“The Gospel of Rot” by Gregory Ariail

When deciding to review a book I try to avoid blurbs, other reviews, or anything that may influence my review. I’ll read the author’s bio or visit their website, but initially I prefer to select a book based on the author’s synopsis. So, when I read the back of The Gospel of Rot (Mercer University Press, 2022), and I saw the novel described with terms such as “Southern Gothic, Biblical apocrypha, heterodoxy, mysticism,” and all set in Appalachia, my interest was more than slightly piqued. This book is 173 pages long. How can a book under 200 pages pack all that in? I promise it does. The Gospel of Rot is so unique and fantastical, it possibly deserves its own genre. I decided upon Appalachian Surrealism. I wish I could say I coined this genre; alas, I did not. However, the movement tends to focus on visual art rather than literature. For me, the effect is the same and Ariail illustrates a dystopic, dreamlike world steeped with allusions to Appalachian culture, folklore, history, stereotypes, isolationism, and mysticism. Like the great Surrealist artists Salvador Dali or René Magritte, who juxtaposed illogical bizarre images against each other, Ariail reminds the reader that the Appalachian experience is more complicated and varied than how it is often portrayed. So, along with references to well-established stereotypes found in Appalachia—like the famous goat man or the region’s connection to Scottish and Irish heritage—there are also classic images of artwork like Martin Schongauer’s oil painting of The Mystic Hunt of the Unicorn and universally iconic images of the nursing Virgin Mary.

 The Gospel of Rot is the sort of book that will draw you down some very deep rabbit holes, a labyrinth of rabbit holes. When I initially started reading Ariail’s debut novel—I am still stunned this is his debut—I jumped right in, determined to make sense of the all the religious and mystical allusions and I went a little mad in this pursuit. Maybe, that’s the point! But for an initial read, the prose and imagery are just too sublime not to let go and enjoy the ride. Alongside the bizarre Ariail captures the sheer beauty of this region. For instance, Amelia visits the bridge over the Chattooga River and takes in its splendor: “Veils of water flowed across boulders. The river boiled and dove headlong into cavities, the rapids, like white-maned horses with green bodies shattering against the rocks. Mica-rich sand glittered beneath the green rush, which sent gusts of cold air up to my face.” I decided to give in to Ariail’s language and vivid imagination, allowing Amelia Hollwede, his hermit, protagonist character, to guide me.

The narrative begins with Amelia transcribing her father Emil’s last words into her journal—an elegy to him. Next, she discovers a carving of the Virgin Mary suspended on a cross her father bequeathed to her. She decides to give the Virgin Mary a chance and goes on a quest searching for clues and pursuing the mysteries of the world. For the first time in fifty years, she ventures beyond Amelia’s World where she has lived as a hermit with her immigrant photographer father. Using her father’s photos as a guide to explore and understand his world, she travels from the safety and seclusion of Amelia’s World. She retraces the key places and moments of her youth and tells the story of a young Amelia in love with another woman, Elodie McWaters Fenton.

Amelia encounters strange characters and experiences odd events—an orchardist neighbor who has transcended into an apple tree, a younger version of herself, Sir Walter Scott, the Madonna of Carolina, extreme weather conditions, and a fractured reality. Yet she also finds a world abandoned. Everyone has simply vanished without any sign of a war, a pandemic, or a natural disaster. Amelia’s experience is not unlike Rip Van Winkle’s in Washington Irving’s short story. Rip also fell asleep for a long period of time and awakened to a changed world. The difference is Amelia’s sleep is figurative; Rip’s is literal. Rip is lazy and desires to be rid of his nagging wife. Amelia, on the other hand, loses her first and only love, Elodie. Fueled by her shame for loving a woman and being exposed for her queerness, she sinks into a deep depression. The narrative time when Amelia comes out of her self-imposed isolation is 1980. A lesbian in love with a married pregnant woman in the 1920s would have been taboo and unheard of in Amelia’s remote town in the North Carolina mountains. Another similarity to Irving’s tale is the “magical” mountain setting. Rip resides in the Catskills Mountains and Amelia lives in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The undertones of the famous Rip Van Winkle legend, coupled with allusions to regional myths like the little people of Cherokee lore, give The Gospel of Rot the effect of itself being a folktale, though a very unusual one.

Amelia’s reaction to her peculiar new world is one of curiosity more than of fear. After all, she has lived with only her father and his collection of dolls. These, she explains to Sir Walter Scott, were not for witchcraft, but “…gave a sense of community to the household and made things less lonely.” Sir Walter Scott certainly adds a level of lighthearted humor to the novel. Emil was a huge fan of his work and while Amelia also appreciates his work, she is not pleased to share an apocalyptic world with him. She ponders the “new bead on my fate’s rosary,” and wonders if she had followed the cult of the Virgin Mary as her father had, would she then “have been whisked away by some Rapture?” She contemplates if everyone “has met their gods,” why of all people should she be stranded with the “sweaty, rambling Sir Walter?” The reader might muse on his presence as well. Ariail explains that Sir Walter Scott is “time-stranded,” and his journey to Amelia’s World from Scotland is fantastically written, but I believe Sir Walter Scott fills a space much like Emil’s dolls did. He is a false companion, a friend for the hermit’s mind. Amelia’s isolation was not just that of space but of intellect.Her exposure to literature was dictated by her father’s likes and dislikes.

The Gospel of Rot, especially towards the end, feels as though you are entering the painting First Study for the Madonna of Port Lligat by Salvador Dali. Ariail seems to play into the fractured image of the Madonna—the 1949 version of this painting as opposed to the 1950’s version where the Madonna’s head and arms are not split. While Ariail’s imagery may create a parallel visual effect as this famous Surrealist painting has and both the painting and Ariail’s narrative are steeped in religious symbolism, the comparison ends there. Ariail’s narrative is a bold study on desecration, of breaking down established religious truths to allow to Amelia find her own truth. Emil tells Amelia on his deathbed that “If we cannot believe together as we have lived together, then a fracture will spread through eternity, and we may not meet again.” Amelia becomes the ultimate heroine at the end, but she must do it on her own. In that way, she creates the fissures in eternity by challenging Christian faith and tradition, thereby freeing herself from the emotional and physical prison that entrapped her.

 The Gospel of Rot is one of those novels you could read multiple times and uncover something new and intriguing each time. Though I ultimately could not resist researching some of Ariail’s allusions, it is subjective. You could read this novel for the sheer pleasure of its prose, its imagery, its symbolism, an examination of faith, traditions, stereotypes, for its genre-bending or as experimental fiction, or simply for the pleasure of Ariail’s intimate connection to his Appalachian setting. Perhaps before you embark on your reading, follow the advice Amelia gave herself early into her adventure: “Keep going,” I told myself, “At some point the unravelling of reality has to stop or you’ll catch a flying thread. Your mind is sturdy enough to withstand these onslaughts of the unknown.” Gregory Ariail is an author to watch.

Gregory Ariail’s first novel, The Gospel of Rot, was published by Mercer University Press in 2022. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The CommonIndiana ReviewCutBankLit Hub, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He earned graduate degrees from Oxford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, where he currently teaches. In 2019, he thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.



  1. Very good review, now I want to read the book!!! Thank you

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