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Ruth Ann Musick’s novel of local lore and mortal fear

If, even now, the discovery of vocation is often an accidental process—slower or faster and more, or less, direct depending on individual circumstances—it’s not surprising that it should have involved quite a lot of delay and some contingency for a woman born in rural northern Missouri in 1897 to find her way to an academic career in West Virginia in the late 1940s. Not so surprising, either, that her first book publication would happen when she was sixty-three. Or that her first novel, completed in 1943, would not be published until 2020, long after her death.  The farm girl was Ruth Ann Musick (1897-1974); the publication of her first and only published novel, Hell’s Holler, is owing to its rediscovery by members of the Missouri Folklore Society and faculty at Truman State University, in Kirksville, Missouri, where Musick grew up and went to school (she earned her Bachelor’s from Truman State, then a state Normal School in 1919). The book was launched last week by its publisher, Naciketas Press, for the MFS, as a double issue of the society’s annual journal. Instrumental in its publication were the press (Betsy and Neal Delmonico) and the volume’s general editors, Dr. Jim Vandergriff, Dr. Donna Jurich, and Dr. Adam Davis. Also contributing to the effort were the author’s niece, artist Pat Musick, and Dr. Judy Prozillo Byers, the author’s former student and protégée, who serves as executrix of the Ruth Ann Musick Folklore Estate.

Ruth Ann Musick completed Hell’s Holler in the 1940s while a PhD student in English at the University of Iowa. The school had launched its now famous writing program the year Musick was born and had begun to accept creative theses as dissertations in 1922.  Musick’s dissertation was the novel, based  on her experience growing up in Adair County, Missouri, on a five-acre farm in a family with tight resources but abundant creativity—her younger brother, Archie Musick, became a visual artist who studied under Thomas Hart Benton. His art, along with work by Musick’s niece, Pat Musick, illustrates the posthumously published novel.

Cover image for Hell’s Holler, by the author’s brother, Archie Musick

Hell’s Holler incorporates familiar folk materials from Musick’s rural upbringing. The synopsis that heads the manuscript reads in part, “The old, established community, with its folk code, its superstitions, its prejudices, imaginations, etc., in direct opposition to the new or modern world of reality and progress, can hardly survive. . . .”  The novel features regional dialect and elements of this folk code, but in the end, while the “old, established community” serves as a setting and almost a character in the book, a clash with the modern world is not the central conflict—though Musick and/or her doctoral committee may have aimed for it to be that. The loose plot centers around a bargain made by thirty-eight-year-old George Moore and around his family: his younger wife, Mary, and their children. George, a small farmer is incapacitated, somewhat mysteriously—as he tells it, the result of having been “marked” by a sick cow in his infancy. His inability to work (though doctors repeatedly find nothing wrong with him) burdens Mary and their children almost inhumanly. The psychiatric reason for George’s weakness is never clear, and the reader vacillates between resentment and pity for him. But in one sense he is a hero: when Mary is seriously injured at the story’s outset, George contracts to sell his body, after death, for medical research to pay for Mary’s medical treatment and convalescence. From then on, mortal fear haunts him, as he obsesses over the contract and the eventual fate of his body and attached soul.

In his preface to the newly published, almost eighty-year-old text, Adam Davis describes how Musick was encouraged by her dissertation director and committee to include regional folkloric materials from her native northern Missouri. During this same period, she took a folklore class from folklorist Edwin Ford Piper, who encouraged her to collect her family’s traditional songs (songs of English, Irish, and Scottish origin that had been preserved and handed down through oral tradition). Eventually, Musick expanded her collected songs into a book-length manuscript, her second finished book and the first accepted for publication: Folk Songs from Missouri and the Ozarks was chosen as the 1947 Memoir of the American Folklore Society and was edited for publication; however, it was never published, due to lack of funds. 

A lifelong interest in writing and telling stories had led to an advanced degree and an unpublished novel, but along the way Musick had found a niche that suited her and that would launch her profession as a folklorist. After two short-term faculty appointments in Iowa, she went on to a position at Fairmont State College in West Virginia, teaching English and mathematics. There she taught until her retirement. She authored five books of folklore, as well as writing folklore columns. She advocated for courses in folk literature at Fairmont and worked to renew interest in the dormant state folklore society; she also founded and edited the journal West Virginia Folklore. 

In her teaching, she engaged not only her folklore students but even her freshman comp students in fieldwork, collecting West Virginia folk materials that would form the substance of several collections. A particular interest was ghost stories. Her introduction to The Tell Tale Lilac Bush and Other West Virginia Ghost Stories acknowledges how much she owed to her students as collectors:

Sometimes people ask, “Where did you get all your ghost stories, and how?” Ghost story collecting is much like other folklore collecting. In addition to the method everyone uses—following up leads with a tape machine—my collection stems from three main sources: (1) my students at Fairmont College: (2) my weekly folklore column, which I wrote for six years; and (3) the little magazine, West Virginia Folklore, which I have edited since 1951. Also, since ghost stories have had a strong appeal for me since early childhood, it may be that I am unconsciously on the lookout for them at all times.

The selection that follows is excerpted and abridged from chapter 5 of the novel, in which George, fearful about the consequence of his bargain, tries to peer into the future and understand his fate:

*****

Chapter Five: George Watches the Hogs

“Buffalo Girls” trickled on and on like a leaky  bucket till it sort of ran out and stopped. The fiddle lowered from chin to lap as George smoothed out pillow and quilt, and hitched the old rocker farther into the shade. He pushed his oats shock of a head deeper into the pillow and stared at the unfenced graveyard through half-shut eyes.

It was lonesome enough to have to sit and watch this graveyard day after day, and think of the nine or ten laid to rest here, no telling how long ago, or what shape they were in now. But to always get back to one’s own burying, or rather the burying he would never have, was like a pig watching the ones ahead sledged and scalded – knowing it was only  a matter of time for him. Ailing like he was, he might go any minute now, and when he thought of how [his mother] Sarah would take things, he just about went all to pieces. Maybe she’d have the preacher all spoke for, and his Sunday outfit laid out ready to put him away – and here would come the rub-doctors! She would more than likely go out of her mind. And, even  if she didn’t, come Decoration Day, she would have to drive thirty miles, both ways, unless the roads were good enough for the short cut, and nine chances to ten they wouldn’t be – to get to stick a bunch of “pionies” or “flags” in amongst his ribs.

And still, a body couldn’t hardly blame the rub-doctors either. They hadn’t come to him in the first place. He’d gone to them. But they came now. Came every few days, trying to buy up land in the hills, all they could get a hold of – seemed like. Claimed they wanted to raise angus cattle, and have summer cabins and the Lord knew what all – maybe build a reservoir themselves, and fix up the old mill and dam like the government wanted. But the more George thought things over, the more he concluded it was just an excuse to keep tab on him, so that he couldn’t possibly get away – if he got too crazy afraid, and tried to skip the country. . . .

Funny the rub-doctors hadn’t tried to do anything for him – even before the body business came up. Andrew Moore, or rather Andrew’s woman, claimed they’d cured this one and that one time again. Said some girl or woman hadn’t walked for fifteen years, that is, without crutches, and one day some of them called in a rub-doctor, when her father wasn’t there – he wouldn’t allow a rub-doctor on the place – and first thing anybody knew, he’d rubbed her into walking. Told her to throw away her crutches and walk, and she did.

Then there was Andrew’s woman’s uncle. He was getting along in years, and was chopping down a tree, when it fell on him and broke his neck. First one doctor and then another was called in and they all claimed nobody could do a thing for him. Said a body couldn’t live with his neck broke and they might as well save their money. But they finally sent for a rub-doctor and the man got well and lived ten or fifteen years. Had to keep his neck in a potato poultice for a long time, and take no telling how many rub-treatments, but he got so he could sit up and look around, and walk just like anybody, though his neck always was stiff.

But either they couldn’t do anything for him – or wouldn’t. Didn’t even try. Maybe they didn’t aim for him to get well. . . .

Or maybe they knew about him being marked like he was, and saw it was no use. Didn’t seem to be any mark-doctors, though plenty of people were marked. Not cow-marked, though, like he was. He was about the only one. Somebody’d fed their cow glass – the cow-doctor said – and she afterwards died. And his mother had watched her, and worried about her, and carried her water and all, till it was no wonder he was marked. Seemed as if all his life he’d never felt comfortable unless he were sitting or lying.

Of course there were lots of folks worse marked than he was. Snakes seemed to mark the worst. One woman had a regular fight with a snake, and when her baby was born, it tapered off like a snake’s tail from the waist down, and the rest was like a human, only there was a hole in the top of its head, and it died and the woman too. Another woman had twins, with the top halves out and out snakes, and they kept running out their tongues at people and hissing, till the neighbors called a kind of judgement-meeting and smothered them to death with a featherbed.

Six or eight of these graves were children. Maybe some of them had been marked to death, so to speak. Might even be the ones that were smothered, though nobody’d said so. Even so, maybe they were better off than he was. They had a grave, and their bodies were buried.

Funny, all the things that pass through your head when you’re sitting by a graveyard. It seemed though, no matter what he thought about, he soon got back to burying, and his own trouble. If he kept on thinking about it, he might go out of his mind, and maybe it would be a good thing if he did. . . .

Christ rose in three days – body and all. The Bible said so. Went straight to the Almighty, just like [when they] put him away – nailprints and all. Maybe He aimed for the rest of us to do the same, when time came to die. Maybe considerable people half-way thought that. Maybe that’s why a body always wanted to be laid away in Sunday outfit, and why they washed the dead all over when they laid them out – so they’d be ready in body and spirit to meet the Lord for all eternity.

George gulped like a chicken with a bug that won’t go down. If this were so – how would he go to meet his Maker? If the body was the wagon, so to speak,  that took the soul Up Town to the Doctor – and there was  no body – what then? Did that mean he couldn’t resurrect? Or, even if what was left of his body – after it was hacked off the bones, that is, or however they got it off – did manage somehow to get up there, in chopped- up bloody chunks and the like, so the Lord Himself wouldn’t know who he was or which from tother – what good would it do? Even, if the rub- doctors concluded, after they cut into him, that his bones weren’t good enough to suit, and just pitched the whole shebang out to the hogs, so to speak, or maybe buried what was left of him in a jumbled mess, with a chunk gone here, and a chunk there – he couldn’t go around in this half-cut up shape, through all eternity. Anyway you looked at it, his body stood a pretty poor chance – but the soul was supposed to be different. . . .

Evelyn Somers is the longtime associate editor of the Missouri Review. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared widely in journals. Her current writing project is a supernatural novel-in-stories about two dueling female divinities. She recently finished a comedy about a single-mom empty-nester and her unusual pet.


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