"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Ice water through the chambers of the heart: Cumberland Furnace & Other Fear Forged Fables By Ronald Kelly

Cumberland Furnace & Other Fear Forged Fables By Ronald Kelly

I have never heard of Ronald Kelly before. He was a Zebra paperback writer from 1990-1996, and returned to writing circa 2009.

His fiction, judging by stories in the collection Cumberland Furnace, is modest and competently executed. The characters are working class, the milieu rural or small-town. He doesn't go in for the Southern Gothic fireworks of Flannery O'Connor or Michael McDowell, but the stories are strongly and economically executed. Tone is varied from deadpan poignancy to a kind of morbid glee, and there is plenty of the meat and potatoes of real life.

Cumberland Furnace 

Readers will find some provocative echoes of Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand" in this story.

The furnace is owned by Sterling Perry, a slave-driver forging munitions for the Confederacy. He pursues a battle of wills against a slave named Sway, who refuses to kowtow. Sway's death at the furnace is apocalyptic, a good subject for a painter like John Marin.

But after the war:

....there were many who refused to come near the ironworks, for the sole fact that it was believed to be haunted.

     Several strange incidents throughout the years seemed to justify those fears. In 1868, during a graveyard shift, the workers were distracted from their duties by a terrifying commotion. A sound came from the surrounding forest; a sound that didn't seem to originate from any particular direction. It sounded as though a great iron wheel was rolling through the dense woods, crushing everything in its wake. They could hear the snap and pop of thicket flattening and the gunshot cracks of tree trunks giving way. Then, abruptly, the noise ended. The following day, several men roamed the woods, searching for signs of devastation, but none was ever found. Trees and bramble stood untouched.

Grandma's Favorite Recipe 

This is a strong deadpan chiller worthy of John Collier or Saki. A young man is raised by his grandmother, and she is not to be trifled with. 

....There was a neighborhood dog from down the street, however, that had been trying Grandma's patience lately. Buster was the hound's name and he had dug up about every purple and blue iris that Grandma had planted along the driveway. I had pegged him in the hindquarters with a Little League baseball a couple times, but he kept coming back and wreaking more havoc. I suggested that we buy a BB gun – not necessarily to scare the dog off, but because I really, really wanted one at that age. But Grandma would hear none of it.

     A while later, she walked out the back door with a leftover piece of my birthday cake on a plate. She sat it down in the grass and, soon, Buster was there, chowing it down hungrily.

     "Why are you feeding the mangy mutt?" I asked her.

     "Because even though Buster vexes us with his bad behavior sometimes, he is still one of God's creatures," she explained. "I'm repaying his transgressions with an act of kindness. Turn the other cheek. That's the way the Good Book says it should be."

     I wasn't so sure about that. I stood and watched the dog wolf down my last piece of birthday cake. "If you say so," I mumbled, scratching my head.

The Thing at the Side of the Road 

....there was merely a heavy muskiness to the thing lying on the shoulder.

     He should have found all this, well, unsettling. Instead, he found his inability to identify the animal infuriating. "Well, we'll just flip you over and take a better look at you," he said. Paul wedged the tip of the branch underneath the thing and started to exert a little leverage.

     That was when the thing at the side of the road woke up.

      "Damn!" Paul jumped back as it stretched and then lifted it's head. It's massive head. The thing's black-bristled skull was long and narrow, almost rat-like in a way, its tiny ears laid back sharply toward its broad neck. It had silver eyes. Silver like polished chrome. And the teeth. Lord have mercy! How could anything have so many long, jagged teeth within the cradle of two jaws?

      Paul Stinson knew then that the thing at the side of the road hadn't been dead for two weeks.

The Final Feature 

The son of the drive-in movie theater owner picks the wrong reel to project.

     ....he pulled a ceiling chain and a sixty-watt bulb snapped on. The shed was where Big Vern kept all his old movies. Not the new releases he rented every two weeks, but the ones he had bought and played back during the sixties and seventies, when the Drive-In was at its heyday. One set of shelves held old horror and science-fiction films like Night of the Iguana Man, Grandson of the Iguana Man, Killer Gnats, and Booger-Eating Zombies from Planet 69. A second set of shelves held Big Vern's exploitation films – the ones Billy Bud's mother didn't care much for. Movies like Big Boobed Biker Babes, Prison Pussy Party, and Billy Bud's personal favorite, I Was A Teen-Aged Meth-Whore.

     But none of those would do tonight. There were alot of families on Friday nights, with a ton of kids. Staple Gun 5 or Bad Girls With Bullwhips wouldn't be appropriate.

     "Billy Bud… where the hell are you, boy?" Big Vern's voice sounded mad enough to chew nails and shit thumbtacks.

Mister Mack & the Monster Mobile

....As he left the fourth floor pediatric ward and started back to his office, Doctor Mitchell mulled over Kyle Sadler's condition in his mind. The boy was terribly weak and anemic, but that wasn't what concerned him. It was the tests that had him worried. Particularly the CAT scan they had done yesterday afternoon.

     He hadn't exactly told Betty Sadler the entire truth. Kyle had been abused, but not sexually. Rather, the tests had shown that the boy had been mistreated in other, more subtle ways.

    For lack of a better term, Mitchell referred to it as anatomical molestation. The natural position of several of Kyle's internal organs had been altered....

The Peddler's Journey 

Some fine old Manly Wade Wellman-style mountain folk uncanniness.


The hazards of shortcuts home from work. A masterful story about a man who finds a place that already holds his life's sorrows, but may also accept his frustrations.