CULLOWHEE – When Western Carolina University faculty member Brian Railsback traveled to New York City in 1993, he saw firsthand the destruction that occurs when individuals are inspired by their ideologies to commit violence against others.
During that business trip, Railsback visited the World Trade Center site — two days after the first terrorist bombing at that New York landmark.
Now, 11 years later, the central character in Railsback’s new fiction book, “The Darkest Clearing,” also is a man driven by his beliefs to commit extreme violence against others.
Railsback, head of Western’s department of English, has written short stories and is a nationally recognized scholar and author on the works of John Steinbeck. “The Darkest Clearing,” his first novel, was released in January by High Sierra Books, an Oregon publisher, and the book has since garnered favorable reviews in publications such as the Charlotte Observer, Booklist and Midwest Book Review.
The book’s 326 pages tell the story of a character named Eldred Spell, a New York stockbroker who, on the same day, experiences the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and learns of the death of his sister, the only person he has ever cared for, in a fictionalized Yosemite Valley. Spell is compelled to head to the valley to undertake a violent campaign, by the point of a rifle, to rid the valley of the clutter of modern tourism and restore its natural beauty.
The name Eldred Spell is a familiar one on Western’s campus, as there is a real Eldred Spell who teaches in the university’s music department. Railsback received permission to borrow the name of his friend and colleague.
The novel’s other primary character is Eli Ware, a female park ranger in the valley. Ware is struggling to define herself, torn between her desire to work as an interpretive ranger and to be a good wife and mother, and other forces that compel her to work as a ranger who provides law enforcement.
Throughout the book, the two characters’ lives begin to weave together until finally they meet – and they want to kill each other, Railsback said. “In a strange way, they have created the only circumstances through which they will find out who they really are,” he said.
Railsback said the original concept for the book came to him while he was attending a Steinbeck conference in Nantucket, Mass. One of the conference participants told Railsback in conversation that he had been “spiking trees” to protest timber-cutting operations.
“I asked him about the danger that poses for people who process the lumber, and this very sophisticated, professorial and well-dressed guy smiled and said, ‘That’s the chance I take, isn’t it?’” Railsback said.
“It just hit me, and I spent that night walking the streets of Nantucket, thinking about the fact that this is our country’s great unsolvable problem,” Railsback said. “You have one group of people who want to use the land for recreation or to develop it and make money, and the other side wants to preserve it. I wanted to write about that. It’s a battle of will over resources.”
Railsback worked on the book periodically over the ensuing decade, balancing his fiction writing with his duties as a teacher and administrator.
“I meant to write a literary book that had to do with the environment, but once these characters came into play, they took over the novel and it didn’t wind up at all like I expected,” Railsback said. “It’s being described as a literary thriller, or eco-thriller, and that’s not what I thought I was doing when I started.”
Railsback’s book has garnered some good reviews. Midwest Book Review says “The Darkest Clearing” is “dark, dramatic, entertaining, and highly recommended for community library fiction shelves.” A reviewer for the Charlotte Observer said the book “should satisfy readers looking for a thriller with meat on its bones, especially those passionate about wilderness and intrigued by the dark recesses of the human heart.”
With one novel finished, Railsback is in the process of writing two others while continuing work on another longterm project, editing “The John Steinbeck Encyclopedia.”
Railsback will read from “The Darkest Clearing” and sign copies of the book beginning at 7 p.m. Friday, March 12, at City Lights Bookstore in Sylva.