the Virgin Mary may cause some readers discomfort. Nonetheless, those interpretations only facilitate the novel’s surrealism and artistic boundary-pushing.

Of course, one cannot read The Gospel of Rot without noticing the presence of a significant Scottish bard: Sir Walter Scott. As readers progress through the novel’s beginning chapters, they might think that Sir Walter Scott’s writings were the only writings Amelia’s German immigrant father allowed in their house. A sense of Sir Walter Scott fandom perpetuates the father and daughter’s literary existence. Scott becomes a haunting figure later in the novel, when he arrives, babbling nonsensically, in the year 1980. His arrival, too, is a play on Appalachia’s cultural heritage, since its mountains and valleys are areas where early Scottish, Irish, and German settlers flourished, thrived, and established strong lineages. Interestingly, a constant emotion for Scott is homesickness, and he repeatedly begs Amelia to return him to his beloved Scotland, stating that Amelia is “‘an agent of the shadow world’” which he is hesitant to trust. In a moment of surprising gore, Amelia eventually obliges Sir Walter Scott, and it is this moment that solidifies the horror elements in The Gospel of Rot.

Surrealist and horror elements aside, The Gospel of Rot occasionally offers readers a few philosophical respites where they can pause and ponder humanity, religion, nature, and even heritage. For example, the novel offers readers significant space for contemplating death and destruction. Amid the Dalí-esque chaos unfolding around Amelia, she makes observations such as “Maybe everyone that’s gone has been translated into the earth.” This weighty statement makes readers stop and think about their true legacy. At other times, Amelia’s commentary attempts to crack the mysteries surrounding the places humans claim, conquer, steal, and inhabit: “I’ll take them out from time to time to remind me of who I am in foreign lands, and who I am not, to keep my heart honest as a little child’s,” and she reminds readers about the mysterious magnetism these places often hold for those who have left and those who have chosen to stay.

The novel’s sharp prose bears elements of dystopian classics like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and the philosophical and thematic experimentalism of Agustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh. Parts of the novel read like quiet prayers and pleas, while others read like poetically assertive manifestos about individualism and self-determination. The Gospel of Rot has the potential to establish a new, necessary type of Appalachian literature, and it is a book that readers aren’t sure to forget any time soon.

The Gospel of Rot
By Gregory Ariail
Mercer University Press
Published September 6, 2022