“Did that Scarecrow Move?”
James J. O'Meara
Reading Matter for Halloween
The Feasting Dead
Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1954
Richmond, Virginia: Valancourt, 2014 (20th Century Classics)
Here’s a delicious Halloween treat from the folks at Valancourt. The Feasting Dead was published by Arkham House in 1954; for some reason, it was the only book they published that year, and it was a rather slim volume at that, since it’s been republished subsequently, by Arkham and others, in various anthologies.
It is, in fact, a novella, what Henry James called “the dear, the blessed nouvelle,” and Constant Readers will know it’s my preferred format, longer than a short story, suitable for reading over a long afternoon and evening, without the time commitment and all too frequent padding and authorial narcissism of the Great Judeo-American Novel or the triple-decker tome of the fantasy genre (Hunger Games III: Mockingjay, Part One — WTF? Thanks, Tolkien).
It’s a format greatly suited to the horror or “weird” genre, as it allows the author to combine the unity of effect that Poe sought, with the careful building of verisimilitude and almost suffocating detail employed by Lovecraft in his late, great works. 
And speaking of James, we might recall that The Turn of the Screw was another Halloween treat, at least in its hardcover appearance,  and as we’ll see we have here another “child in danger” tale.
This time, we don’t have a pater familias who hires a (possibly) hysterical governess but rather a widowed, somewhat impoverished French nobleman who arranges a sort of exchange program; the family will send its two children to stay with a another recently widowed, somewhat impoverished Englishman (his wife was French, from the same region as the nobleman) for the school holidays during the year, while his son, Denis, will stay in provincial France and work on his accent.
The father, our narrator, one Col. Hapgood, is not overly fond of the French children, whom he calls “queer, cryptic little monkeys”; Denis, however, seems to acquire a friend of the bad sort, and when, after a few years, the French father breaks off the exchange — with a cold letter filled with nonsense about family guilt and hauntings and suchlike nonsense, which the Col. attributes only to a combination of typical French rudeness and hysteria — the friend mysteriously shows up at the window, a kind of old family retainer or handyman, named Raoul, somewhat reminiscent of the Dirty French Peasant beloved of British Comedy.
At first annoyed by this presumptuous intrusion, then suspicious, then frightened, he eventually confronts the two in flagrante delicto (though it’s nicely vague as to what exactly goes on between the two). Raoul, whose face, eerily enough, no one has been able to really see, disappears entirely in mid-thrashing, leading Denis to run away to France, whither Hapgood follows, with predictably catastrophic results.
Apart from his ability to deliver what the Col. calls the experience of “A cold grue that of the sort of surprise that is not surprise at all, but eerie confirmation.” Metcalfe delivers his tale with enough delightful linguistic trickery to repay several readings. Most notably, the father takes an instant dislike to the old retainer, which he communicates in the narrative by refusing to designate him other than with a stream of increasingly arcane or provincial derogatory term:
This lay-figure, this fantoche, this hollow puppet.
That Denis’s delicately nurtured boyhood should fall prey to the appetites of an amorphous doll and become the meat of this uncanny zany seemed of all things the most abominable.
. . . looking rather like a well-fed scarecrow
The “scarecrow” image crops up again and again, preparing us for Raoul’s reappearance in France as a scarecrow stalking the boy — or is it only the father’s continued hostile imagination?
I fancied, with a start, that I saw Denis, but no . . . it was only a scarecrow, lingering purposelessly in the stubble.
The scarecrow itself is a powerful symbolic figure: “The field, containing the useless scarecrow.”
The retainer was supposedly murdered in the tower, a traditional symbol of transcendence. But instead, we have his revenant, the “useless,” “purposeless” scarecrow, slowly crossing a field, symbolic of the transit through material existence, suggesting the caretaker is trapped somehow in our samsaric world, magnetically or karmic-ly to the family’s children, off which he lives, apparently, vampirically.
While the running sands of his being received their frightful recompense . . .
“’It’ is something, if you please, that ebbs and flows and that refuses to be satisfactorily dead, something that crops up and comes and goes . . .”
This is also suggested in the doll or puppet images. The colonel’s nightmare in France brings it all together, as he dreams of, among other oddities,
Vaignon addressing a meeting of puppets in the library . . . and even the ridiculous scarecrow, shifting from field to field in a continued march towards the house.
Having located the puppet of fate theme, it’s a pleasantly satisfied expectation that we find its usual accompaniment, the passing of the buck, which here adds the “turn of the screw” to James’ own turn:
Could M. Vaignon . . . have asked Denis to the chateau . . . in order to — to safeguard his children? Could he, at one time, to protect them, to divert something from them and fasten it on Denis, have actually been tempted to promote and foster the disastrous intimacy between Raoul and my boy . . . ?
Another term of abuse, the most arcane yet, is “gaby.”
It was there, that precious gaby was, and it appeared to be more or less passably a man — and, for some revolting reason, it wore mittens.
I had to look that one up in an actual dictionary. Pronounced ˈgā-bē, it’s an archaic word for “simpleton.” Pronounced “gabby” it’s our old friend Gaby Rogers, she of the eyes like jellied fire who sets off the bomb at the end of Kiss Me, Deadly. In my review, I suggested she is, like Raoul here, a revenant.
Lily/Gaby, Christina’s roommate, thus resurrects both Lily by pretense and Christina by becoming Mike’s new naked in a trench coat partner. Confronting his double, Lily/Gaby at the end is like the confrontation of Lovecraft’s “Outsider” with his mirror image in the eponymous story — Hoberman calls him “a walking corpse”; while Pat the Fed already dismissed him in the third person with “Let him go to hell” — and Mike falls dead (with some help from Gaby’s roscoe, of course).
This is Gaby’s final resurrection, the true resurrection — not the ridiculous reanimated corpse (as Alan Watts called it) of the exoteric Christian (Mike, the “walking corpse” brought “back from the dead”) but St. Paul’s Gnostic idea of the Body of Light, with all its parallels in every esoteric tradition.
Now we know why the caretaker wears mittens: to handle the hot box of nuclear destruction that Mike and Gaby seek. As I observed in my Hammer review, Gaby is not only resurrects Lily but passes for Mike with her trench coat, short hair, and, alas for Mike, gun: “passably a man” indeed. I also commented there on Gaby’s checkerboard Chanel suit, and the frequent checkerboard pattern in the set decorations, a clear reference, like the checkerboard floor in James’ ghost tale, “The Jolly Corner,” to the warp and woof of the samsaric “field”motif.
Unlike the scarecrow, she has attained vertical transcendence and exits the scene in a blaze of light.
We’ve already called attention to Gaby’s checkerboard clothing, and her purer pursuit of knowledge. We can say that this Pure Fool has reached the end of the quest. As we’ve noted many times, hideous apocalyptic endings are merely a genre convention. What is important here is that Gaby has achieved a state of pure light, becoming a vertical pillar of fire, combining both the Hermetic symbol of light and verticality and the Judaic YHVH. Again, we recall the homage to the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which presents the negative, inverted Judaic version, in which the search for knowledge and transcendence fails and is punished as sin.
Our scarecrow, Raoul, however (and Denis?), is a sucker, a fall guy, like Mike:
We cut to Mike, who, having been shot by Gaby, has fallen, in an oddly stiff way, like a tree falling, and now lies sprawled at length on the floor. This is the fall into horizontality, the material world of space and time. He and Velda then descend the stairs and flee horizontally across the beach.
Just as Raoul must have “descended” from the tower and now “moves across” the fields. The odd beach house on stilts in the movie is the tower of the French chateau where Raoul was dispatched: we can imagine that Mike returns to it again and again, as Raoul is drawn back to the chateau, seeking a new fall guy.
Now, for those without patience or interest in such metaphysical matters, there’s some metapolitical notions here as well; in particular, the idea of archeofuturism, the presence of the past in its future, today.
On the one hand, here was the mid-twentieth century, with (even in this backwater) the trains, post, newspapers and radio (should M. Vaignon but elect to buy a set) and an occasional avion flying overhead; while, on the other, equally compulsive of assent, there lay — sheer mediaevalism, rank mythology, a weird anachronism of fantastic horror. The two worlds, though interpenetrating, were irreconcilable — and each was true.
This devil’s nook, this baleful twelfth- or thirteenth-century pocket of provincial France, where superstitions and obscene mythologies, instead of just remaining quaintly decorative, had the unpleasant trick of springing suddenly alive and driving mad all those who brooded on them overlong.
“‘Nonsense’– . . . but even nonsense can be dynamic. In its proper realm, where its writ runs and it holds sway, it isn’t nonsense. And it can, often, effectually intrude into a sphere beyond its own. It has become at least mentally real for Denis, and also, up to a point, for you.”
I do not deny that it, or the — the rumour of it, was supposed to have bothered us in the past, but it was presumed to be gone.
As you can see in the first two passages, our English squire associates all this nonsense with feudal, superstitious France. This is the origin of the “Gothic” mood, the idea, frightening to all deicidal Judaics and crypto-Judaics (i.e., Protestants) that all that “horrible” mediaeval stuff could leap out of the grave and take up residence again; Christ’s resurrection, the return of the Stuarts, etc. Needless to say, this is exactly what we’ve based our hopes on.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past. (Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, Act 1, sc. 3)
There are a number of other little delights here; for example, a foreshadowing of Kubrick’s The Shining:
The slight mishap caused him to open his mouth, aghastly, in an unuttered scream.
Such tales, from James to this one to The Shining, always seem to have an undercurrent of either adult panic over the growing sexual maturity of their children, or else outright fear of their pederastic victimization. As per usual in pre-’60s literature, one should always be on the lookout for “innocent” words, especially when they keep recurring; we’ve seen the Col. refer to the French children as “queer . . . monkeys” (foreigners are always queer animals, aren’t they?) and there’s more:
Are you tired . . . after all the camping-out . . . ? [Dennis] regarded me queerly, head cocked. . .
Something in Denis’s queer, locked [?] attitude, in his whole appearance, utterly dismayed and sickened me.
And in the finale, there’s an audaciously surreal moment:
A long box, like a coffin, cocked lewdly up and protruded slowly from [the van], flew out of it towards us, and crashed against us.
Lewdly cocked coffins flying up at us, it’s the sort of thing that would have delighted Harold Beaver, who, in his 300-page commentary on Moby Dick, obsessively notes all such sly ribaldry. More specifically, it certainly recalls Queequeeg’s coffin, foreshadowed by Ishmael and Queequeeg’s snuggly bedtime at the inn run by Peter Coffin, and, as I’m sure Beaver would have suggested, it insinuates a more positive view of the “young man attached to an older foreigner” than Metcalfe allows.
Altogether, this inexpensive paperback or kindle would make an excellent work for reading in a nice comfy chair (with plenty of brandy to drink along with the concerned parents) on Halloween afternoon, or for reading aloud to frighten the younger relatives in the evening.
1. Such as When Evil Wakes, ed. August Derleth; Corgi, 1963; reviewed here.
2. See editor Klinger’s discussion in The New Annotated Lovecraft, and our review here.
3. “The Turn of the Screw” (Collier’s Weekly, January 27-April 16, 1898) appeared in The Two Magics, published in London by William Heinemann and in New York by the Macmillan Company in October 1898. – Library of America website, here.
4. Like many of the old time works reissued by Valancourt, we are in a world where all the English have at least a working knowledge of French; see my remarks on their republication of A. E. Ellis’ The Rack here. As there, and in Mann’s Magic Mountain, French is the convenient language for not saying the unsayable: “He seemed to be trying, unsuccessfully, to say something; then, changing to French, at length got out ‘. . . l’epouvantail, c’est dans . . . Zizi.’”
5. See, for example, the retainer from the chateau that Patsy mistakes for a bum and shoos away in Season 1, Episode 3 of Absolutely Fabulous. “Engle Tear!”
6. The American reader may be amused with Hapgood’s concern over how he could get this no doubt illegal alien through the hoops of the National Health Care system.
7. With all the talk about passports, secret identities, disguise and back-and-forth to France, it’s almost a mini-Bond film, if Bond were a not too bright, middle-aged English country squire.
8. Despite all his supposed erudition, Tito Perdue’s “Lee” is quite outclassed here, as he seldom gets beyond referring to the titular character of Reuben by anything more archaic than “churl” or “varlet.”
9. By who, and why, is, as far as I can determine, never revealed. For one thing, we never know if the family is haunted for their own guilt or as a continuation, post-mortem, of the caretaker’s evil; perhaps the backstory resembles Fredy Kruger’s legend?
10. See my discussion of the puppet and buck-passing themes in my film reviews on this site, and soon, I hope, in my projected volume of collected film reviews, Passing the Buck.
11. “Mike Hammer, Occult Dick: Kiss Me Deadly as Lovecraftian Tale,” here and reprinted in The Eldritch Evola . . . & Others (San Francisco: Counter Currents, 2014)
12. See my discussion, and the references to Guénon et al., in “The Corner at the Center of the World,” here and reprinted in The Eldritch Evola.
13. References to “suckers”always reminds me of Saffy’s great explosion at Patsy (another sucker, and certainly herself a revenant): “Cesspit from hell! Stinking bag of bones that haunts this house everyday like a moldering cadaver! Leeching the life-blood out of everything it can get its filthy suckers onto. Well I’m fed up with being suckered! I will not take this anymore, this is not how it’s going to be!” Absolutely Fabulous, Season 3, Episode 6, “The End.”
14. Thus the Judaic contempt for the goy’s historical piety: “When he [Gore Vidal] was writing a play set during the American Civil War, he recalls Norman Podhoretz asking him, “Why are you writing a play about, of all things, the Civil War?” When Vidal explained that this was/is “the great, single tragic event that gives resonance to our Republic” Podhoretz replied, “To me, the Civil War is as remote and irrelevant as the War of the Roses.” – “Zionism Unbound,” here. In the same way, our neo-conned politics neurotically fears and obsesses over the return of Hitler: “Hitler is reincarnated daily in the War Party’s polemics, where it is always 1939 and the merest impulse to refrain from mass murder is ‘another Munich.'” — “It’s Always World War II,” Justin Raimondo, here.
15. Moby Dick, or The whale / Herman Melville, edited with an introduction and commentary by Harold Beaver. Published in the Penguin English Library 1972, reprinted in Penguin Classics 1986; now sadly retired. This chap found his copy in France, appropriately enough: “The book is a log, with about half as many pages of ancillary material as there are of the novel itself, but the weight and space it took in my pannier wasn’t any concern. I pedaled with it for three months; read it in bars and parks, in hostels and campgrounds; even visited the Heidelberg Tun described in Chapter LXXVII. I still consider it an excellent edition. The editor, Harold Beaver, is described as “Reader in American Literature at the University of Warwick.” It appears that he wanted to put everything needed to appreciate M-D in a single paperback package, with a dream-like Turner painting on the cover.For that first “committed” reading, Beaver’s “Commentary” section was my private tutor, greatly increasing my understanding and appreciation of Melville’s labors. There is about one page of notes for every two pages of source text.”