I have been in the mood to read something that truly scares me. That's pretty rare. I'm not a person who scares easily. It's possible that some modern writers are told to dial it back when they write scary books, because who knows, a kid could be reading them.
I dunno. But I do know that I have been feeling the lack of genuine scares lately, so I went to my local used bookstore and browsed the shelves in their horror section. I like used book stores because they usually have much larger horror sections than a chain store might, and they definitely have a lot of older stuff there, stuff you will never see on book shelves in modern book stores anywhere ever again.
I happened upon this book almost by mistake. It was one of the last ones on the shelf, and it was shoved behind some others, almost like the store wanted to hide it. One look at it and I knew it was old, quite possibly a first edition. The book was clearly first published long ago, and this one has been well-loved. Its pages are yellowed, dog-eared all over the place. The cover was peeling up and near to falling off. Actually, the cover is what caused me to pick it up. There was precious little description on it. Other than its title and the author's name, the front contained no information, and on the back cover, there was simply a Yeats quote.
"The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"
That poem always gives me the shivers, and I was impressed by the decision to put it on the back, even if I did wonder what it had to do with a scarecrow. The first page had an excerpt, and it seemed to be about a farmer and his haunted scarecrow. That...really didn't sound too horrifying, but if the cover made me pick it up, the quote is what made me take it to the cashier. At worst, I would have wasted five bucks. At best, I might have a genuine undiscovered classic on my hands.
The cover of the book made it feel both ancient and timeless. It was very simplistic, but it evoked something in me; some primal feeling that I found impossible to ignore. I might be making too much out of it, but I got a sense of foreboding looking at that cover. Modern novels tend to go all out, and create an image of a monster that might be found in a special-FX-laden big-budget horror schlock-fest designed to do little more than get teenaged asses in seats. This cover was far more minimalist, but conveyed more of a sense of unease in me than a million "killer scarecrow" movies ever could. So, I picked it up and brought it home.
I'm only a few pages in, but already starting to feel like I've made a mistake. I've never heard of R. Scabree before, but from the first few pages, he doesn't strike me as much of a writer. He goes pretty light on the scares and when he does try and scare you, he uses a torrent of cliches that I doubt would scare a five-year-old. I'm being a little more forgiving, though, because the book isn't very long, and it's not unlikely that these cliches weren't cliches at all when Scabree was writing them. Hell, he might have invented some of them.
The story, believe it or not, spends surprisingly little time out on the farm, or anywhere near the titular scarecrow. It's actually strangely political; mostly about this fifty-ish farmer named Fenton McCall and his tireless efforts to throw the local Farmer's Union rep out of his town, because he doesn't feel that they'll be fair to the workers. At least, that's mainly what it's about in the first three chapters. The only time the scarecrow itself makes an appearance is at the end of chapter one, wherein McCall has just finished setting it up, and thinks to himself that it's a "mighty fine scarecrow". That's literally all the scarecrow action we've gotten thus far.
There was one scene that was slightly unsettling, wherein McCall, who has been depicted as a stern but loving husband, snaps at his wife and calls her a "nosy bitch" when she asks about the assembly meeting he's just come home from. Just that one part, that's all that's gotten under my skin, and even then it was less about the out-of-character behavior and more just a sense that scene gave me that not all is well.
UPDATE: As it turns out, I was right about the scene being meant as unsettling. It's becoming clear as I read that Fenton McCall is slowly losing his mind. That's kinda more like a horror story, but still not particularly frightening. What does it have to do with the scarecrow, you ask? Well, as McCall's madness grows, he begins to imagine the scarecrow talking to him and following him as he does his work on the farm. It whispers horrific ideas, or at least, ideas that Scabree clearly hopes you'll find horrific, in his mind about murdering his nagging wife, and burning down the town assembly hall at the next meeting.
However, there was one thing I wasn't prepared for. The book is illustrated. I'm not kidding. I don't know how I missed that when I flipped through the book at the store, but there it is. The art is something special, not at all in tone with the rather boring book. I flipped to the incredibly sparse credits page and could not find mention of an artist, except the one for the cover image, and he clearly isn't the guy who made the illustrations on the inside.
His style is very vivid even if it's also simplistic. His drawings look almost like photographs, except blurry, or with eyes shown as glowing holes. I've scanned in the first image, which I trust you will agree is rather...strange looking.
That's literally supposed to be McCall and his wife. Yeah, I don't get it either. There's nothing scary about this scene in the book. They're just walking home from church and discussing the union leader. But this is how our illustrator chooses to convey that scene. If the book itself were one tenth as frightening as that picture, I'd probably give it a much more favorable review than I have so far.
I know that some of you might think the image is cheesy-looking. Okay, I'll grant you that even looking at it here on my computer, it looks way less intense. But there's something about looking at it from the page itself that I can't even begin to describe. A feeling like they're...looking at me, somehow. Maybe I just stayed up too late reading.
UPDATE: Taking a break from reading this damned book today. It's starting to get to me. Not Scabree's writing; it still sucks, but just the...I can't really explain it.
There's more pictures in the book than I realized. I'm not going to upload any more of them for now because I'm having a hard time bringing myself to look at them. It's not so much what's in them as what feels like is there behind them. Whatever it is, I don't like it.
I'll say this; the story has taken a strange turn. It's still barely talked about but Scabree at one point has the scarecrow, while talking to McCall, make mention of "they", as if he has someone he's reporting to behind the scenes. I don't want to dig out that passage right now because when I read it, it gave me a chill. There was a picture on the next page and somehow, I knew that "they", whoever they are, were in the picture. The picture only showed two young girls, but I could sense "them" in the picture, just the same.
That's enough of that. I sound paranoid, or something. It's really not as bad as I'm making it sound. Not really.
I decided to google "R. Scabree" today. See if there's anything else he's written. Literally only three hits came up. I'm pretty sure I would get more hits if I googled my own name. The first hit was a used book site that had once been selling Scarecrow, but it was out of stock and the site looked like it hadn't been updated in years. The second hit was a dead link, which was too bad because it looked like it might contain the most actual info about this book. Maybe it would even tell me who did the artwork within the book.
The final hit was a pure black page, and the "wait" circle kept spinning in the center, as if it was loading a video or something. I waited for nearly ten minutes and, while no video loaded, I could swear I heard whispers coming out of my speakers. They were low, and I never could make out what they were saying, but I could hear them, even as the circle kept spinning.
Now, here's where things get weird. I went back to the search page later on because I was gonna try and let that page sit there as long as it took to load, but the hit wasn't there anymore. The first two useless links still were, but not the last one, which was the only one that I seemed to get any kind of result from, even one so unsatisfactory as a blank page attempting to load a video.
So instead I googled the name of the publishing house that printed the book, Margrave Press. I got tons of hits, but when I put the name in quotes, only two pages of hits loaded, and only one hit seemed to have anything to do with a publishing company. It makes a brief mention of a guy named Tom Harky, who worked as a copy editor at Margrave Press for a short while in the sixties before leaving for Bantam when Margrave went under. I googled Tom Harky, who has his own web page with contact info, and so I sent him a short email. It went like this:
"Dear Mr. Harky,
I recently picked up an older, used book that was published by a now-defunct publishing house that you worked at until it closed. Do you remember much about your time at Margrave Press? If you do, I hope you can give me some information about a writer named R. Scabree, who wrote the book I'm reading. It's a horror novel called Scarecrow. Specifically, I'd like to know who it was who contributed the in-book artwork for the book, as it's very well-done, but I can't seem to find the name of the artist, and online info doesn't seem to help either.
Any help you can offer on this would be appreciated."
I also decided to google Wesley Childs, the artist who did the work for the front cover. He also has a website, but nowhere on it did I see the simple, yet evocative picture he had done for Scarecrow. In fact, nothing he had up on his website looked much like that.
We'll see if I ever hear back from either man.
UPDATE: Well, I am almost halfway through the book now. I decided to keep reading despite any misgivings I felt the other day. Scabree's skills with prose and dialogue haven't improved, but the story has taken a much darker turn. I guess I understand a little better why Yeats's "The Second Coming" was used as a quote now. As McCall's madness grows, the more he starts speaking in poetic, gloom-and-doom language, like the poem. He even quotes it a few times. At one point he screams at the man leading the town assembly meeting that "The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity!"
He turns murderous later, and finally kills a fellow farmer, one that was the most outspoken that the Union should be formed, and just before slitting his throat hisses at him "Things fall apart. The center cannot hold."
My first reaction to this usage of the poem is to say "bullshit" because, honestly, it's like Scabree just liked the poem and thought it sounded scary, so he decided his murderous farmer would start spouting passages of it. There's no clue elsewhere that he's the kind of man who would even read Yeats. However, there is an Apocalyptic tone to the poem and the scarecrow has an Apocalyptic tone when he speaks to McCall. He warns him that the tide is turning and soon all innocence will be drowned, which also comes from "The Second Coming". Somehow, Scabree's able to make the lines sound like the scarecrow came up with them. Maybe he's not as bad a writer as I thought.
Also, those pictures keep appearing. I swear earlier today I flipped ahead five or six pages to see when this chapter would be over, and there weren't any pictures. Just now I flipped to the third page, and I was greeted with this:
I mean, what the hell is that!? It has nothing, literally nothing, to do with the story. And I could swear it wasn't there earlier today. Much like the others, those eyes, man. I want it to just be my imagination, but I swear they're looking at me, and seeing me. Writing it down like that it feels stupid. But all I can say is, read this damned thing for yourself and tell me it doesn't creep you out.
UPDATE: Heard back from Wesley Child today. He says he only barely remembers making that drawing. The dude is something like 80 now, and he was commissioned for that piece in the early 60's. He said he's never read the book himself, and that he only remembered the painting when I emailed him. He seemed surprised that anyone is reading this book in the modern age because according to him they only printed a handful of copies. He wasn't sure how many. He was not aware that anyone was hired to do in-book artwork or even that there was any.
This inspired me to try and get a hold of Tom Harky again. I decided it had been long enough that I should have at least gotten a form response. So I sent a quick email to him asking if he'd had time to consider my request. Almost immediately, and I mean like five minutes after I hit "Send", I received this from what I guess is one of his staffers:
"Do not attempt to contact us again. We are blocking your email and your IP address. Further attempts at contact will be considered harassment and will be dealt with by the proper authorities."
Whoa. I wasn't expecting that. I mean, I waited a week between emails and I was pretty polite both times. I'm trying not to read too much into that.
I went back to the book today, still not sure if I had the constitution to keep reading it. I don't want to see those pictures again. I don't want to feel them looking at me. The scarecrow is not actually speaking to McCall but it's clear that something is. Every time there's a mention of "them", the next page has a photo of those strange silhouetted people and I have to believe it's just the way the artist had with his work that makes me sure that something is watching me from behind those pictures. Something that doesn't like me. And it isn't coming, it's already here.
UPDATE: Okay, I'm sorry for the tone my review-as-I-go read has taken. I am trying very hard not to let my concerns show in my posts but it's slipping through.
I haven't had the strength to pick the book up since the last time I wrote. I got worse after receiving a second email from Wesley Childs. He apologized for lying to me, and told me that the reason he didn't remember the scarecrow painting is that he had been purposefully trying to forget it. According to him, as he was painting it he kept hearing whispering from it, and once it was completed, he could swear it was coming to life and talking to him through his dreams. He mailed it as soon as he could and spent days after that trying to get rid of the feeling of being watched, or believing that he heard whispers. He says he's never made a painting like that before and never has been able to again. It was the first and last work he did for Margrave Press.
He also told me that he met R. Scabree, but only once, and that it was just a pen name, but unfortunately he doesn't remember what the man's real name was. He said Scabree was a small man, who seemed nervous all the time. I wrote back and asked him why he thinks Tom Harky would wish to block me and threaten me with the authorities just for asking about this book. He replied just a few minutes ago to tell me that Harky has been asked a couple of times before, during Q&A sessions, about his time at Margrave, and any time he is asked, he immediately concludes the session and walks out. He won't talk to anyone about Margrave. Childs himself once tried to reach any other contacts that commissioned him for the cover art, but he found none. It's as if Margrave Press never existed other than its tenuous connection to one man.
UPDATE: It's been another week. Woke up this morning to an email from Tom Harky in my inbox. It wasn't the website address. It looked more like an account for personal use. It said only this:
"If you have that goddam book in your house, burn it. Burn it right the fuck now."
I haven't burnt it. It's on my coffee table right now. I can barely bring myself to look at it. Whatever is seeing me through that book can now see me even when it's closed. I have a feeling it's the Rough Beast, moving its slow thighs, slouching toward Bethlehem.
Maybe that beast inspired the great poet William Butler Yeats to write about it, and just over forty years later inspired a hack writer who called himself R. Scabree to do the same. I don't know. I don't care anymore. I just want it to stop talking to me, dammit.
UPDATE: I tried to burn it. I did. I used kitchen tongs and took it out to my back yard. I dropped it in an old steel bucket and struck a match. Then I held it there. I waited. I couldn't drop the match. Something was angry with me. Something was going to make sure that if I burned the book, I would feel every flame the book did tenfold. I put the match out and left the book in the bucket. I'm not going back for it.
UPDATE: I've nearly finished the book. Somehow, I'm gonna make it. There have been no pictures for the last several pages. There don't need to be any. They see me through the words I read. They tell me what is going to happen. What has already been happening. I don't know why they would want me to know.
Written by Josh Parker