The Witch of Hebron
A World Made by Hand Novelby James Howard Kunstler
The best-selling author of The Long Emergency returns with a gripping sequel to his novel World Made by Hand, which Alan Cheuse of National Public Radio called “brilliant.”
Already a renowned social commentator and a best-selling novelist and nonfiction writer, James Howard Kunstler has recently attained even greater prominence in the global conversation about energy and the environment. In the last two years he has been the focus of a long profile in The New Yorker, the subject of a full-page essay in The New York Times Book Review, and his wildly popular blog and podcast have made him a sought-after speaker who gives dozens of lectures and scores of media interviews each year.
Now, in the sequel to his best-selling World Made by Hand, Kunstler expands on his vision of a post-oil society with a new novel about an America in which the electricity has flickered off, the Internet is a distant memory, and the government is little more than a rumor. In the tiny hamlet of Union Grove, New York, travel is horse-drawn and farming is back at the center of life. But it’s no pastoral haven. Wars are fought over dwindling resources and illness is a constant presence. Bandits roam the countryside, preying on the weak. And a sinister cult threatens to shatter Union Grove’s fragile stability.
In a book that is both shocking yet eerily convincing, Kunstler seamlessly weaves hot-button issues such as the decline of oil and the perils of climate change into a compelling narrative of violence, religious hysteria, innocence lost, and love found.
“[A] suspenseful, darkly amusing story with touches of the fantastic in the mode of Washington Irving.” —Booklist
“Kunstler’s post-apocalyptic world is neither a merciless nightmare nor a starry-eyed return to some pastoral faux utopia; it’s a hard existence dotted with adventure, revenge, mysticism, and those same human emotions that existed before the power went out.” —Publishers Weekly
“In many ways [The Witch of Hebron] reminded me of Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove, set in the dystopian world of The Road. . . . By the middle of the book you are immersed in a richly imagined “world made by hand,” eagerly devouring every page. . . . [Kunstler] has woven his nightmares into a vision or America after a complete economic, political, and cultural collapse.” —Lance M. Foster, New York Journal of Books
“Kunstler offers a sharply cautionary tale, conjuring up bizarre characters who would be right at home in the scariest haunted houses. . . . Kunstler excels at writing lyric passages about nature . . . His acute pessimism about the future coexists with his faith in the human instinct to survive and adapt . . . [and] he demonstrates that the human penchant for storytelling is unlikely ever to become extinct so long as a single human being has breath enough to speak and strength enough to write.” —Gerald T. Cobb, America Magazine
“Kunstler succeeds in transporting readers to a smaller world of quiet pleasures, grueling hardship, and rough justice, one that they will hold in equal parts pity and envy.” —Suvudu (online)
“Vividly drawn . . . [The Witch of Hebron] plays to Kunstler’s strength, which is his understanding of municipal infrastructure, so he can analyze the importance of what has been taken from people, how they cope, and just what is necessary for them to survive.” —Steve Goddard’s History Wire (blog)
An Indie Next List Notable selection (September 2010)
Now it could not have been a more beautiful mid-October day in upstate New York in the year that concerns us, which has yet to come in history. Long jagged Vs of honking Canada geese winged their way toward the Hudson River over Pumpkin Hill, where the crowns of the suffering maples blazed red and orange as if on fire, and the birch leaves glowed like golden coins, and the line of sumacs at the edge of Deaver’s hayfields ran as vivid as blood against the darker margin of the woods, as though Pumpkin Hill were a living thing itself, with a pulsing interior. Some people in the nearby town of Union Grove might have said it was, since the habits of thought having to do with old, deadening certainties were yielding to another way of seeing and feeling the world that, instead, brought everything to life.
Two boys and a yellow dog made their way up a dirt path along the Battenkill River, a tributary of the Hudson.
In the low water this time of year, some gravel bars lay exposed, as bright and clean as the beaches on desert isles, and many fine trout lurked unmolested in the dark runs of cold water between the bars. Indeed, far fewer people were to be found angling there in these new times on a fall afternoon when there was a harvest to get in. The boys, both eleven, were Jasper Copeland, son of Union Grove’s only doctor, and Ned Allison, whose father, a doctor of philosophy, not medicine, and once vice president of a now defunct college, ran the town’s livery stable—as good a livelihood as medical doctoring in an age when cart and saddle horses were in short supply.
Up ahead across the river the two boys spied a rude shack made of castoff, salvage, and flotsam between the abandoned railroad tracks and the river. It was not without charm, having a deck cantilevered out over the riverbank with a rustic railing composed of fancifully shaped driftwood balusters, and behind all that, several generous, vertical windows, none of them matching. Two beaver pelts and one of bobcat were tacked up along the upstream exterior wall. The boys could smell them from where they came to crouch behind a clump of stately bracken.
The shack was the home of Perry Talisker, known around town as “the hermit,” who did not altogether shun his fellow human beings but led a solitary existence there beside the river some distance from town. He trapped animals and traded their furs for necessities. Earlier in life, he had worked as a butcher for a supermarket chain. He could skin a rabbit in five seconds flat. He made his own corn whiskey and consumed just a little less than he made every year. It was reputed to be as good as or better than the whiskey made by Stephen Bullock, the wealthy planter. Perry Talisker made regular visits to Einhorn’s store in town and was capable of polite conversation about the weather and conditions on the river. But he smelled as ripe as the pelts tacked to his house, and his conversational partners tended to cut it short. When he left the store with his sack of cornmeal and jug of seed oil, Terry Einhorn would have to light a candle to defeat the lingering odor.
“I think he’s in there,” Ned whispered. “I saw something move. C’mon, let’s get closer.”
The two boys crawled farther up the path along with the dog, which was a five-month-old puppy, a sweet-faced mutt named Willie with feathered fur on his legs. From their new position just opposite the shack they were afforded a clear view within.
“I see him,” Ned said.
“Spying isn’t right,” Jasper said, but he kept looking anyway.
“Crazy people bear watching.”
“My dad says he’s just odd.”
“Odd folks can turn crazy,” Ned said.
They watched the hermit silently for a minute from their hideout in the bracken.
“What the hell is he doing?” Jasper muttered.
Talisker appeared to be sitting in a chair fighting with what, across that distance and through the glare on the windowpanes, appeared to be a snake in his lap. A little while later he subsided, dropping his arms to his sides and throwing his head back. The defeated snake lay inert on his lap. Then his chest heaved and the boys heard what sounded like an elongated sob above the noise of the river. A train of racking, descending sobs followed.
Jasper shuddered. He clutched the puppy close to himself there on the hard-packed dirt path. It licked him on the chin and he murmured, “Stop it, Willie.”
“Listen, he’s crying now,” Ned said. “Jesus.”
The sobbing continued. Whatever they thought they had witnessed—and neither was altogether certain what it signified—they knew at least that these were the sounds of a grown man in anguish, and it made them more uncomfortable than anything else they had seen him do.
“Let’s get out of here,” Ned said. He cut out up the path. Jasper lingered another moment in a sickened thrall, watching the hermit and listening, then quit their hiding place and caught up with his friend. Willie shadowed him. They didn’t discuss what they had seen. Each in his own way was embarrassed by it, sensing the dark mystery it represented and the indecorum of watching it. Eventually, the path took them up the riverbank at Lovell Road by the ruins of the old power station. There they burst up from the glowing golden tunnel of the river into the starker late-afternoon light. Jasper carried a wicker creel on a leather strap diagonally across his body. The creel contained two heavy trout. In his right hand he carried his father’s carbon fiber fly rod, a miraculous artificial material that might never be seen on earth again, his father said, now that things had changed so much for the human race.
Jasper had little recollection of what the old times were like except for a vivid sense memory of riding in an automobile all trussed up in a special seat designed to immobilize small children. He remembered the speed of objects rushing past a window, and the brightly illuminated signs of commerce, and his own discomfort in the strangely aromatic plastic seat, even the mood of desperation in the sharp, terse exchanges between the adults up front. That was all. Everything else beyond that memory was the familiar world of Union Grove and Washington County and the people in it he had known, including the sad and disgusting hermit.
The boys walked silently an eighth of a mile to where the road came to a T at old State Route 29, with its fissures and potholes and stretches where there was no pavement at all anymore.
“What the hermit was doing,” Ned said as they walked back toward town, “that’s nature’s way.”
“What was he crying for, then?” Jasper said.
“Nature’s harsh and strange,” Ned said.
In a little while, they came to the edge of town, marked by the ruins of an old strip mall. All that remained of the Kmart sign were the letters that spelled art. Though his mother and father had explained these things to him, the strange idea persisted in him that this had once been some kind of great bazaar at which objects of art were bought and sold. He knew that in the old times everybody had a lot more money and things. He knew that there had been many machines besides cars that ran on a liquid called oil that, for various reasons, had become impossible to get in the new times. The sharp break between the old times and the new times was something his parents carried with them constantly like a wound that refused to heal.
The rusty skeleton of an old car squatted deep in the poplar scrub behind the remnants of the Kmart building. The interior had long been burned out. Its steel roof was peeled back like the tongue of an old shoe, saplings had grown through holes in the floor, the hood was a tangle of raspberry canes, and blazing red Virginia creeper struggled up an empty wheel well along the rusty door. Somehow the car had escaped the Great Collecting that had occurred years before when the nation was hard up for steel to prosecute a war in the Holy Land. Jasper hardly remembered that. The boys sometimes visited the car, regarding it with the same morbid awe as the skeleton of a large mammal that had crawled into the woods to die.
“You want to go see the old car?” Jasper asked as they came to the strip mall.
“No,” Ned said. “I have things to do.”
“You want to visit the stallion over at the New Faith?”
“No,” Ned said. “We’ve got all the horses I need to see. I have to rake out their stalls before supper.”
“You want one of these trout?”
“I’ll take a trout. Thanks.”
“Get a stick.”
Ned got a green stick and ran it through the gills and the mouth, twisting the ends like a handle. He didn’t have a fishing rod. They weren’t making them anymore. He was too proud to use an alder branch.
“I think I’ll go visit that stallion,” Jasper said.
“I wouldn’t tell anyone what we saw out here today,” Ned said.
“I wasn’t going to.”
“They’ll ask why we stayed around and watched.”
Ned took off down the road for his home in town. Willie followed him for a few steps, then returned to Jasper’s side as the boy cut behind the strip mall, past the ghost of the car, and took a shortcut through the woods around the town reservoir to the edge of the old high school property on the northern edge of town. The high school, which was abandoned after the epidemics that winnowed the town population, had been sold the previous June to a group of seventy-seven wayfaring Christian Evangelicals from Virginia who called themselves the New Faith Brotherhood. Fleeing the disorders of their home state, they had found peace and tranquillity in Union Grove, decided to settle there, and had worked sedulously to renovate the high school for their own purposes. The old football field had been transformed into a magnificent garden. The crop rows were mostly laid up for the winter now except for table greens and winter squashes. They had converted the old school bus garage into a stable. The other grounds and ball fields had been fenced up as pasture. One paddock held the group’s prize stallion, a liver chestnut half Morgan named Jupiter. Not many people outside New Faith had been inside the main buildings of the establishment, and their ways remained mysterious, even threatening, to many townspeople of Union Grove.
As Jasper came out of the woods into a stubble field of recently harvested corn, he was struck by the low angle of the sun and the long shadows of everything on the landscape, the brilliant color in the trees behind the school and the perfection of the air temperature as the afternoon merged into evening. A warm nugget of profound contentment at the center of himself welled into a deep gratitude for being. He could see the beautiful stallion grazing in its paddock a hundred yards away. As he set out across the stubble field, a brown blur darted from behind a hummock of cornstalks in the direction of the paddock. The groundhog made desperately for his home in a hole behind the run-in shed. Willie lit out after it.
“No, Willie,” Jasper hollered at the dog. “Get back here!”