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Moonrise by Cassandra King

First Wife, Second Wife, Green-eyed Monster

February 25, 2014  |  4:55pm
<i>Moonrise</i> by Cassandra King

Where does a fiction writer get ideas?

Imagine she rents a historic summer house in the Blue Ridge Mountains and comes across its eerily beautiful, but neglected garden—a garden that only blooms at night.

Imagine that this writer stumbles over a strange circle of stones that marks the grave of the previous owner, the lady of the house.

Now, picture this writer with a favorite book in her hand—Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, published 75 years ago, a classic telling of a second wife and her older husband living in a menacing house that had been in his family for generations.

Suppose the writer wanders through the dark corridors of the rented house, taking on the mindset of a second wife who surely must have questions about holding her own against a dead woman. What was the first wife like—beautiful, wealthy, self-assured?

Then conjure du Maurier’s themes in Rebecca: jealousy and envy. You have wonderful fodder for a story. More than that, you have the origins and the story for Moonrise, the very seductive novel by Cassandra King.

Daphne du Maurier wrote in her notes about her novel, Rebecca: “Very roughly, the book will be about the influence of a first wife on a second, until wife 2 is haunted day and night… a tragedy is looming very close and crash! Bang! Something happens.”

In Moonrise, as in Rebecca, we have allusions to this “something,” from the first page, and it keeps a reader turning to the next, and the next, to discover more about King’s fictional “first wife,” Rosalyn, along with hidden secrets of hatred, adultery and deceit.

Rebecca has long been viewed as a classic tale of deception and betrayal. It presents serious flaws in upper-class society and lays open the struggle between good and evil within the individual. It’s also a lot like a Lifetime Movie … even a soap opera.

Moonrise? It’s similar. The second wife in this book, Helen Honeycutt, falls in love with Emmet Justice, a charismatic television journalist who has recently lost his wife in a tragic accident. Their sudden marriage creates a rift between new husband and his oldest friends, who resent Helen’s intrusion into their tightly knit circle. Hoping to mend fences, the newlyweds join Emmett’s group for a summer at the late wife’s family home in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Helen soon falls under the spell not only of the little mountain town and its inhabitants, but also of Moonrise, her predecessor’s Victorian mansion, named for its unique but now sadly neglected nocturnal gardens. That spell, though, doesn’t work much magic; the harder Helen tries to fit into the town and Emmett’s circle, the more obvious it becomes that Helen will never measure up to the woman she replaced. Meanwhile, someone clearly aims to drive her away … but who? And why?

Moonrise unfolds through first-person points of view from three characters: Helen, the victim of jealousy. Tansy, out to override Helen at every turn. And Willa, a fixed, coherent influence on the entire group.

The novel begins with Helen—cautious, unsure of herself among the friends, yet mesmerized by Moonrise. Her first words feel fearful:

I sit up with a start, my heart pounding. A noise like the scraping of a chair against the wooden floor wakes me, and for a brief moment, I have no idea where I am…Every night that we’ve been here, I’ve had disturbing dreams, or been awakened by strange noises. Even the wind rustling through the treetops sounds like someone calling my name.

By the end of Moonrise, Helen’s no longer trying to be someone she isn’t; she finds strength in who she is. Like the neglected Moon Garden and the parched mountain long without water, Helen must persist, survive, struggle to be renewed.

Tansy, a backbiter and one of two jealous women in the old group of friends, poses the question that permeates the novel:

Will we ever know what really happened on the night Rosalyn died?...Driving so late on dangerous, curvy roads was completely out of character for her. Until that fateful night, she had never done such a foolish thing. It torments me, and always will: Why did Rosalyn come to Moonrise so impulsively, and what on earth scared her away once she got there?

Look for Tansy to find the answer, one that shines full light on the foul, green-eyed repercussions of jealousy.

King’s character Willa offers a lone dose of sunlight in the darkness of envy and hypocrisy. Though a housekeeper to the privileged group, she’s an authentic, caring person able to hold her own in the presence of haughtiness. She evokes respect from all.

Linc motions to me, and I scramble over to the rock next to his walker-seat. Bless his heart, his skinny white arms and legs look like matchsticks, and I make up my mind then and there to get him out in the sun more. We walk in the garden every afternoon, but stick mostly to the shade because he’s so pale. I should know better; Momma used to say there wasn’t much wrong with anybody or anything that a dose of sunlight wouldn’t cure.

Consider Moonrise as classic Southern Gothic. King’s handling of characters, however, feels less heavy than that of other authors, like William Gay or Wiley Cash, writing in the genre. King even ascribes some kindness to certain characters in Moonrise, evil as some of them appear to be. I think she understands them as fallible human beings. (Aren’t we all? Don’t we often think only of ourselves and how to “best” another?)

The greatest foreboding element of King’s novel doesn’t happen to be human at all, but natural—the looming mountains, a devastating summer drought, a picturesque but unpredictable lake, and the once-gorgeous, now-abandoned Moon Garden. Yet even there, we find beautiful exceptions—butterflies, life-affirming and thoroughly appreciated by Willa and Linc. The latter character, incidentally, may be the only honestly magnanimous member of the old group of friends, a kind of butterfly himself who provides Willa an opportunity to dwell on something beautiful.

Many times through the years, I’ve visited the same enchanting Blue Ridge area of Cashiers and Highland, N.C., where this novel takes place. Cassandra King also hails from my neck of the woods in south Alabama, so I can assume we’ve breathed the same air, heard the same dialects and admired the same gutsy, “good country people.” Her book feels very authentic to me, especially its undercurrent of jealousy, that sad, human frailty that occurs in most of us, regardless of social status.

When du Maurier published Rebecca in 1938, readers flooded bookshops to discover its dark nature. The novel endures as du Maurier’s masterpiece.

I submit that Moonrise will similarly be remembered for its exposition of dark secrets, its sense of atmosphere and suspense, its romance (and sometimes light-hearted dialogue) and its lessons to be learned in facing … and overcoming … jealousy, envy and fear.

Here’s good work.

Kaye Park Hinckley is author of A Hunger in the Heart, published by Tuscany Press in 2013, and the forthcoming short story collection, Birds of a Feather, to be published by Wiseblood Books in 2014. She writes a daily blog, Translating a World on the Edge.

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