Reading Ervin D. Krause’s ‘You Will Never See Any God: Stories’

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Krause (Left) with brother, Gerald (Right)

The boy felt a shudder—it was not the air and the wisps of drizzle. He knew what it was—there was evil here. He had a swift recognition of the evil of something warped, the terror of darkness and the strange; he had felt it before, on cold lightning-fired nights, in the chill of the church on Sunday mornings, on entering an unlighted barn. This had always held a secret terror for him, for he went much to Sunday school and church, and he had heard much of evil, had known it to be rampant and secret, and it had always been hidden secretly from him, behind bannisters on stairs, in the darkness of doorways at church, behind corners cringing in barns, in the dank, tree-overhung lagoons that were nursed with bad water and a stench down along the river. It had always been a secret terror for him before, but now it was here, very near to him; he could look up and see the heavy, mudded shoetops of the neighbor with that face strange, carved as if from red and rotted wood with the purple, bloodless leer and the red-rimmed, gouged eye.

—Ervin D. Krause, You Will Never See Any God: Stories (“The Right Hand”)

Once all but forgotten, writer Ervin D. Krause, the son of a Midwestern tenant farmer, ranked among the best short story writers in the country in the early 1960s. Championed by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Karl Shapiro, then editor of Prairie Schooner, Krause’s work was reprinted in both the O. Henry Prize and Best American Short Stories anthologies, sharing space with luminaries like Flannery O’Connor, John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates. At a time when American literature was still heavily preoccupied with the beatniks — the breathless bebop of Kerouac, Burroughs’ cut-ups and more — Krause wrote hopeless stories in gimmick-less prose, stories that open doors only to slam them shut, stories as dusty as a November cornfield and populated with the characters of his childhood.

As Carson Vaughn says it Krause’s stories evoke a grim determinism more in line with the naturalists of decades prior, a cold reality mimicked by a “frigid sun” or a farmstead “abandoned and gray.” “None of his characters finds peace, none finds a sanctuary of comfort, all find failure and defeat,” Krause wrote in the introduction to his 1957 master’s thesis, “The Three Views of John Dos Passos.” The same could have been written about Krause’s stories themselves, their tone pessimistic, skewing always toward a harsh and unrelenting realism.

I’ve barely begun reading these stories, but already their dipping me in that ancient loam of darkness surrounding us, an abyss of primal worlds that seep into ours every night in the realms of nightmare. And, yet, his stories also touch base with an older world of humanity in the early Agricultural realms of the Icelandic Sagas, a realism that pits humans within a mythology of the elemental earth and its organic cycles. A place we have tried to forget in our urban worlds of artificiality. Krause would remind us that beyond the glitter of the night skies of the great skyscrapers lies another world, the realm of stars and evil energy arising not from some transcendent realm of gods, but rather closer to home in the very soil of our climatic earth where all civilizations have always found their fatal outcomes from womb to tomb.

One perceives this in stark terms as the boy from the short story I quoted in the beginning, ‘The Right Hand’ watches the neighbor farmer as he tries to nurse a young calf back to health whose front forelegs to the nib were gnawed off by his hogs:

After two days the calf would not eat anymore and even then somehow it managed to stand, its sides transparent against the toothpick, tiny-slat ribs, and it wandered thus, falling and rising and floundering in the dust of the yard, like some mad tormented creature, driven by something inexplicable and terrible, seeking to hide in the shade of the plum brush, but always falling and being drawn in the wrong direction, wandering, mad and awful, disfigured and torn, yet somehow, madly, relentlessly living, driven like its master to live, in spite of the want for death, until at last it did die, with even the last death motion feeble, and the calf bellow only a gurgle in the quivering throat, and in the evening when the dust had cooled and Stark came back in from the fields, he took the calf and carried it up the pasture hill and buried it.

This sense of the life force at work in the calf, the blind need to exist, to move, to live. Schopenhauer would see in this physical enactment the power of the will. He’d teach us that through both first and third person perspectives we can by way of self-awareness, by peeling away its layers of meaning, we will inevitably come to the conclusion that the inner essence of things is nothing less than the will. Schopenhauer’s first step toward that conclusion is a simple distinction between two forms of self-knowledge. I know myself as an individual, he explains, through my body, which makes me just this individual and no other. But I know this body in two ways or from two perspectives (I. 157; P 100). I can view it from an external or third-person perspective, where it appears as one object among others; but I can also view it from an internal or first-person perspective, where it is the single, unique object of my self-consciousness. Schopenhauer stresses that these two modes of knowing ourselves are utterly distinct from one another. They are two incommensurable perspectives upon one and the same thing: namely, my body (I. 161; P 103).1

Krause in his vision of evil would see this will to live, this Schopenhauerian energy and drive to exist as a part of the fatal evil of existence, not some metaphysical evil of external devils, etc., but rather the inherent drive of life in its will to exist, to remain, to blindly keep on struggling. In the story the boy learns the difference between actual and metaphysical evil in life and the physical world, and that the two are twain, divided, different.

As Krause relates of the boy, in his mind the farmer was evil for wanting to help the young calf survive. Because of his Christian belief system, taught by his Mama and the Sunday school he is mixed in his views of the natural and metaphysical. Here is his reception of Stark:

After that the boy had even a deeper terror of and hatred for Stark. It was not because of the calf; he had no sympathy for it, for he had seen suffering, he had witnessed agony and seen the dumb struggling eyes of animals in pain, and he had grown used to it, had felt nothing at seeing death—no, that was not it—it was that Stark could want something so misshapen, so awful around, and would want to make it live.

The boy’s sense of evil, taught by his Old Testament knowledge of Cain and the Mark, etc., makes him see evil in this metaphysical light: “The boy wanted to destroy the calf the first time he saw it because it was so badly disfigured, just as he had calmly destroyed ducklings with misshapen beaks and pigs that were born with their guts outside themselves. That which was misshapen and marked was evil, was not natural, and needed to be destroyed, and he felt a shudder run through him, remembering how Stark wanted to keep the animal alive.”

So that the boy imposes an evil on things and animals that are not part of the farmer’s life and being, a metaphysical imposition that rakes across the world a fear and trepidation of all things scarred and misshapen. At the heart of the story is the birth mark on the old farmer Stark himself, whose face is seen in the early description:

The birthmark pulled the lips crooked, made them seem open, even if they were not, made them look dead with that deep-purple, bloodless, blooded color. It was the purple of something dead—the purple on dead horses’ heads before the rendering truck or hogs come to them. The boy stared at this face, the face reflecting the sorrow and the sufferings of lifetimes, a face with the mark of Cain perhaps, or just of the man’s parents; it was a face with that naked hurting look of a burn or a brand healing and yet never quite healed, always inflamed and sensitive and sore; it was a face of terror and of bad dreams, giving to anyone who saw it a weird and evilfearing anxiety.

The boy raised up on Old Testament horrors and tales sees pain and suffering everywhere, as if these were signs of evil and punishment. While Krause himself portrays the farmer as just a man living in the elements of his world of earth and soil, a man who does what such men do, not bothered by such metaphysical fictions but rather existing in a world without gods or such mind bending tales that warp the psyche beyond repair. I want spoil the tale for you with the ending, just to say that in the end we discover that the evil has all along resided not in the Old Farmer, Stark, but in the boy who has impose upon the world what lies only deep in his own Bible bound metaphysical mind, an evil that has shaped his psychopathic psyche and being, twisting it beyond all telling…

Yet, if there is an epiphany in this short story, it comes not by some sublime enlightenment, rather it comes in the very moment of the common, of the dull, of the truth of our shared lives. The boy who has been working his way up to sneak into the old farmer’s house while he is out and about, thinking in his devious boy’s heart that there must be some hideous evil lying in wait within those four walls, enters the farmer’s domain only to find no real evil other than loss. The boy comes into the old man’s bedroom and finds nothing more in it than a few pictures with memories:

 In the picture, too, were a boy and a girl, the boy younger, both plain, vacant-faced children, like any other boy and girl. And on the picture, written very faintly, but carefully, too, as if it had been written a long time before, above the man’s head were the words “Ezra Stark, Sr., died 1938,” and above the woman’s “Mathilda Stark, died 1943,” and “Carl” beside the boy, and “Harriet” beside the girl. He did not know why the picture was there, and he did not really care.

This moment of the realization: “The boy surveyed the room again. He was genuinely disappointed. He had expected something of a purpose perhaps, overwhelming and evil, a mad old woman, an opium den, a room full of glowering icons, but instead there was only the single dull picture.” And, yet, it is this singular object, this ‘dull picture’ that holds the key to the story, the memories and history of a man, alone, a man who has seen his father, his mother, his wife and children all die before him; a man who will seek to keep alive the things of the earth and soil that are his charge for as long as it takes, a man whose memories and keepsakes are all he is and has…

And, a boy, who is beyond that ability to see just this and, instead, sees nothing there at all but a dull old picture that means nothing. The boy not even adult has already entered into that nihilistic world through the very power of a darkened Biblical vision that has hooked his psychopathic heart, lured him into a world where memories and feelings no longer exist. Only his mission to discover and wipe out evil like some inquisitorial ambassador from an earthly hell…

I’ll not say another word on that story… you will need to read it. Krause’s stories may not be for everyone. His dark vision of life and our ruinous ways is part of what quickens me to write of him. Like Flannery O’Conner there is a deep-seated vision and moral power there in these works, but not one that is pervaded by ancient religious consciousness but rather by something older, darker, and more powerful springing up from the very core of the inhuman earth. His is a violent and twisted world full of weird and at last ghastly figures, at once macabre and horrific, and yet within that is still this sense of a code of being that knows the ways of earth and the elements, the patterns of the stars and fate; and, as well the freedom of decisions and retroactive thought that challenges the deterministic threads that would weave us into some death bound universe of lifelessness. For him evil is not in the world so much as it is the terror filled power of our own mind’s to hide from the truth of the world.

Krause’s posthumous work is out finally in book form: You Will Never See Any God.

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  1. Beiser, Frederick C.. Weltschmerz: Pessimism in German Philosophy, 1860-1900 (Kindle Locations 1061-1066). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

On Another Note I’m Reading Ace Atkins, Quinn Colson Country noir Series

This week spending time reading Ace Atkins Quinn Colson series about an ex-Ranger who returns home from war and gets involved in his hometown’s problems situated in Tibbehah County, Mississippi. Reading the first one in the series The Ranger, which true to Country noir form descends from both Faulkner and the hard-boiled world of Hammett. In The Ranger the main character returns from numerous missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, rides into town (in a pickup, of course) to find a Tibbehah County corrupted by methamphetamine peddlers and out-of-control greed, and his uncle, the sheriff, shot dead in a questionable suicide.

Other books in the series look exciting as well. Ace lives in Oxford, Mississippi with his family, where he’s friend to many dogs and several bartenders. A former newspaper reporter and SEC football player, Ace also writes essays and investigative pieces for several national magazines including Outside and Garden & Gun.

Check out his site, here: http://www.aceatkins.com/

Eudora Welty – A Dark Epiphany

Under the flicker of the sun’s licks, then under its whole blow and blare, like an unheard scream, like an act of mercy gone, as the wall-less light and July blaze struck through from the opened sky, the mirror felled her flat.

—Eudora Welty, The Burning

Something about the cadence in the sentence above, the reverberation and underlying beat and tempo, the subtle repetition — and, a death march quality rare in its inevitability seem to define the spirit of Eudora Welty’s stories as of her life. Such a dark epiphany, unlike those in let’s say Flannery O’Connor whose own stories have a pitch and timbre that bespeaks shock and violence, Welty’s works have that genial and comic quietude that allows the darkness to come forth out of the light – a nihilism that dispels its fogs in the temporal sequences of such fallings of mirrors, breaking of sun over the mind like a wave rather than a sledge hammer.

Her Collected Stories bare many fruitful readings. Welty once asked: “Where does beauty come from, in the short story?” Her answer in On Short Stories,

It comes. We are lucky when beauty comes, for often we try and it should come, it could, we think, but then when the virtues of our story are counted, beauty is standing behind the door.

As a writer of short stories one listens, one hears the voices of death and beauty; yet, one cannot force either out of their lair, one can only await it, let it come, and stop at the threshold and realize beauty like death is standing there in the shadows of the light. Harold Bloom in one of his essays on Welty once said it this way:

American writing in the twentieth century touches the sublime mode only in scattered instances, and always by reaching the frontier where the phantasmagoric, and the realism of violence, are separated only by ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds. Welty’s high distinction is that in her the demarcations are as ghostly, the sounds as keen, as they are in her greatest narrative contemporaries, Faulkner and Hemingway.1

Eudora Welty was born in 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi, the daughter of Christian Webb Welty and Chestina Andrews Welty, Eudora Welty grew up in a close-knit and loving family. From her father she inherited a “love for all instruments that instruct and fascinate,” from her mother a passion for reading and for language. With her brothers, Edward Jefferson Welty and Walter Andrews Welty, she shared bonds of devotion, camaraderie, and humor. Nourished by such a background, Welty became perhaps the most distinguished graduate of the Jackson Public School system. She attended Davis Elementary School when Miss Lorena Duling was principal and graduated from Jackson’s Central High School in 1925. Her collegiate years were spent first at the Mississippi State College for Women in Columbus and then at the University of Wisconsin, where she received her bachelor’s degree. From Wisconsin, Welty went on to graduate study at the Columbia University School of Business.

Welty had produced seven distinctive books in fourteen years, but that rate of production came to a startling halt. Personal tragedies forced her to put writing on the back burner for more than a decade. Then in 1970 she graced the publishing world with Losing Battles, a long novel narrated largely through the conversation of the aunts, uncles, and cousins attending a rambunctious 1930s family reunion. Two years later came a taut, spare novel set in the late 1960s and describing the experience of loss and grief which had so recently been her own. Welty would uncharacteristically incorporate a good bit of biographical detail in The Optimist’s Daughter, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize.

See Biography


  1. Bloom, Harold.  SHORT STORY WRITERS AND SHORT STORIES  ©2005 by Chelsea House Publishers, 

     

It Want Die Out

“I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”
—Flannery O’Connor

“I’ll let you in on a secret, boy,” he whispered: “it want die out.”

“What want die out, Pop?” The boy was sitting at the side of his Pop, who was whizzing and coughing up spittle into a little can on his chest from time to time. The Old Man’s eyes were growing soft in intensity as if a flame in all that darkness was slowly melting down like a candle that had been left to burn too long.

“The Light, boy, the Light,” he coughed up phlegm as he spoke. “Even in the midst of all my dark days, and I had plenty, there was something deep down in me that hung on to that belief I’d gotten in me when I was your age. A belief in life boy, a belief in life…” He started hacking again.

The Boy’s Mama came in the room, whispering: “Let ’em rest now.”

The Boy leaned over gave the old man a hug. The man opened his eyes up and tried to speak, but nothing came out but a whistle from someplace in those watery lungs. As the boy rose up from his chair and turned to leave the Old Man reached over and held his boy’s shoulder. The boy looked back, and the man gave him something he’d been holding in his palm. He tried to speak and got out a cracked voice: “Take it…” Then his head fell back and he began whizzing and croaking.

The Boy looked up at his Mama who had a worried fever in her eyes; he nodded that he understood. She hugged him tight for a few moments, then said in a whisper: “It’ll be alright son, everything’s gonna be just fine.” As he got to the door he looked back one last time. His Pop was still hacking and coughing, his Mama was sitting holding his hand, her eyes closed and seemed to be praying. He knew it wouldn’t be alright, nothing would be alright anymore. He closed the door and left.

He went down the hall to his own room. Once in he closed the door and sat on his bed. His little brother was already asleep in the bunk above, snoring away. He turned on the little lamp just above his bedstead and took off his clothes, hanging them on the chair next to the nightstand. Then he pulled back the coverings, crawled in and lay there a moment feeling the cool sheets against his skin, and the fresh clean smell of the linen that permeated the room. His Mama must’ve changed the bed today, it was all straight and clean and smelled like those flowers she bought from Mrs. Jules Shop on Saturday’s. Violets and other bouquets she’d set out on the table in big white china bowls in sugar water, just floating there giving off that sweet smell that filled the whole house like it was summer all year long. His sheets smelled like that. Then he felt the small thing his Pop had placed in his palm. He sat up and opened his fingers and gazed at the little medal medallion for a moment. It was the worn figure of a man set against some kind of smooth background with writing around the edges on one side with a big eagle carrying stars in a ribbon. He could just make out the words Saint Michael US Marines Medal on one side, and on the other was a winged angel-man holding a sword up standing on a mule or jack ass with something in his left hand that looked like small bags or pots on a string dangling down. He knew his Pop had been in the Marines. This must’ve meant something to him.

He lay back down thinking about his Pop, how he’d had his legs blown off overseas by some bomber who’d put something called an IED in the road that blew his Pop’s armored vehicle to smithereens killing one of his buddies and maiming him and one other for life. Ever since Pop had come back his condition had deteriorated day by day. Pop tried to slough it all off at first, tried to keep chipper like he did in the old days, but little by little his hurt body had slowly given way to one thing or another till pneumonia had set into his lungs recently. The doctors said he’d suffered certain internal injuries that just couldn’t be mended; that it was only a matter of time. They’d done all they could for Pop. He loved his Pop. He sat up again and slipped the neck chain over his head, and let the medallion fall onto his chest. He felt that cold metal fire light up as his heart thumped against it. He remembered what his Pop had said earlier: “The Light, it want die out.” He knew what that Light was now, and he knew he wouldn’t let it die out if he could help it. He felt that medal burning, burning…


©2016 S.C. HickmanUnauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited.

Note: Flash Fiction. Flannery O’Conner said long ago : “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” Even though I lost my own faith long ago, I have to admit even to my self that it haunts me still. One cannot so easily escape one’s origins… the fear-haunted preacher’s of my youth, the apocalypse, the fire-n-brimstone bully-pulpit waylaying… it all sits there in that dark place like a rabid beast waiting to unleash its terrible secrets. Took me years to walk away from all that dark southern religion… and, even now I hear those voices in the black places of my soul.

Why Am I Writing Country Noir?

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Sometime I’m going to do a blog post on the Followmeter about watching my followers rise and fall according to if I’m writing essays, politics, stories, poetry, or philosophy… I get a laugh at how I gain or lose people following me based on assumptions.  It’s like a comedy meter for me watching people come and go so anonymously without ever knowing why … we live on the net in our private hells, and other lonely people wander by, sit for a while, listen to us patter about nonsense, then leave for parts unknown without ever leaving a trace except the little meter ball that flicks up or down… sad really that communication and community have become nothing more than a button pushed or unpushed; a like or not like button world, a sort of preview of the next wave of our automated society as the neutered minds of the mobile phone generation fade in or fade out based on whim. I joined Wattpad recently and was told to shorten all my stories into small chunks so all the millions of mobile phone users could flip through my stories easier. We’ve become a mobile nation that sees the 3 inch screen of a diode while the rest of the universe goes unnoticed and expelled from consciousness like a faded dream of reality that has been replaced by this plug’n play universe of text messages, and photomatrilia extravaganzas and youtube spawn casts… yet, a funny thing about technology, it comes back to bite you in the ass. Yes, it does. Now mobiles have become weapons and spies onto the corruptions of the world, letting the darkness seep into the viral plumage of this worldwide monster, with her webbing strung across nations and the planet to link the underworlds together in some nefarious three-ring circus of pornography, sex-slaves, and cyberwarfare. Now the world has come home to the small towns across this ancient land, dispersed its meth and heroin, its broken love and sweet promises of foreign dreams to buy and bring home to roost. Our world is no longer separate and alone, but very much overcrowded by monsters everywhere in this virtual nation of horrors. Now you can hide among the darkest corners of the darknet and commit acts of fatal madness and never leave your porch where the old hound dog is sleeping. Now the country is a hellzone for predatory minds everywhere, unbounded by the old causal chains of physical prowess it can move among the symbolic waves like a spring board to catastrophes never dreamed of in the pulp age.

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Donald Ray Pollock: A Review of Knockenstiff

thnlsypg92In my research of late into Country noir I came across the name Donald Ray Pollock. Born in 1954 and raised in Knockemstiff, Ohio, Pollock has lived his entire adult life in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he worked at the Mead Paper Mill as a laborer and truck driver until age 50, when he enrolled in the English program at Ohio State University. While there, Doubleday published his debut short story collection, Knockemstiff, and the New York Times regularly posted his election dispatches from southern Ohio throughout the 2008 campaign. The Devil All the Time, his first novel, was published in 2011. His work has appeared in various literary journals, including Epoch, Sou’wester, Granta, Third Coast, River Styx, The Journal, Boulevard, Tin House, and PEN America. His newest book, a novel called The Heavenly Table, was published by Doubleday on July 12th, 2016.1 Find him on his website: http://donaldraypollock.net/

Author of three works Knockemstiff, The Devil All the Time, and The Heavenly Table 9780767928304he seems to fall into that lineage of which draws from the likes of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Harry Crews, William Gay and Daniel Woodrell, among others; and, yet, his raw power and nihilistic vision seems undaunted in its ferocious and daemonic power and depths. I just finished his collection of short stories Knockemstiff, which awakened in me that sense of the grotesque and satiric strain of those comic fatalists of horror and noir that blend that dark realism of the mean streets with the unique flavor of region and place. One knows this is caricature, not in the sense of defamation, but in the sense that each story brings out the anamorphic distortion that is slowly clarified by many readings and rereading’s. These are characters that live in that alternate realm of the Real, the daemons of certain forces that insert their voices and their lives into that dark loam of life that inhabits the cracks and gaps of our lives. The people that emerge out of the black abyss of Pollack’s daemonic America, this slice of life world of the lost, the forgotten, the poverty stricken, the lonely and lame, the creatures of an earthly hell who have never known there might be something else out there, because for them there is no there is. These are the creatures of nightmare rather than life, the ones who never attained the human, but for whatever reason came out of the wilds to remain feral and raw, violent and full of rage; and, yet, at time full of that dark longing for something, something they know must be there, something maybe just in the next love bout, death choke, dream world of escape that they just don’t see possible and feel they must be guilty of some dark stain and undeserving of such realms beyond. Then again, most of them don’t believe there is a beyond, but dip from that place of the abyss within that harbors no transcension but plenty of the raging beast of the feral mind unleashed and ready to devour the world.

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Flowers for Lobelia

So, as you sleep, I seek your bed
And lay my careful, quiet ear
Among the nestings of your hair,
Against your tenuous, fragile head,
And hear the birds beneath your eyes
Stirring for birth, and know the world
Immeasurably alive and good,
Though bare as rifted paradise.
—James Wright, The Quiet (Above The River)

Jonas Wright stood there looking down at her body knowing that looking wasn’t going to bring her back; wasn’t going to bring her back, ever. The Medical Examiner, Sandra Kercher, and Sam Wolfson, the Case Detective, had been over the scene with a fine tooth comb. He’d read their report tomorrow. Nothing he could do here now; he knew that. Yet, he didn’t want to think about it, didn’t want to blink his eyes, didn’t want to move his old bones, didn’t want to hear his partner telling him what they should or shouldn’t do… he just wanted to go back home, sit down, pull out his standard issue .38 snub nose 2-inch special revolver and blow his gawd dam brains out. “Hell,” He thought half-joking in a gallows humor sort of way: “I should upgrade to my partner’s Glauck 9mm and do it right. That’d be a good ‘un for the boys back down at the precinct, they’d remember that for a long time.

That’s what he wanted to do, but he knew very well he wouldn’t do it, he knew he’d have to ride this dark horse all the way to the end of the race… there would be no stopping it now, no turning back, no easy way out; he’d have to pay the pied-piper the full tilt fare; for only the bittersweet pain of life lived out till it was sucked dry of every last ounce of strength he had left in him would satisfy the demons of his broken mind now; and, there’d be that other payment as well, the one he’d exact from hell itself… He’d have to find Lobelia’s killer, and he’d have to make the bastard pay the Devil himself if it was the last thing he did in this crummy life.

But instead he was standing here listening to his partner trying to comfort him, trying to get him to follow protocol, trying to get him off the site and away from here before Captain J.T. Willis arrived and chewed their ass out. He’d heard it all before, knew what was coming, but at the moment he just didn’t give a dam, period.

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