Hauntings of the Hunted: Preying on Childhood in Classic Hunting Stories
by Jericho Williams
Abstract: [page 9] This essay explores the pivotal roles of horror and the supernatural in two classic hunting stories, William Faulkner’s The Bear (1942) and Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows (1961). Focusing on childhood hauntings, these works feature the pursuits of two notoriously elusive prey animals, a legendary bear named Old Ben and a raccoon known as the ghost coon. Faulkner and Rawls present atmospheres that blur the lines between natural and supernatural, facilitated by elements of rural hunting culture that impact childhood psychology, such as encounters with an unpredictable wilderness populated with prey animals with their own desires, the allure of hunting trophies or of maturation that depends upon hunting, and the nature and function of hunting stories. As a consequence of their pursuits of Old Ben and the ghost coon, protagonists Ike McCaslin and Billy Coleman remain forever changed, haunted by losses that impart the fragility of human and animal bodies and that also facilitate a greater appreciation of the natural world’s complexity.
Keywords: The Bear (1942), childhood, hunting stories, Where the Red Fern Grows (1961), William Faulkner, Wilson Rawls
Like a ghost or uncanny force, the lurking possibility of harm to the human hunter is omnipresent in hunting stories. Even if routinely offstage, this risk bubbles beneath the surface and helps sustain suspense within a body of literature that clarifies why humans might seek to track and kill wild animals. The amount of risk involved, ranging from slight to occasionally more significant, also shapes the meanings of the slain prey that continue to persist in the lives of hunters in the forms of consumption, adornment, decoration, memory, and, in the following instances, hauntings. In two classic hunting stories, The Bear (1942) and Where the Red Fern Grows (1961), authors William [page 10] Faulkner and Wilson Rawls present coming-of-age tales that draw directly from the realm of horror to capture the unpredictability of nature and expose the limits of the human body. These works detail the experiences of two boys who pursue two phenomenal foes so elusive and baffling that they straddle the line between natural and other-worldly: Old Ben, a bear of monstrous size and reputation, and the ghost coon, a mystically evasive raccoon. Faulkner and Rawls portray the rites of passage of boys from rural American subcultures that expect them to become men through learning hunting’s traditional lessons and whose pursuits of two renowned prey animals instead precipitate havoc and great tragedies that haunt their imaginations for the rest of their lives. For Isaac “Ike” McCaslin, pursuing Old Ben in The Bear, and for Billy Coleman, trailing the ghost coon in Where the Red Fern Grows, hunting comes to impart the horrific knowledge of the human body’s fragility, which allows for a greater appreciation of the complexity of the natural world, a deeper understanding of the flaws of an inherited and culturally-ordained anthropocentric pride and of mysteries that transcend human explanations, and a firmer grasp of the uncomfortable processes of death, decay, and regeneration.
An Everlasting Demise
To develop a thematic focus on the passing of time and the changing of hunting values and tradition, Faulkner incorporates what David Del Principe describes as an ecogothic sensibility throughout The Bear. Del Principe notes that this presentational mode represents the Gothic body “as a site for articulation for environmental and species identity” (1). Fictionally, this manifests in a focus on the factors that entangle humans within their natural worlds and that do not “simply reaffirm human primacy” above all other living things (Cohen 114). Faulkner first accomplishes this in The Bear’s opening paragraph, when the narrator [page 11] announces the major players at Ike McCaslin’s hunting camp as equally split between a set of remarkable humans and animals: “There was a man and a dog too this time. Two beasts, counting Old Ben, the bear, and two men, counting Boon Hogganbeck, in whom some of the same blood which ran in Sam Fathers, even though Boon’s was a plebian strain of it and only Sam and Old Ben and the mongrel Lion were taintless and incorruptible” (145). Foreshadowing a major showdown or clash, the narrator insists upon a dog and bear as major actors of a hunting season and pointedly avoids a description that would place either of them in a subservient position. Doubling down on this implication, the narrator further suggests that one of the humans, Boon, is of lesser status in relation to an annual hunting camp than either the bear or dog. In other words, if one of the four dominant characters appears to exhibit even the slightest bit weakness when the story begins, it is a human rather than what turns out to be a nearly invincible nemesis (the bear) or an extraordinary animal (the dog). Altogether, the two men and the two animals act as foundational figures within the slightly off-kilter, ecogothic-oriented world that young protagonist Ike McCaslin comes to inhabit for a period in his life. He is sixteen when he begins his sixth year of an annual, two-week event that occurs during every November. Sam Fathers, a supreme woodsman with Native American and African American origins and the most distinguished hunter at the camp, serves as Ike’s mentor, while a secondary supporter is Boon Hogganbeck, a “brave, faithful, improvident, and unreliable” forty-year-old man, an alcoholic, and a keeper of Lion, the large and willful dog best prepared to track Old Ben (173). Each of these four figures, animal or human and extraordinary or else attempting to be in the case of Boon, towers over Ike, whom Faulkner presents as a boy coming to understand his progress as a hunter and his role within the annual retreat.
After introducing the central figures, The Bear slowly unveils three variable factors—wilderness, hunting trophies, [page 12] and alcohol—that impact the minds and bodies of the human participants throughout the seasonal hunting experience and that occasionally blur the lines between worldly and otherworldly and between real and imaginary. First, there is the towering expanse of wilderness—greater than all of the men and animals, past and present; far larger than the tract of land they occupy; but also “bigger and older than any recorded document” could convey (145). In sheer size, it shrouds the small and temporary camp each fall. The wilderness also offers the hunting party a place to recount stories from past years while also posing a host of unpredictable challenges to its success. Next, the presence of “concrete trophies,” or totemic objects such as animal heads and skins, adorn the camp (145). As tokens of the honorable dead and reminders of past adventures, they spark and deepen the richness of the hunters’ roundtable of stories that collectively honor the past. Third, the constant stimulant of alcohol helps to facilitate storytelling and fuels the men’s imaginations with hope for another great year of hunting. In totality, these elements imbue the hunting experience with mystery, pride, and risk. Each is both a contributing factor to the possibility of transcendence or achievement and a potential danger that might cause the hunters to overestimate their human abilities.
With these factors at play, the narrator shares Old Ben’s history, documenting all that the mysterious and powerful bear encompasses at the beginning of Ike’s sixth hunting season. Most importantly, Old Ben is the only wild animal within one hundred square miles with a human-bestowed name, a “reigning creature” whose exploits permeate the minds of all of the veteran hunters (Williamson 414). His reputation swells with the passing of each season, obsessing the hunters and single-handedly defining the world of the hunting camp that Ike comes into and “inherits” (Faulkner 146). When The Bear begins, accounts of failing to kill Old Ben over the course of five hunting seasons inflame Ike’s imagination. Fantastic stories of terrorized farms, of mangled [page 13] dogs, and of all manners of traps and bullets averted or mocked more or less insist that Ike, who sits at the lower end of the human hierarchy, pursue the bear. He remains transfixed, arguably under Old Ben’s spell, cast from the culmination of the stories of the older men who surround him. The narrator notes that, for as long as Ike can remember, Old Ben has “run in his listening and loomed in his dreams” (152).
From first- and second-hand accounts, Ike hears of Old Ben’s seemingly supernatural potential to destroy any member of the hunting party given the opportunity. It is impossible for the group to reconcile what any bear ought to able to do with what Old Ben has accomplished. Consequently, they conceive of Old Ben as a forbidding force that commands their respect, but which must also be caught and killed in the course of time. The excitement associated with chasing Old Ben also remains inextricably intertwined with the hierarchical desire to subdue their fears of the surrounding wilderness and to conquer all of its lesser-than-human inhabitants. In seeking to destroy Old Ben, the hunters move closer to destroying one of the natural world’s wonders. By spreading their stories afar from the camp and focusing more and more on capturing Old Ben, the men also inch closer and closer towards the destruction of their shared camp and its lore. Describing the spreading encroachment of humanity upon Old Ben’s territory, the narrator explains,
[the] doomed wilderness whose edges were being constantly and punily gnawed at by men with ploughs and axes who feared it … men myriad and nameless even to one another in the land where the old bear had earned a name, and through which ran not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old dead time, a phantom, epitome and apotheosis of the old wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear like pygmies [page 14] about the ankles of a drowsing elephant. (147)
From this vantage point, Old Ben represents all that is wild and that must be destroyed to suit the long-term settling and reorganization of the landscape for human purposes. As an emblem of nature’s unpredictable havoc, walking proof that the “natural world [may still] justifiably rise up against humanity,” Old Ben undermines anthropocentric certainty and poses a great risk to human safety (Murphy 194). The hunters may think and speak of Old Ben as a once-in-a-lifetime adversary, distinct to them because of the exciting threat he presents, but their collective reactive behavior echoes the recklessness of prior generations of American trappers and hunters who nearly eradicated the beaver in the Adirondack Mountains and the American Bison of the Great Plains.
Into this furious world steps Ike, who believes that in order to hunt Old Ben, he must gain comprehensive knowledge about the greater wilderness around him. He cannot know that his plans will fail in the face of Old Ben’s supernatural qualities, which render careful planning and preparation useless without extra assistance. While the other hunters train Lion and other dogs who enable them a reasonable chance at baying the bear, Ike learns to read the woods surrounding the camp and faces his fears of the unknown. In a flashback to the summer following his first November hunting trip, Ike locates a rotted log where he first witnessed Old Ben’s footprint while traversing the shaded woods, amidst a claustrophobic atmosphere “green with gloom” and rife with poisonous snakes (Faulkner 156). Returning to the present, the narrator describes Ike challenging himself to walk through the woods without a weapon. Nine hours into this endeavor, he sets aside both of his mechanized technologies, a compass and watch, to attempt to find his way back to camp on his own, implicitly acknowledging that relying on technologies to dominate the environment is crippling and inadequate. When Ike fails a few hours into this journey, he backtracks and, in a [page 15] marvelously suspenseful scene, first encounters Old Ben:
Then he saw the bear. It did not emerge, appear: it was just there, immobile, fixed in the green and windless noon’s hot dappling, not as big as he had dreamed it but as big as he had expected, bigger, dimensionless against the dappled obscurity, looking at him. Then it moved. It crossed the glade without haste, walking for an instant into the sun’s full glare and out of it, and stopped again and looked back at him across one shoulder. Then it was gone. It didn’t walk into the woods. It faded, sank back into the wilderness without motion. (159)
Depicting Ike frozen in disbelief and in place, the narrator amplifies their relationship in this scene, pitting the young expert in training versus the formidable foe, which peers at him colossally and then dissolves in a ghost-like manner. The bear conveys a strong sense of mystery and magic; the only way that Ike can make any sense of its actions is to compare them to those of a fish that he once watched surface and then sink “without any movement of its fins” (159). Occurring during the midst of Ike’s self-initiated test to see if he can fully grasp the disorienting woods around him, the surprising scene, which suddenly reveals far more than he expected, clouds Ike’s mind with the powerful, supernatural qualities long associated with Old Ben.
From this time forward and long before the hunters finally succeed in capturing him, Old Ben haunts Ike. The boy attempts to alleviate this fear by obsessively becoming even more adept at understanding the wilderness in human terms. Describing the extent of Ike’s environmental education during the course of the three-year period after his first encounter with Old Ben, the narrator notes, “if the backyard squirrels [were] his kindergarten, then the wilder-ness the old bear ran was his college, and the old male bear itself ... [was] his alma mater” (160). During this period, the boy experiences a second encounter with Old Ben when the bear stumbles upon him and a small dog, which foolishly [page 16] charges towards the bear. Ike instinctually tosses his gun aside and dives to save the dog, experiencing what will be his closest encounter with Old Ben, so close that the bear’s hot and rank odor temporarily smothers him. Minutes later, after the bear vanishes, Sam Fathers asks him why he did not shoot the bear, a question that Ike disregards. This situation may be read as a young boy panicking and acting irresponsibly when faced with the possibility of losing a cherished dog, yet remains complicated by the fact that Ike has ostensibly been dreaming for a shot at Old Ben for three years and appears to have bypassed his chance. Alter-natively, Ike’s inaction suggests the intertwining of his fear with the budding formation of his long-term, environmental philosophy. Subconsciously, by choosing to abandon his gun in this situation, like his compass or watch a few years before, Ike surrenders himself to the wilderness for what it is rather than something he can tame or control. The safety of an unnamed and heretofore unmentioned dog seems far less satisfying at a deeper psychological level than the realization that to shoot a bear of Old Ben’s stature in a non-hunting situation would not be in accord with Ike’s growing understanding of hunting as an activity where “slayer and slain are a part of a brotherhood” and which ought to inspire mutual reverence and fear (Sykes 112). To shoot Old Ben suddenly feels counter to Ike’s emerging philosophy that honors the wilderness for the fear and mystery that it contains. It also demands that Ike reject what the hunters around him feel is his responsibility to be brave. Long before Old Ben meets his demise, he evokes supernatural qualities in staring down Ike, choosing not to attack him, and then quietly receding into wilderness, directly defying what the hunters might expect of a legendary animal of his stature.
Although Old Ben’s demise happens not directly to involve Ike, it—the culmination of the multi-year process—marks his own troubled birth into the wilderness as an individual hunter when it destroys the lives of all of the major players in his hunting life and initiates the demise of [page 17] the celebrated hunting camp. In the section leading up to the capture and death of Old Ben, the increasingly bear-obsessed Ike becomes an observer to the preparation of a tragedy that he has no way of knowing will occur but which will trail him for the remainder of his life. Contributing to the hunt is the addition of Lion, the dominant and large mastiff whom Boon Hogganbeck trains and shepherds and who becomes the trailing partner whom the hunters need, i.e. the only dog capable of tracking Old Ben. When they finally confront Old Ben during the climactic hunt, Lion jumps Old Ben, thwarting a clear shot, which prompts Boon to dive into the scuffle and stab Old Ben with a knife. Nearly at the same time that Lion, Old Ben, and Boon tumble, a nearby Sam Fathers collapses; when the action ceases, Boon has killed the bear with the heavily mutilated Lion hanging on to support him while Sam dies nearby. Soon afterwards, Lion also passes. Boon eventually recovers, but Ike changes indefinitely as a key era of his life crumbles with the loss of three key figures in his hunting life. Now without its storied foe, the hunting camp loses its allure and soon joins Old Ben, Lion, and Sam with its own collapse within a matter of a year. Consequently, the pivotal hunting scene in The Bear forces readers to reevaluate the story. Old Ben’s uncanny presence does not only embody supernatural qualities. In hindsight, it becomes pivotal, even if ephemeral, because of the legend that surrounds Old Ben. What entices the hunters also forestalls the selling of the land and its transformation into a landscape that will, in the course of time, no longer support a bear population.
One haunting aftereffect is the great sense of loss that Ike perceives when he returns to the camp two years later, just before loggers harvest all of its trees. On his way, a new mill occupying a couple of acres with “what looked like miles and miles of stacked steel rails” shocks Ike, and, climbing aboard a train that will transport him to an area close to the former hunting camp, he longingly peers into the “wall of wilderness ahead within which he would be able to hide [page 18] himself” (Faulkner 243). In this moment, Ike intuits the potential end of childhood wilderness experiences like his own in the face of anthropocentric material progress and greed. Even as he conceals himself within his memories, the abrupt human tampering of landscape vexes him. A trip to pay tribute to Sam, Lion, and Old Ben triggers Ike’s relinquishment of his ties to the place where he learned to hunt, as he realizes that an increase in development and logging may also conclude an era in which people explored their commonalities with animals through the predator-prey relationships of hunting. Ike revisits the spot of Old Ben’s demise, now the graves of Sam and Lion, whom the hunter party honored by burying with one of Old Ben’s paws. In his remembrance of the tragedy, Ike reconciles his losses through their absorption into the earth. Thoughts of Old Ben still linger, however. The narrator articulates what Ike realizes is now absent: “... the long challenge and the long chase, no heart to be driven and outraged, no flesh to be mauled and bled” (251).
Instead, all that visibly remains of the annual hunts, Ike soon realizes after sounds interrupt his thoughts, turns out to be a crazed Boon Hogganbeck struggling to repair his gun underneath a lone tree filled with squirrels. The absurdity and irony are too much to bear, and Ike moves on. He realizes that he cannot return to hunting camp in a similar manner as in the past; during the next three years, he releases his command of land again, this time his inheritance of blood-stained farmland orchestrated and made profitable through slave labor. The forces of timbering and slavery, which altered the wilderness in the past, and speculation and development, which appear pivotal in the future, render Ike—like Old Ben—without a place of his own. Reflecting on his coming of age chasing Old Ben, Ike realizes that humanity’s grander curse is the need to control and monetize landscapes that would otherwise allow a towering, grandiose animal such as Old Ben to flourish and stories of his exploits to proliferate. Although Faulkner [page 19] contextualizes Ike’s denial of his inheritance through a greater realization of the darker aspects of his family history in the peculiar fourth section of The Bear, this investigation ultimately remains inseparable from what Old Ben and the wilderness teach Ike, namely that human greed and the fear-induced need to master wilderness landscapes threaten not only the land itself but also the memories that sustain it, mark it as sacred, and elevate the need for conservation or preservation measures.
Ghosting Childhood Away
Supernaturalism also invigorates and adds a layer of complexity to Wilson Rawls’s Where the Red Fern Grows, principally a moving portrayal of childhood companionship with two dogs and an ode to the beauty of the Ozark Mountains. This novel was a staple text for elementary classrooms throughout the United States for decades, and its proponents celebrate Rawls’s portrayal of a boy’s relationship with two dogs that become his companions and protectors. Despite all of the affirmative qualities and the lessons that it offers, Where the Red Fern Grows concludes in a memorably sad fashion as a result of a horrifying accident. While it oscillates from a coming-of-age story to an adventure tale, the novel also depicts and depends upon “unsettling and horrific depictions of the natural world,” which Tom Hillard highlights as central to the function of horror within the context of environmentally-oriented writing (“Deep” 691). Adopting a frame narrative from the vantage point of an adult reconsidering his childhood, Rawls immerses readers in an isolated outdoor setting that always harbors the potential for unexpected violence, which shapes childhood impressions that continue to linger into adult-hood; his novel illustrates how seemingly supernatural elements within the realm of the natural world help one boy better to comprehend the frightening frailties associated with human and animal life. [page 20]
In the opening chapter, as an older and comfortably settled Billy Coleman walks home from work in a town far removed from the Ozark Mountains, he stumbles onto a dogfight that causes him to revisit the suppressed emotions of his childhood. The adult Billy recounts, “When I left my office that beautiful spring day, I had no idea what was in store for me. To begin with, everything was too perfect for anything unusual to happen …. [It was] one of those rare days when everything is right and nothing is wrong” (Rawls 1). The outdoors-centered lifestyle that he cherished as a child has completely vanished, only to be replaced by a resigned sense of anthropocentric complacency. The shock of the dogfight immediately stuns him and shakes his comfort away, causing him to think about the nature’s cruelty and violence. Helena Feder notes that the moments that jolt humans into “recognizing the existence of other animal cultures” hasten the undoing of problematic ideologies that position humans as separate and superior (2). When Billy abandons his familiar routine and assists one dog mercilessly under attack, he breaks from his human-centered comfort zone and circles back to his childhood experience with companion animals now far removed from his adult life. Abruptly reminded of the natural world’s darker elements, Billy’s “fighting blood” begins to boil as he recalls how his former companions once saved his life. He stops the fight and then takes the malnourished hound back to his home and cares for him; later, he realizes that the dog is un-fit for the confined spaces in town (2). When Billy releases the dog a couple of days later, a host of childhood recollections and “memories of a wonderful love, unselfish devotion, and death in its saddest form” resurface, inviting the beginning of his story, a tale that sheds insight into not only the deep bonds between humans and companion animals but also fears of the supernatural sometimes associated with hunting (5).
Prior to triumphant hunts and tragedy, Billy’s recollections begin when he is ten years old and desperate to attain [page 21] a hunting companion, and they reveal that natural and supernatural impressions shape his childhood development. Unlike Ike McCaslin in The Bear, Billy does not visit a hunting camp annually, and hunting for him is not a grand affair. Rather, it is a significant part of his daily life. He hunts obsessively around his house, tracking lizards, rats, and frogs, all the while wishing for dogs to help him trail other animals he cannot hunt on his own, such raccoons or rabbits. When he stumbles upon an advertisement for coon-hound puppies left in a magazine at an abandoned fishing camp, Billy believes it to be a sign meant for him and embarks on a quest to attain two dogs. Foreshadowing greater and graver supernatural events to come, Rawls depicts how an old K.C. Baking Powder can that Billy locates in trash pile appears to “glow with a radiant whiteness” once he has worked hard and saved enough money to purchase the puppies (21). Later, during Billy’s return trip after traveling to purchase the puppies, he camps out in a cave in the mountains along the way, where he and his dogs experience the nearby presence of a mountain lion. He recalls, “The high pitch of the scream shattered the silence of the quiet night. The sound seemed to be all around us. It screamed its way into the cave and rang like a blacksmith’s anvil against the rock walls. The blood froze in my veins” (45). He remembers its “hellish scream,” which terrorizes him all night while at the same time helping him to bond with his pup-pies. On the way home the next day, he ventures into the same fishing camp where he found the magazine advertisement and finds the names Little Ann and Old Dan carved into a tree. He reflects, “It was then I realized that it was all too perfect,” as he adopts these names for his dogs (48). At this point in the novel, before any of the major hunts occur, Where the Wild Fern Grows appears almost as a magical success story about how a boy attains the dogs he wanted. The unexpected advertisement, the magical can, the unlikely encounter with a mountain lion, and the appearance of the two names carved into the tree together [page 22] constitute, from the perspective of a child, an inexplicable set of fortunate events. It represents Wilson Rawls’s assertion of how the supernatural and unexplainable impressions can shape and solidify childhood relationships as much as encounters with the natural world—and precedes even greater revelations once Billy starts hunting with Little Ann and Old Dan.
With his companions at his side or ahead of him following a trail, Billy slowly apprehends the Ozark wilderness as an endless landscape of mystery and terror. He is able to venture further away from home to hunt, but with the awareness that he is also responsible for the safety of his dogs. As the trio becomes proficient and then very successful at hunting raccoons, the process entails learning to accept the fear of the unknown as central to the hunting experience. They hunt in the forests at night, enmeshed with unpredictable and often invisible impediments to their success. Amidst powerful depictions of the agencies of wild animals, Billy, Old Dan, and Little Ann move alongside other predators who prove to be equally as intelligent. Billy learns to react to the sounds and surprise appearances of other animals with their own nighttime interests. Altogether, Rawls suggests that even though Billy loves hunting more than anything else, the wooded areas that he traverses can never be fully knowable. He does not make an attempt to navigate the woods alone, like Ike McCaslin, once he has the dogs, but he comes to better understand the chorus of other animals with their own desires and agencies. By minimizing Billy’s stature, illustrating his dependence upon Old Dan and Little Ann, infusing the story with elements of fear, and showing the craftiness of the wild animals, Rawls hints at the real dangers that exist before the story steers towards the uncanny.
With a supernatural atmosphere, the woods suddenly begin to function as a dark presence for Billy, or as an “extension” of his human anxiety over protecting his companions (Hillard, “From” 116). Although hunting goes [page 23] well for Billy, Old Dan, and Little Ann, their great luck unravels in the quest to capture the ghost coon, an animal known for disappearing whenever hunters imagine they have cornered it in a tree. When they first begin hunting, Billy recounts an incident of a raccoon that Little Ann and Old Dan failed to locate, owing to the fact that it appeared to climb a water oak tree and then “disappeared in the stars” (75). Other than this situation, Billy and his dogs are almost always successful. Still, Rawls suggests that skill and practice are sometimes no match for a seemingly supernat-ural occurrence, and nowhere is this more apparent than in their hunt for the ghost coon. Before the hunt occurs, the stakes are high. Rubin and Rainey Pritchard, two boys known for their bullying and adversarial behavior, provoke Billy’s grandfather; in turn, he bets them two dollars that Billy and the dogs can capture the ghost coon, which fre-quents the Pritchards’ vicinity. The rules of the proposed hunt are simple: Billy, Little Ann, and Old Dan will hunt the ghost coon, while the Pritchard brothers accompany them. Once they enter the forest, however, the situation becomes tense, with echoes of the supernatural at play. No-where in the story does Billy feel as much pressure as he does while hunting the ghost coon. He desperately wants to win the bet for his grandfather, but to have a chance at accomplishing this goal, he must hunt with hateful boys whom he despises. Simultaneously, the ghost coon thrives under high pressure conditions and continually subverts Billy’s expectations during the hunt. It is both the largest and smartest raccoon whom Billy has ever encountered and, like Old Ben in The Bear, displays a baffling amount of skill beyond what one would expect from even the most talented of its peers. When the dogs pick up its trail, the ghost coon crosses a river several times; when Billy anticipates that it will swim downstream to avoid the dogs, it swims upstream. Then it hides, leaving Old Dan and Little Ann bewildered, and cleverly avoids them until Little Ann finally locates it. Throughout these twists and turns of events, Billy’s anxiety [page 24] increases dramatically. At the moment when he imagines that the ghost coon will move away from them, it swims directly towards Billy, dashes out of the river, and ascends what the Pritchard brothers describe as its favorite tree. The ghost coon’s unpredictability astonishes Billy as much as it frustrates him, and because he is as amazed as much as perplexed, the situation temporarily weakens Billy’s drive to capture it.
The dizzying hunt abruptly morphs from a supernatural atmosphere to a tenser situation that upends all that Billy knows and believes about hunting. He climbs the tree where the dogs locate the ghost coon’s scent, but the animal is nowhere to be found. Perplexed, Billy descends and entertains a discussion about ghosts with the Pritchard brothers, who brag about the ghost coon’s disappearance from the same tree a dozen times. Here, Rawls implies one of two possibilities: either the ghost coon might be an actual apparition, or it has thwarted the efforts of three boys and two dogs by returning to a predetermined hiding place, thereby indicating a more calculating raccoon than Billy had ever imagined possible. Rawls also suggests at this partic-ular moment that neither the humans nor the dogs can account for the ghost coon’s disappearance. Rubin puts it most succinctly when he exclaims, “I don’t believe in ghosts either, but facts are facts” (139). Frustrated, Billy relents, and Rubin pockets his two dollars while they prepare to go home. However, a sudden and unexpected breeze alerts Billy’s dogs to a scent that leads them towards an old fence post near the tree. Billy quickly deduces the ghost coon’s method of deceiving them into thinking that it was in the tree before dropping from a branch onto the fence post and hiding inside it. Standing on Rubin’s shoulder, Billy uses a Jimson weed to prod the raccoon, which jumps directly towards him, begins fighting with Old Dan, and then escapes back up the tree. As Billy climbs the tree, he undergoes a change of heart when he hears the ghost coon’s cry and contemplates its extraordinary feat. He abruptly [page 25] changes his mind and announces his decision to conclude the hunt, as the maddening experience of tracking the ghost coon transforms into the need to revere its accomplishment and release it. The cry of this seemingly supernatural raccoon urges Billy to quit the chase, but it also initiates a bleaker, more haunting tragedy.
In the next scene, Rawls dissolves the line between a routine childhood hunting adventure and gruesome horror to show how easily the supposedly tame world of humans and their companion animals can mirror the brute violence of predator-prey relationships associated with the wild. From the ghost coon’s vantage point, suddenly the safest of all, mass chaos ensues below. Roles reverse and the social hierarchy breaks down, with the ghost coon seeming more rational than the boys. Billy’s declaration of his change of heart angers the Rainey brothers, and their penchant for bullying reemerges as Rubin and Billy begin arguing about the fate of the ghost coon. Rubin forces Billy to the ground and threatens to kill him just before the situation becomes even stranger when the Pritchards’ dog Old Blue appears and begins fighting with Old Dan. When Little Ann comes to his defense, Rubin grabs an ax and attempts to harm Billy’s dogs before tripping and fatally falling onto the weapon. By the time that Billy pulls Old Dan and Little Ann away, Rubin is bleeding extensively, and Old Blue appears torn and severely injured. The hunt concludes in a catastrophic tragedy, with the ghost coon observing the boys and dogs striving to destroy each other and, later, with the death of Rubin. Looking into the tree one last time, Billy sees the “bright eyes of the ghost coon” and thinks, “Everything that happened on this terrible night was because of his existence” (147). The grand ironic reversal of the hunt, when boy turns upon boy and dog upon dog, and the concluding image of the ghost coon watching from the tree—and specifically, witnessing how human anxieties related to pride, bullying, and the fear of losing a beloved pet reach a boiling point and explode—shows the capabilities of wildlife to push back [page 26] against human assumptions and expectations. While not directly involved in Rubin’s death, the ghost coon’s elusive-ness and actions conjure much of the atmosphere that ena-bles the shocking turn of events, and in the days following the tragedy, Billy “wander[s] around in a daze” and suffers from terrible dreams (150). Arguably, even though he returns to hunting, Billy is never fully the same. The long-lasting consequences of the failed ghost coon hunt also fore-shadow the greater tragedy at the end of the novel, when Billy loses both of his dogs following an encounter with a mountain lion.
Near the conclusion of Where the Red Fern Grows, Rawls charts a new course by stressing the possibility of regeneration and growth following a horrifying event. When Old Dan and Little Ann die, Billy buries them together, and during the following spring, his family prepares to move away from the Ozarks. As in the case of Ike McCaslin in The Bear, the tragic loss of his companions isolates Billy. Eventually, he, like Ike, summons the courage to confront the aftermath. Billy decides to visit their gravesites just before moving, and there he discovers a red fern growing above their graves. He notes, “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There between the graves, a beautiful red fern had sprung up from the rich mountain soil” (246). Immediately, the scene causes Billy to recall a Native American legend about the sacred red fern, which claimed that “only an angel could plant the seeds of red fern, and that they never died, where one grew, that spot was sacred” (246). Like the earlier set of inexplicable coincidences that cumulatively afforded him the possibility of purchasing the puppies, the appearance of the red fern seems beyond the scope of Billy’s under-standing, an incident explicable only by legend. Still, if their deaths buried his childhood, the red fern reinvigorates Billy. With this scene, Rawls directs the story in a more affirming direction than that of Faulkner’s Ike, who revisits the hunting camp to find the timber industry gradually making its expanse disappear and a crazed Boon Hogganbeck [page 27] fumbling with his gun under one remaining, squirrel-swarmed tree. The future for Ike’s former hunting grounds and Boon do not look promising, principally because the wilderness is under siege, and Boon resists change in a starkly futile manner. Faulkner offers no explanations. Ike is set to forge his own path, which, while richly informed by his hunting camp experiences, can perhaps never fully es-cape its crushing, anthropocentric demise. By contrast, Billy walks away from a majestic red fern that commemorates Little Ann and Old Dan and reaffirms his childhood experiences as special even if painful.
In the novel’s final few paragraphs, Rawls returns to the story’s opening frame, reminding readers that an older Billy Coleman tells the story. The mature Billy expresses his desire to return to the Ozarks and pay tribute to his child-hood dogs. Describing the red fern that he imagines as still thriving above their graves, Billy says, “I know it is still there, hiding its secret beneath those long, red leaves, but it wouldn’t be hidden from me for part of my life is buried there, too” (249). Outwardly and symbolically, the legendary red fern suggests the impossibility of humans fully controlling the destiny of the natural world. Inwardly, as Billy suggests, its vibrant presence encompasses not only childhood joy but also horrors associated with the great hunt for the ghost coon and the later losses of his dogs. As in the case of The Bear, the closing of Where the Red Fern Grows proclaims wildernesses—with their bizarre and unpredict-table events and many animal agencies at play—to be environments where one great hunt can unexpectedly spiral into madness or great sorrow.
Hunting areas exist as outdoor spaces where humans occasionally become prey to animals, their minds, or some-thing equally as inexplicable. Although protagonists Ike McCaslin and Billy Coleman survive the hunts for Old Ben and the ghost coon, Faulkner and Rawls reveal how hunting’s childhood hauntings can prompt what amounts to a lifetime of internal change. [page 28]
Ike relinquishes his ties to inherited lands rooted in the exploitation of slavery, suffers the consequences of being an outsider, and carves his identity largely by hunting independently for the remainder of his life, while Billy walks away from hunting after the deaths of Old Dan and Little Ann and ultimately associates their passing as a marker of the transition from childhood to adulthood. For both Ike and Billy, memories of their formidable foes never appear to vanish, and their childhood hauntings continue to inform their adult identities. To this extent, Faulkner and Rawls forewarn that the natural world, while always worthy of preservation and still deserving of human attention, will periodically continue to bear its fearsome, (super)natural claws.
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Jericho Williams is a professor of English at Spartanburg Methodist College. His research fields include American literature, African American literature, and environmental literature. He has published essays related to the ecogothic or supernatural in Plant Horror (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and Ecogothic in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (Routledge, 2017) and hunting stories in The Thoreau Society Bulletin, Studies in American Culture, and The James Fenimore Society Journal.
MLA citation (print):
Williams, Jericho. "Hauntings of the Hunted: Preying on Childhood in Classic Hunting Stories." Supernatural Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Art, Media, and Culture, vol. 6, no. 2, 2020, pp. 9-29.