Kentucky Author Silas House takes dystopian turn in ‘Lark Ascending’
By KEVIN NANCE
At first glance, Silas House’s new novel Lark Ascending looks like a radical departure from his previous work. Instead of being set in his native Appalachia or elsewhere in the contemporary South, Lark Ascending is a dystopian novel that unfolds in a post-apocalyptic, all-too-near future, mostly in Ireland.
The premise of the novel — to be published by Algonquin Books on Sep 27 — is terrifying. Wildfires brought on by climate change have left most of the United States a blackened wasteland. War and famine have decimated the population. And what’s left of America is now controlled by religious fundamentalists who, among other things, have stripped women of their rights and made homosexuality punishable by death.
“I wanted to make it as bad as I could, to emphasize where we’re headed,” says House, 51, in an interview at the home he shares with his husband, the writer and editor Jason Kyle Howard, in Lexington. “My two major concerns right now are the climate crisis and the rise of Christian nationalism. As somebody raised evangelical, I’m acutely aware of the good that fundamentalists can do, and the terrible, awful damage they can do. And it really scares me to see them becoming so mainstreamed. In the world of the novel, any kind of queer existence has been outlawed. That might sound extreme, but it’s not out of the question, the way things are going.”
As the novel opens, a young gay man named Lark and his parents embark on a dangerous sea voyage across the Atlantic from Canada to Ireland, which is rumored to be one of the few other countries still accepting American refugees. But after a grief-stricken Lark becomes the sole survivor of the trip, he finds Ireland — devastated by environmental and political crises of its own — far less hospitable than hoped for, with mortal danger lurking on every horizon.
Lark Ascending unexpectedly begins to feel less like a departure from the House canon, and more like a side trip to familiar destinations — the natural world; surviving adversity by finding small moments of hope, wonder, and joy; and above all the search for a chosen family, which arrives for Lark in the form of Helen, a tough, motherly Irishwoman, and Seamus, a beagle who becomes Lark’s boon companion. (Seamus, who takes over the narrative at various points, is based on House’s own beagle Ari, who during our interview made himself briefly available for photographs.)
“At first I thought, ‘This’ll never get published,’ because once you sort of get known for a particular kind of book, a lot of times publishers don’t want to make that hard right turn,” House says.
Algonquin Books executive editor Kathy Pories, who has edited all of House’s adult novels — dating back to Clay’s Quilt (2001), A Parchment of Leaves (2003) and The Coal Tattoo (2004), all set in an Eastern Kentucky community resembling his native Leslie County — quickly saw that the manuscript of Lark Ascending, while different in form, was ultimately classic Silas House.
Pories recalls, “it turns out that Silas can make even a dystopian novel feel familiar. He’s always had a way of creating a sense of community and warmth in his work, and in Lark Ascending, you understand these characters totally.”
Not that the high-concept form and political content of the novel isn’t important to House, who has become increasingly alarmed and vocal about what he sees as rising existential threats to the planet and to American democracy. The emotional roots of the novel are in the grief he felt after the death of a beloved aunt in 2015, which began to deepen the following year after the 2016 election.
“When my aunt died, I realized how transformative grief is — it was a total paradigm shift for me personally,” House says. “Then as I wrote the book starting in 2017, the situation in America was becoming more dire, and I was experiencing grief for my country. I was writing out of that grief for what I felt was the demise of our democracy.”
Lark Ascending is perhaps the beginning of a new, sharper, more explicitly activist period in House’s life and work.
(How to Be Beautiful, a literary/musical collaboration last month with singer Buffy Lawson at the Lexington Public Library was also an all-new take on a coming-of-age story.)
“I think the new novel is a timely response to the anxieties in this country and the world at large,” Howard says. “I’m a believer that artists have to stretch themselves, and writers have a responsibility to themselves as creators, but also to their readers, to expand their palette and stake out new artistic territory. Silas has always been omnivorous and adventurous as a writer, so this new book is a natural progression.”
In the end, Lark Ascending is “an adventure story with a gay man in the lead role,” House says with a smile. “I didn’t know of one, so I wrote it.”
Silas House will discuss and sign ‘Lark Ascending’ on Tue Sep 27 at 7 pm at Joseph Beth Booksellers.
This story appears on page 8 of Ace’s 2022 Annual Fall Guide, now on stands and in mailboxes citywide in Lexington KY.