Uncle Abner lived before the Civil War in what is now Western Virginia . Although he was not any sort of clergyman, I have included him here as he saw himself as the tool of God's justice, and "was one of those austere, deeply religious men who were the product of the Reformation. He always carried a Bible in his pocket and he read it where he pleased. Once the crowd at Roy's Tavern tried to make sport of him when he got his book out by the fire; but they never tried it again .... Abner belonged to the church militant, and his God was a war lord .... He was one of those austere, deeply religious men who might have followed Cromwell, with a big iron frame, a grizzled beard and features forged by a smith. His god was the god of the Tishbite, who numbered his followers by the companies who drew the sword. The land had need of men like Abner."
He is described as "a big, broad-shouldered, deep-chested Saxon, with all those marked characteristics of a race living out of doors and hardened by wind and sun. His powerful frame carried no ounce of surplus weight. It was the frame of an empire builder on the frontier of the empire. The face reminded one of Cromwell, the craggy features in repose seemed molded over iron but the fine gray eyes had a calm serenity, like remote spaces in the summer sky. The man's clothes were plain and somber. And he gave the impression of things big and vast."
Abner appears in 22 stories written by Melville Davisson Post, then, after Post's death, more stories about him were written (at the request of the Melville Davisson Post estate) by the retired American research chemist, John F Suter (1914-1996).
Abner had his own ideas about justice: "The law is not always justice .... I think every man knows what it is .... It would be the beginning of justice if every man followed the standard that God gives him." For him, the curse of man was idleness. "Labor and God's book would save the world. They were two wings that a man could get his soul to Heaven on." His character may well have been based on Post's own father who had been a cattleman, and to whom the first collection of Uncle Abner stories was dedicated with the words: "To MY FATHER Whose unfailing faith in an ultimate justice behind the moving of events has been to the writer a wonder and an inspiration".
He was "a bachelor, stern and silent" who considered his words carefully then spoke in a deep, clear voice. Ready to condemn when necessary, he could also be generous as when, in the very first of the stories to be written, The Angel of the Lord, he gives his coat and a hundred dollars of his own money to Dix, a fearful murderer who seems to have been devil possessed: "My hand has been held back; you may go. Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord ....Go! But if I find you in the hills tomorrow, or if I ever find you, I warn you in the name of the Living God that I will stamp you out of life!" Abner is certainly a figure to be reckoned with.
Melville Davisson Post (1869-1930) was born in Harrison County in West Virginia, the setting of the Uncle Abner stories. After obtaining an arts degree at the University of West Virginia, he turned to law and earned his LL.B. It was while practicing law that he wrote his first stories about an unscrupulous lawyer. He also became active in Democratic state politics.
Because of ill health, he gave up the law, and became a full-time writer, whose mystery stories now fill up 12 collections, featuring not only Uncle Abner, but Randolph Mason, and Sir Henry Marquis.
He also wrote four other novels and numerous non-fiction articles. His much praised Uncle Abner stories can be found in three anthologies: Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries (1918), The Methods of Uncle Abner (1974) and The Complete Uncle Abner (1977).He married in 1903 but his infant son died from typhoid at the age of 18 months. He was devoted to his wife and devastated when she died from pneumonia in 1919. It was a blow from which he never really recovered, and he ended up a very lonely man.
The first book which he wrote after his wife's death was The Mountain-School Teacher (1922) in which Jesus seems resurrected in the form of a school-teacher. Previously, when writing the Uncle Abner stories, he seems to have been more preoccupied with the Old Testament. His final religious views were summarized on the over-150-word epitaph, composed by himself, that appears on his grave: "The universe toils in some tremendous purpose. Be not disheartened because the understanding of that purpose is denied you ... Go forward with a high face. The mysterious energies of God labor to some divine perfection."
He had been a constant traveler in America and Europe, particularly admiring aristocratic life in England, but his heart was in West Virginia where he had built his own house and settled down. He had loved horses all his life but, ironically, it was a fall from a horse that led to his death, aged 61.Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries (1918)
Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries was the first anthology, and contained 18 Uncle Abner stories, arranged in no obvious order. They are all told by Abner's nephew Martin (who was looking back to the time when he had been a young boy, aged nine or ten). In the earlier stories he accompanied his uncle and so could see what happened for himself - even if he sometimes had to eavesdrop from a hiding place (such as a snowball bush or in the deep timothy-grass). In the later stories he is not necessarily present himself but still seems able to describe what happened in just as much detail!
The plots are mostly concerned with murder or robbery, and shrewd Abner is always the one who notices the significant clue that allows him to surprise the culprit - and the reader. In these stories, not a word is wasted. As Post himself wrote: "There must be no word or description, explanation or dialogue that is not as essential to the whole structure of the story as every link is essential to the whole structure of a chain." To him, a well constructed plot was one in which "every event should follow the previous one in inevitable sequence, and the explanation should appear suddenly." Then, when all is revealed, the story should end at once: "After the reader discovers who the criminal agent was he does not wish to read the long explanation." How true this is. If only a number of other authors on this site had taken his advice!
Post is often, and quite rightly, regarded as a classic short story writer. The first story in this collection, The Doomdorf Mystery, is one of his best known. Uncle Abner and Justice of the Peace Squire Randolph had come to deal with the violent old law-breaker Doomdorf, whose "drunken Negroes had shot old Duncan's cattle and burned his haystacks". But, after bursting into his room, they find him lying dead with "a great scarlet patch on his bosom and a pool of scarlet on the floor". The little, faded woman who had shown them in cried out, "At last I have killed him!' and "she ran like a frightened hare". Abner and Randolph find the murder weapon: "a fowling piece lying in two dogwood forks against the wall. The gun had just been fired; there was a freshly exploded paper cap under the hammer." Abner calls to another man, a "circuit rider " (travelling preacher) whom they met outside, "Bronson, who killed Doomdorf?"
"I killed him," replied the old man.
"Randolph swore under his breath. "By the Almighty," he said, "everybody couldn't kill him!"
Abner says, "Come with me, Randolph, and I will show you a thing more impossible than this." And he shows him that the door had been bolted on the inside, while outside the windows "the wall of the house is plumb with the sheer face of the rock. It is a hundred feet to the river ... but that is not all. Look at these window frames; they are cemented into their casement with dust .... These windows have not been opened. How did the assassin enter?"
Abner goes on to examine a big silver watch that he had taken from the dead man's pocket. This "was broken by a shot and the hands lay at one hour after noon". Yet at that time both the woman and Bronson were known to be elsewhere. Randolph insists that even so, one of them must be guilty.
"I could better believe it," replied Abner, "but for the running of a certain awful law."
"What law?" asked Randolph. "Is it a statute of Virginia?"
"It is a statute," replied Abner, " of an authority somewhat higher. Mark the language of it: 'He that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword'. Must! Randolph, did you mark particularly the word 'must'? It is a mandatory law. There is no room in it for the vicissitudes of chance or fortune. There is no way round that word. Thus, we reap what we sow and nothing else. It is the weapon in our own hands that finally destroys us. You are looking at it now."
Bronson, who had had roundly condemned the dead man, tells Abner, "I prayed the Lord God to destroy him with fire from heaven, as he destroyed the Princes of Gomorrah in their palaces!"
"With fire from heaven!" Abner repeated slowly to himself. This gave him the clue he needed.
Meanwhile the woman was confessing to Randolph, "I kill him, but have not shoot him", and she showed him "a little crude model of a human figure done in wax with a needle thrust through the bosom" as a pathetic example of her attempted witchcraft. He lets her go, for he knows all too well that "somebody shot Doomdorf. But who? And how did he get into and out of that shut-up room?"
"Through the window," Abner told him.
"Through the window!" echoed Randolph. "Why, man, you yourself showed me that the window had not been opened, and the precipice below it a fly could hardly climb. Do you tell me me now that the window was opened?"
"No," said Abner., "it was never opened."
"The thing is impossible!" Randolph cried. "Men are not killed today in Virginia by black art or a curse of God."
"By black art, no," replied Abner: "but by the curse of God, yes. I think they are." And he went on to restage exactly how Doomdorf had come to be shot.
"It is a world," Randolph concluded, "filled with the mysterious joinder of accident!"
"It is a world," replied Abner, "filled with the mysterious justice of God!
"The central theme of all the stories is the providence of God, and this emerges whether Abner is resolving how a dead man and his horse could be made to vanish, or how thieves could creep through an ordinary keyhole to steal a hoard of gold, or how a man could be shot without leaving any sign of a wound on his body. Set in the wild, brutal frontier land of the Appalachians in the 1840s or 1850s, Abner exposes evil doing and evil doers with a combination of shrewd deductive skill and a powerful personality that can make him sound like the thundering voice of an Old Testament prophet. And, once discovered and denounced, the murderer often feels driven to take his own life. Abner remains "an implacable, avenging Nemesis".
Abner accepts negro servitude as a fact of life. In The Devil's Tools, old Mammy Liza was a much trusted old black servant, who had virtually acted as mother to the little girl of the house. She sat "straight as a rod in her chair, her black silk dress smoothed into straight folds, her square-rimmed spectacles on her nose, and her hands in her lap. If there was royal blood on the Congo, she carried it in her veins, for her dignity was real." But she knows nothing about some missing jewels and is sure that none of the other household servants had taken them. "I's done had all the niggers up before me, an'I ravaged 'em an' searchified 'em. I knows 'em. I knows 'em all - mopin' niggers, an' mealy mouthed niggers, an' shoutin' niggers, an' cussing niggers, and I knows all their carryin' on, an' all their underhan' orneryness, an' all their low-down contraptions. And they knows I know it .... Course we know niggers steals, but they steals eatables an' nobody pays any attention to that .... You can't be too hard on niggers, jist as you can't be too easy on 'em. If you's too hard, they gits down in the mouth, an' if you's too easy they takes the place. A down in the mouth nigger is always a wuthless nigger, an' a biggity nigger is a 'bomination."
Methodism was the prevalent faith in the region, and it was strongly anti-slavery, as were the people of Abner's western hill counties, as opposed to the wealthy plantation owners of the Tidewater areas. There is one story, The Edge of the Shadow, involving a murdered abolitionist. He was admittedly mad and wanting to make himself "a sacrifice of blood", but it is perhaps surprising that Abner does not show any particular sympathy for his cause. A dying householder tells him that the abolitionist lying in his cellar is "dead as all such vermin ought to be. We are too careless in the South of these vicious reptiles. We ought to stamp them out of life whenever we find them. They are a menace to the peace of the land. They incite the slaves to arson and to murder. They are beyond the law, as the panther and the wolf are. We ought to have the courage to destroy the creatures. The destiny of the republic is in our hands."
"My Uncle Abner spoke then: 'It is on God's hands,' he said.
"God!" cried Mansfield. "I would not give house room to such a god. When we dawdle, Abner, the Yankees always beat us."
"The situation in this republic is grave," said Abner. " and I am full of fear. In God's hands the thing would finally adjust itself. In God's slow devious way it would finally come out all right. But neither you, Mansfield, nor the abolitionist, will leave the thing to God. You will rush in and settle it by violence. You will find a short cut of your own through God's deliberate way, and I tremble before the horror of blood that you would plunge us into."
"Should a fanatic who stirs up our slaves to murder," said Mansfield, "be tried like a gentleman before a jury?"
"Aye, Mansfield," replied my uncle, "like a gentleman and before a jury! If the fanatic murders the citizen, I would hang him, and if the citizen murders the fanatic, I would hang him too .... I wlould show New England that the justice of Virginia is even-eyed. And she would emulate that fairness, and all over the land the law would hold against the unrestraint that is gathering,"
"Abner," cried Mansfield, "you are a dawdler like your god. I know a swifter way."
"I am ready to believe it," replied my uncle. "Who killed the mad abolitionist down yonder?"
"Who cares," said the old man, "since the beast is dead?"
"I care," replied Abner.
In Naboth's Vineyard, the last story in the book, there is a character called Nathaniel Davisson who speaks up in court to challenge a corrupt judge. He is described as "very old and the tremors of dissolution were on him". He was, in fact, based on a real-life person, one of Melville Davisson Post's own ancestors.
The Methods of Uncle Abner (1974)
The Methods of Uncle Abner contains the last four Uncle Abner stories (first published in 1927 and 1928, almost 10 years after the previous ones). One of them, The Mystery at Hillhouse, is a "novelet" three times longer than any of the other Abner stories. It is the least satisfactory of all the stories as it is comparatively long-winded and even rather clumsy, as when the author on two separate occasions has to use the phrase "as I have written" to explain why he is repeating himself.
Webster Patterson had been found "dead in the orchard by his house, his pocketbook rifled and his cattle gone". Abner is, of course, able to work out what must have happened to him, although the eventual solution that he comes up with seems a slightly lame one.A main character involved is a cattle trader called Dix. Could this be the same Dix that Abner had chased off in an earlier story - an incident that the author seems to have forgotten about?
Although Martin still tells the stories, he is never actually present. Abner himself (like the author?) seems to grow increasingly gloomy as he reflects, "To what end did the tireless energies of God concern themselves? And of what moment were the tragedies of men? They came and passed, were born and stepped into Eternity. Few and evil - as the third Patriarch said it - usually, were the days of a life. And they vanished clear away! .... Apt and descriptive was the Book of Job! Like a song, like a shadow on a wall were the whole race of men. Of what moment were their little tragedies? How they came and how they passed. Whether one went swiftly and in violence, or slowly in one's bed, did it matter? The thing that mattered was what the soul of man took with him on his way."
One of the other stories, The God of the Hills, includes the travelling preacher, Adam Bird, who is quick to denounce the ungodly with even more zeal than Abner. "Bensen (a swindling judge)," he dramatically declared, "will get the lands he covets. And he shall not escape the damnation that followed Ahab the King of Sumeria; because he takes the land he covets through the act of another. The writing of clerks and the seals of courts shall not bring it to him guiltless, even as the writing of Jezebel and the sealing thereof did not bring the lands that he coveted to Ahab guiltless. I go now, Abner, as Elijah went to the King of Samaria! And if he say like that other, 'Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?' I will answer, I have found thee!" So he out-Abners Abner - but at greater length and in a more woolly sort of way. It seems a bit superfluous to have both of them.
There seems some unnecessary repetition, as when we are told that Benson "had called in a judge from a neighboring circuit to sit with him and decide the case". Then a few pages later we are told again that "Benson wished another judge to sit with him to decide the case". The will that caused all the trouble had been "written by Coleman Northcote, one of the best lawyers in Virginia ... He had written the will only too accurately, with precise care for every technical detail". Then a few pages later, we are told again, "Coleman Northcote had written it (the will) some years before. Northcote was the best chancery lawyer in Virginia, and he made no errors in a legal paper". The will has a codicil that "followed the form in Mayo's Guide. It was written and signed by the testator (Greyhouse) and contained no legal flaw" A few pages on, and what do we find but an explanation that "Greyhouse had added a codicil in his own handwriting, on the blank sheet of the will. The codicil followed the form in Mayo's Guide, and was signed, dated, and sealed in every feature, also as the law required". All this seems a long way from the sparse taut style of earlier stories.Abner still believes in "the providence of God", and stories like The Dark Night, involving an old German Bible "a massive book with a brass clasp and a lock" which was very seldom opened and contained a secret that only Abner could penetrate, still work quite well. But much of the enthusiasm seems to have gone out of the writing.
Old Land, Dark Land, Strange Land (1996)
Old Land, Dark Land, Strange Land is an anthology of short stories by the well regarded short story writer John F Suter, who was invited by the Melville Davisson Post estate to write more stories featuring Uncle Abner although it was over 60 years since the original ones had appeared. This book includes 5 of the 15 Uncle Abner stories that he wrote.
Young Martin still tells the story, but he is much more involved now, as is his mother, Abner's sister. "Martin," she tells him, when a body is pulled from an icy pond, "turn around. You have seen all that I think you should see." He explains, "Frustrated and curious, I tried to slip away to downstairs, where I might not be noticed, but my mother kept close watch on me." He comes across as much more of a real boy now. He was only 7 then and is mentioned as being 10 and 13 in other stories. By the time of The Oldest Law" the white in my uncle's hair and beard was now more noticeable" and, when it comes to pulling metal prongs from a horse's foot, he needs Martin's help: "Now, Martin, you are strong. Take my glove, then grip the prongs and pull hard."
"The oldest law", by the way, according to Abner, predates the Ten Commandments and predates Adam". It is that "all things must change".
Abner himself is much less of an Old Testament patriarch and speaks much more like an ordinary person. He is even quite chatty, as when he says, "I have mixed feelings about a thaw. A good thaw and at least one more hard freeze, and the ground will turn that much easier.... On the other hand, there might be mud under the coach wheels when we go home day after tomorrow. It might be a hard pull at times." This is very different from the no-word-wasted approach of Post's earlier stories.
But some traces of the Old Abner remain. In The Shades of Death, "Abner had been warned against travelling alone as he made his way west toward Wheeling from Baltimore. He replied simply that he was never alone and went on his way". But before long he is taken captive by a group of robbers who are about to "tar" a prisoner they have tied to a tree. "Justice is a thing of God," Abner tells them, "sent down to be dispensed by men who try to measure mortal frailty against the will of God. Law is its chief component, whether that law is divine or written by man. What law has he broken?" But it is Abner who, in the end, by noticing the state of his hands, finally identifies the prisoner as a murderer: "These are not the hands of Esau. They are the hands of Jacob!"
But religion usually plays a smaller part in these stories, except in the best of them, The Unclean Spirit, which is all about an apparently demented murderer, Chapman, who seems to be possessed by a devil. He rejoices that he has killed his victim who had been seen by a witness to fall from a cliff when Chapman had been nowhere near him. "I have only to level my finger and strike a man down - any man. That is what I did to Blackburn! I struck him down and he fell!" Both the preachers, Bronson and Bird, attempt to exorcise the evil spirit but without success, even when Bird commands it to "come forth and enter this beast (a horse)". But nothing happens.
Abner speaks up, "It might be beyond the strength of both of you. Let me try something different."
And he takes Chapman off to be bled by the local doctor. After this, Martin could see "that the man had changed. His eyes no longer rolled, his breathing was slow and steady. He said, "I think I'm myself again, Abner, I thank you." Then, in the end, thanks to Abner's shrewdness and some practical help from 13-year-old Martin, justice is done.
These make a lively and quite interesting set of stories - but Uncle Abner is not the man he was.
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