The Surly Sullen Bell

Russell KirkThis October I decided I would read a bunch of horror novels. I cannot pledge anything, since I do not normally (ever?) read horror and I do not know how far I will get into this enterprise. I did think this was fitting for a year in which I have attempted to “read outside of the box of usual.”  The first completed item this month is Russell Kirk’s (1918 – 1994) collection The Surly Sullen Bell published as a collection in 1962.  Most of the stories in the collection were previously published in magazines/journals.  Kirk is widely known as a Conservative critic and writer, although his supernatural tales used to be more well known than they are today.  For the most part, readers are put off by his politics, especially nowadays, and are unlikely to seek out his fiction.  More or less, this is understandable – one of the complaints I have regarding the collection is that it is unbalanced.  Kirk spent a little too much effort commenting on how big government and immoral government has harmed or maligned the poor, the farmer, et al. unbalancing his stories; ignoring the needs of fiction to develop characters and plot as-well-as theme.

  • Uncle Isaiah • (1951) • London Mystery #11, August/September 1951 – 3 stars
  • Off the Sand Road • (1952) • World Review, March 1952 – 2 stars
  • Ex Tenebris • (1957) • Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 1957 – 2 stars
  • The Surly Sullen Bell • (1950) • London Mystery #7, 1950 – 3 stars
  • The Cellar of Little Egypt – 2 stars
  • Skyberia • (1952) • Queen’s Quarterly Summer 1952 – 1 star
  • Sorworth Place • (1952) • London Mystery #14, February/March 1952 as ‘Old Place of Sorworth’ – 3 stars
  • Behind the Stumps • (1950) • London Mystery #4, 1950 – 2 stars
  • What Shadows We Pursue • (1953) – 4 stars
  • Lost Lake • (1957) • Southwest Review, Autumn 1957 (n/a)

The book itself contains a short foreword essay and a final essay on the topic of “ghostly tales.” There is also the piece, Lost Lake, which is hardly fiction, so I did not rate it. Overall, the collection is uneven. There are good stories and bad ones, there are good elements to the stories and then pieces which do not work. Although the collection has its ups and downs, strangely, I would say the most representative of the bunch is the story Off the Sand Road

Technically, this second story, Off the Sand Road, does not have any supernatural element to it. Or, it is so subtle and covert that it hid from my eye.  Indeed, it is more noir in tone than supernatural. However, it is very much a tone that Kirk returns to in his other stories.  The setting, as in several other stories, is described thus:

… a barren, fringed by silent woods.  Ragged stumps, patches of brown rot contrasting with their naked gray sides, stretched for a mile across rolling country, and then scrub oak and second-growth pine closed the view. – pg. 37

Kirk actually spends a large amount of time in the stories describing the land that appears like this. Always words like scrub, stumps, desolate farm, rutted trails are used to describe the land.  The reader gets the impression that the world is a soggy, gray place filled with rotted tree stumps/roots, and the land is worthless for producing anything. Everything surely smells of mold and decay. Anyway, Off the Sand Road has a little story to it; the Bass boys (nine and fourteen) named Frank and Harry happen to be leading Doctor Cross through the area.  Boys of this age tend to be the best guides for such adventures. They are unfettered by trespassing laws and have a curious eye for ruins and nature. They come upon the Clatry property and in turns tell Cross the common history of the place.  They go inside and explore the upstairs where Cross supplements the boys’ stories with tattered letters he discovers and reads. For all this build up, the history and the sordid stories, the tattered letters and the wasteland property, nothing happens. Cross feels uncomfortable, they leave. Now, I know there is a sense that the reader needs to supply some effort and the atmosphere is the significant horror (as with LeFanu’s stories).  But in this case, it does not really work. This ends up being something of slice-of-life sadness as opposed to anything Gothic.

My favorite story in the collection is What Shadows We Pursue.  I think it is the weirdest of the bunch. It might be a mere matter of taste as to which story a reader would like the most here. I like this one because it is very unique and because it left some of the horror undefined.  The main idea for the story is that Mrs Corr and her daughter have sold the library belonging to Dr Corr to a bookseller named Stoneburner. They have done this because Dr Corr had amassed a huge library, of some moderate value, and he was no longer available to own these books and his wife and daughter required some monies.  From the start the house is described as dilapidated and, in places, seemingly very grungy and nasty. Yet, these two women, who are both quite odd in personality, still live there, apparently keeping to the habits instilled in them by Dr Corr. Stoneburner seems to be good with his purchase, but maybe does not feel he is getting any great bargain.  As he spends his time hauling Corr’s library to his truck, he often pauses to flip through books.  Kirk, of course, selects titles that he feels poignant and significant for Stoneburner to read. Anyway, small strange things take place as Stoneburner is going up and down the stairs of the house.  The events are odd and one feels sympathetic toward Stoneburner. I liked the fact that this one is about books and a personal library and that the horror is based on the odd and uncomfortable.

The title story, The Surly Sullen Bell, is less of a supernatural horror than a Gothic noir story. I gave it three stars because, early on, its quite easy to see what is going on. I suppose the story hints at the Gothic romantic feel, but none of the characters are very likeable at all. Unlike the other stories, this one takes place in St. Louis and Kirk writes a strange St. Louis, indeed. One follows along, but it seems almost too windy in the conversational aspects. The ending is good, but sad.  Maybe I feel that Kirk was using this story to complain about some spiritualism relevant to the 1940s/1950s instead of writing a story qua story.

Three of the stories had, for me, a key moment that I might call a heart-rate-accelerator. You know, actual sparks of horror. A moment of “oh no!”  So, the biggest, for me, was in the story Behind the Stumps when the main character, Cribben, is in this wasteland farmhouse and……..!!!!!!  Another such moment was in The Cellar of Little Egypt – also at the end when they were in the cellar and……!!!!  Now, I did not love this last story because I felt it was way too rambling and the wordsmithing was a bit confusing (Cp. Faulkner) and maybe the whole thing was lacking just that extra something to take this story from a 2 to a 4 star read. Lastly, in the most truly Gothic of the collection, Sorworth Place, there are a couple of moments where the climactic events take place and its Gothic and scary and engaging.  The ending of this one is rather stupid, I think, because it introduced another element/setting that did not suit. Now, I think that Kirk wrote another story related to this one, but not in this collection. At some point, I might track that one down. 

Overall, this was a worthwhile read. I mean, nothing here is standout and amazing.  However, I feel like it was good to get to know these stories. I did not hate them even though some of them (e.g. Skyberia) were quite pointless. I know Kirk wrote about how ghost stories make people uncomfortable. I think, at the end of this collection, it did succeed in making me uncomfortable, but not with his fiction – the places and characters – but rather with the author himself. 

Yes, the stories (and collection) seem unbalanced and uneven.  But for all of that, the unique and the interesting sections are still worthy enough to be given a read. If readers stuck to the four stories I rated 3 stars or better, they should be relatively pleased with the read. Recommended for well-rounded/well-read readers.

2.44 stars (accurately)
2 stars

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