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