In which an abandoned house offers a vagrant a strange redemption.
By Russell Kirk
First published in 1976
Anthologized in Ancestral Shadows: An Anthology of Ghostly Tales
(Vigen Guroian, editor; ISBN-13: 978-0802839381)
Winner of the 1977 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction
To Russell Kirk, ghost stories offered another way to express the ideas contained in his non-fiction. That said, it would be a mistake to think that Kirk’s fiction is a series of essays in disguise. He wanted his audience to draw certain conclusions from his work, true, but when he was at the top of his game, he produced stories in which the didactic content is muted. That’s certainly the case with this, possibly the best thing he ever wrote.
“There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding” begins with a scene that can be read as a quiet reproach to a country focused entirely on speed and the future. It’s very late somewhere in the Midwest, probably in Kirk’s beloved Michigan. A fierce snowstorm is blowing. Frank Sarsfield, a lifelong vagrant two days shy of his sixtieth birthday, is attempting to make his way along an empty six-lane highway.* There are no lights of houses to be seen, and Frank knows that unless he can get into some short of shelter, he’s in danger.
Luckily, he spies what proves to be a hamlet not far off. Frank hears a church bell, which he interprets as being rung during services. Upon getting closer, he finds that the bell is being moved by the wind, and that the small town he’s entered, Anthonyville, is abandoned.
It doesn’t take Frank long to realize that Anthonyville was trapped between swampland on one side and the superhighway on the other. Cut off from the greater world, it was left to die. Luckily, a number of the town’s buildings are still in good shape, and soon Frank has ensconced himself in “Tamarack House,” a small mansion at the end of Main Street. This, we learn from a plaque, was once the home of Brigadier-General Joseph Anthony, the town’s founding father, and his family. The building is welcoming, although it contains its quota of dark shapes that flit by peripherally; these don’t bother Frank, however.
Frank discovers a storeroom filled with jars of fruit preserves and other home-canned goods, all still fresh. There’s even an inviting bedroom designated as “Frank’s Room” by a metal plate over its door. Long-empty houses are seldom this accommodating.
It’s at this point that Kirk does something gutsy. The narrative pace of “There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding” has been slow up to now, at least for a genre story. Now it slows even more, as we enter more fully into the stream of Frank’s thoughts. He ruminates on a report from a prison psychiatrist, and it’s through these musings that we learn about his past. He ran away from an abusive father at 14, and had many minor scrapes with the law. We also discover that Frank is a devout Catholic (in his way), and that he considers himself damned.
The central part of “Long, Long Trail” is about Frank’s encounters with documents — the psychiatrist’s report, which he remembers photographically; bits of Longfellow, and other poetry; a letter of apology that Frank writes to his sister; and an unsent 1969 letter from Allegra, the elderly grand-daughter of General Anthony, to her grand-niece. This last, not completed, alludes to “dear Frank,” the original occupant of Frank Sarsfield’s new bedroom. That Frank was a former prisoner who tended to the house and watched over the General’s three granddaughters. He was a beloved, if adopted, member of the family.
We also get a partial description of a horrible event that occurred on January 14th, 1915. This sets the stage from the story’s third act, which is brilliant, and which I don’t want to spoil for you. I will stay that “Long, Long Trail” is a perfectly-structured story, as formalist in its way as a sonnet. Its form is subtle, however, and never gets in Frank’s way as he’s borne along by forces no one can understand to a fitting destiny.
Finally, if you’re unfamiliar with the source of Kirk’s title, it’s a reference to “There’s a Long, Long Trail,” a 1913 song that became wildly popular in the US during World War One. Its wistful chorus befits Frank’s peripatetic life:
There’s a long, long trail a-winding
Into the land of my dreams,
Where the nightingales are singing
And a white moon beams.
There’s a long, long night of waiting
Until my dreams all come true;
Till the day when I’ll be going down
That long, long trail with you.
*By all accounts, Kirk loathed automobiles. This adds a certain resonance to the opening scene.