Beyond civilization

A brutal journey into the desert and the monster within

By Brittany Erwin

photo: Frisco, Utah, where the Jacobyites call home in ‘Ghosts of the Desert’; photo: Steven Poelzing

Imagine you are kidnapped by desert-dwelling hermits. You live among them, rob graves together, and even commit murder as you succumb to being a member of this strange family. You feel equally repelled by and at home with this brutal bunch. Will you let go and become one of them? Or, will you escape and return to civilized society? Is such an escape possible after living in this way?

This is the predicament Norman, an anthropologist and the protagonist of Ryan Ireland’s “Ghosts of the Desert,” finds himself in. Norman is an academic traveling on a research grant to study desert ghost towns in Utah. The tribe that kidnaps him—the Jacobyites, named after their charismatic leader, Jacoby—is more terrifying than Norman could have imagined. These characters live off scraps, forego bathing, and dig up rotting corpses. The bodies are kept in Jacoby’s home, a horror house teeming with dismembered body parts, which are disturbingly referred to as merchandise.

The story took root on an unsettling night of camping with Ireland’s sister and family in the deserted town of Frisco, Utah. While exploring the surrounding site, Ireland and his brother-in-law came across a cluster of children’s graves. Suddenly, there was a noise, and a figure emerged from the shadows and asked if they were looking for the boot. Though startled by another human in this isolated place, the man explained that years ago someone found one small golden boot here. “Then this man,” Ireland continues, “this real-life grave-robber, says, ‘And you know what they say about boots.’ So, I’m ready to run, and my brother-in-law (he never met a stranger) he just says to the guy, ‘They come in pairs.’”

Later, a second encounter with the same man inspired the opening pages of the story. Hearing a noise, Ireland emerged from his tent. “There I am…crouching in the desert behind this bush, and this guy, I don’t even know what he’s doing there, he points a rifle right at me.” After a few tense moments, the man put down his gun and drove away. Luckily for readers, Ireland escaped unscathed and lived to tell this tale.

Ireland is from Dayton, Ohio, and earned both his undergraduate and graduate degrees in English from Wright State University and a Ph.D. from Miami University. When asked about his writing process, he responds, “I’m not sitting there physically outlining this will happen, then this, then this. But I am thinking through what I want to happen, usually for about 12-14 weeks. Then, I’m writing.” To ensure he dedicates time to both family and craft, Ryan arises early and gets to work, explaining, “I get up at 4:30 and write. It’s quiet then. The rest of the day is running, making breakfast for the kids.”

How does a family man from Dayton, Ohio, write so vividly about violence in the desert?

“I want people to be uncomfortable reading my books,” he explains. “I want to make them confront ugliness, to put it right there in front of them. The world is a violent place, and we are all perpetrators and victims of that violence.” In the barrenness of the desert, man cannot hide from others or himself.

“Out in the desert, there’s not that self-created structure,” Ireland elaborates. “If you’re living in the desert, you’ve chosen to be there. And it’s a brutal existence and a brutal landscape. People living there—and they still do—they aren’t bathing, they don’t have electricity—these are not people you want to visit. But as a writer, it is exactly where I want to go. I think we need to go there.” The Jacobyites persist because, and in spite of, the desert’s bleakness. To survive requires an ability to unflinchingly utilize the brutal instincts we all possess.

Even Norman, with whom readers at first empathize, is revealed to be a dark character in a series of flashbacks. “Yeah, Norman is meant to be ‘normal’ Norman,” Ireland confirms. “He seems like a normal guy, but really he’s a monster. He really embodies the violence humans, normal humans, inflict on one another.”

The story is as much about Norman confronting his own innate brutality as it is about the visceral, in-your-face violence of the Jacobyites and the desert they call home.

This is part of what makes “Ghosts of the Desert” so compelling. It goes beyond horror and shock value for its own sake. There is something deeper at play here. Themes of memory, civilization, and human’s intrinsic brutality resound throughout. Ireland hopes readers continue thinking about the novel’s themes long after finishing the final page, stating, “Just [keep] thinking about systems of society and civilization that control and shape our lives. To think about that ugliness and violence that is everywhere.”

If you are looking for a psychologically thrilling, viscerally compelling story willing to explore human’s brutal nature in tightly written prose, “Ghosts of the Desert” exceeds all expectations. As Pulitzer-prize winning author Robert Olen Butler states, “This book richly deserves and surely will find a wide, enthusiastic audience.”

‘Ghosts of the Desert’ is available on Amazon.com. Ryan Ireland is an avid cyclist and advocate for libraries and literacy. He recently embarked on a Little Free Library Bike Tour in Cleveland, Ohio, and hopes to create a similar experience here in Dayton. For more information, please visit RyanIreland.com.

 

Reach DCP freelance writer Brittany Erwin at BrittanyErwin@DaytonCityPaper.com.

 

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Reach DCP freelance writer Brittany Erwin at BrittanyErwin@DaytonCityPaper.om

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