When Text was founded in Australia in 1990 Diana Gribble did it as she wanted to find books that enlighten, challenge and entertain. Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s The Scarecrow, which is from Text’s imprint of classics which find out of print and/or forgotten Australian classics and reprint them, certainly falls into the challenging category. It is a book which is quite unlike anything I have read before in terms of its genre bending but also a book that after reading it I genuinely couldn’t decide if it was a work or genius or one of the nastiest books I have ever read. Yup, one of those kinds of reads…
Text Classics, paperback, 1963 (2012 edition), fiction, 232 pages, kindly sent by the publisher
The same week our fowls were stole, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.
And so begins The Scarecrow, with a duality of rural family drama and the macabre which are the two tones that it keeps and switches between as it proceeds. In the small town of Klynham we see life through the eyes of Neddy Poindexter a boy who likes a bit of trouble and adventure and who is, as the book opens, looking for revenge on the Lynch Gang who he believes have stolen his chickens and so steals some back. Initially the Lynch Gang seems to be the most sinister thing in Neddy’s life, well that and his sisters sudden growing up and blossoming, yet when Hubert Salter turns up in town, not long after a young woman is murdered in a town nearby, and seems to take a liking to Neddy’s sister Prudence we the reader know things are going to get a whole lot darker.
What I wasn’t quite prepared for was just how dark the book was going to get. It is not a spoiler to say that Salter is the murderer, we know that from early on and are confirmed it not too much later when Salter reminds himself of the power and enjoyment he felt when he killed another victim, his sidekick at a circus. He is possibly one of the nastiest and creepiest characters I have come across in quite some time and I actually had one genuine nightmare that involved him. Yet here is where one of the many dualities of the novel lies as when we first meet Salter, despite being fairly certain of what he has done, we see him in a slightly comic and awed view through the eyes of a young girl when he first appears in the book.
Time went by and Lynette became so bored and angry that, when a door creaked open and they were joined by another passenger, she could have cheered. Although she had been reared in city streets which abounded in unusual looking characters, her eyes became round as she studied the newcomer. He looked as tall as a lamp post and carried about the same amount of fat. His dishevelled dark suit of clothes hung limply around his bony structure. He was so thin, so gaunt, he looked as if he might belong to the walking dead. In spite of the censor’s ruling, Lynette had seen not one, but an entire series of films about the walking dead and considered herself an authority on the subject.
‘A zombie,’ she breathed.
Morrieson does this a lot in the book and it one of the reasons I can’t decide if he is a genius or just a bit of a pervert. For example when Neddy finds himself in trouble with the Lynch Gang not only do we soon learn that there is some young male homosexuality (underage) going on, the head of the gang himself says he will not give Neddy a beating if he convinces his sister Prudence to come to their hideout where essentially all the boys can molest her. I found myself doing a double take. This is just the beginning, what follows through the novel is more murder, rape and even at one point some necrophilia. Salter ends up working in Klynham’s funeral parlour with some of Neddy’s relations, seriously Salter is the epitome of vile. It makes the alcoholism and beatings side of the family saga part of the story seem almost light hearted.
You may be wondering why I read on? Well, there is something in The Scarecrow which can only be described as like a literary car crash. I don’t mean the book is badly written, not at all though admittedly there is something strange (yet also almost credibly original) about a boys own coming of age and adventure story which is also a study of the horrors of the thoughts and actions of a psychopath, not at all. What I mean is there is something about the writing which means you just cannot look away, even when it gets at its darkest and even at its most sinister and terrifying. It is a real dichotomy.
‘Where was he – in the shed?’
‘Yeah but hang on, yuh ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Next thing I hear a voice sorta whisper, Proo-oo-dence, Proo-oo-dence, y’know that sorta soft voice, Proo-oo-dence, Proo-oo-dence…’
‘Shut up,’ I said terrified. ‘Go on, go on.’
‘Well, say I was too scared to run, but I musta sorta kept on walking sideways and I see this big, long shadow coming out of the shed reaching out to me, Proo-oo-dence, Proo-oo-dence, and I let out one yell tuh wake the dead and took to muh scrapers. And how! Muh hair was standing on end, boy.’
‘Shee-wit!’ I said.
‘Yuh can say that again,’ said Prudence.
I find The Scarecrow a real quandary. On the one hand what we have is at once a coming of age tale and yet also a book about a psychopathic serial killer. Could Morrieson actually be a genius for writing a novel that so viscerally looks at small town Australian life and both its picturesque facade then highlighting all that is going on behind closed doors and the dark reality of the grimmer aspects of life? Part of me says yes, yet part of me also thinks it all goes slightly too far. How confronting and graphic do we need a novel to go, when does dark humour actually become just plain wrong, when does something shocking and provoking actually become distasteful and perverse? These are the questions that The Scarecrow made me ponder after having read it, well after just sitting in a stunned silence for about twenty minutes once closing the book. Again this reaction only adds to the quandary of whether it is one of the darkest nastiest books I have ever read or a work of complete dark disturbing genius, the jury is still out for me even weeks after I have read the book.
Either way I have to give credit to Text for publishing The Scarecrow, it is a brave move to publish something which even 50 years after publication has the power to shock and challenge so provocatively. It makes me intrigued, excited and rather nervous about heading to the four other Text Classics titles I have on my shelves. Yet the thing is we need fiction like this now and again don’t we, to give us a jolt. Look at American Psycho a book I am weirdly glad I read but never want to read again thank you very much. Maybe this is Australasian Psycho? (I know someone will soon point out Morrieson is from New Zealand!) Who else has read it and what did you think?