Russell Kirk was born in 1918 in Plymouth, Michigan to a relatively modest family. He died in 1994, but between birth and death, he became arguably the foremost American theorist on Conservatism in his time. He wrote lots of books on political theory, but he also wrote ghost stories. I have a copy of his collection Ancestral Shadows.
Kirk spent time in Scotland as a student at St Andrews and with a name like Kirk, he had some Scottish ancestry. A few of his stories are set in Kinross and Fife and others in England. He loved tradition and from his stories you see that he had respect for traditional spiritual values of Christianity.
One of his first acclaimed stories was Behind the Stumps, and that’s why I’ve chosen to read it.
This story has a lovely structure. First we get a description of Pottawattomie County. Then we learn how the government want to tax the folk there. Kirk was deeply conservative and disliked government, which comes out in the story. Next we get a detailed and well-drawn picture of Cribben, the tax enumerator. When that’s all done we set off to Bear City.
Kirk paints nice portraits of the characters. We have Cribben of course but then the genial Matt Heddle as postmaster. Heddle is generally well-treated by Kirk, though he does say a couple of nasty things about him. Love the alcoholic hasn’t much of a role but we can picture him. Both Heddle and Love in their way are telling Cribben not to mess with the Gholsons.
Love gives information about Cribben’s nemesis, though Cribben doesn’t listen. He’s too proud. Like all moral tales, he won’t mend his ways and therefore will be punished.
There is an encounter with the main Gholson man in the street, who appears awful, but even he tells Cribben not to go near, specially on a Sunday and that foreshadows what Cribben is going to get. It also gives us the knowledge that Cribben’s heart is weak. This is to prepare us for the final scene so we understand how it happens.
In the bleak scrubland which is reminiscent of Lovecraft’s ideas of the badlands of rural America where strange things go on since time immemorial. This is a folk-horror theme that we see in The Wicker Man, the Blood on Satan’s Claw, Witchfinder General and the recent Midsommar.
He walks through the woods rather than taking the road. Usually that’s a sign that something bad will happen. You shouldn’t depart from well-trodden ways! But it doesn’t really. But he sees the house on the hill “indefinably mutiltated’.
All the Gholsons, all the cats, hens etc, are absent from the farm.
Some strange energy or power emanates from the farm where the old witch is housed undying. The young peasant girl watching is started by Cribben. I’m not sure what she represents, but I may be being slow here. Is it that the Gholsons themselves fear the house so they watch it? I guess that’s it.
He looks at the house and sees that it is very odd. But he pays no heed.
And then, fools rush in and Cribben enters the farm and you know what happens, all lovingly set up by Kirk for us to go aaah! to at the end.
I guess that the old mother, who has no name, and who is neither dead nor alive is some kind of archetype. She is the devouring and life-giving mother (see how fertile the farm is). She’s very fat — again to to with nurture. They’re terrified of her but fascinated. It’s all very Jungian.
Don’t dream about this stuff. It’s unhealthy.
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