The definition of joy is sex and alcohol. Put together they’re likely to land you in sweet strife. If you’re in Ronald Hugh Morrieson’s great comic-thriller-horror novel The Scarecrow, they certainly will. If you’re one of his adult male characters, you’ll drink till you’re garrulous and boastful, then fall asleep. Sex will be more wishful thinking than the act itself.
You’ll have smutty intentions but be all talk. Watch out, though, for creepy old codgers with predation stirring their loins. They’ll ply young girls with grog so they can feel them up. The creepiest has a penchant for killing his victims and raping them in the necrophilic fashion.
If you’re an adolescent, Morrieson will portray you as clumsily experimental with sex, as is the natural order. Hetero boys will masturbate each other in lieu of having a girlfriend. The town’s spunkiest girl will hop in an older man’s sports car and let the liquor fetch her along till she feels curious enough to let the bloke do what he will. Her ageing employer even gets a go, allowed to undo her blouse.
All the while Morrieson exercises his tone perfect gift for mixing sinister narratives into the lives of main characters who are half-decent and well-intentioned. Take the legendary opening line: “The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.” It is a masterful melding of opposite ideas.
That such a sophisticated literary trick should be performed by the “big dunce” narrator of the novel, Neddy Poindexter, would beggar belief but Morrieson solves that by having Neddy inform us he appropriated the idea from Treasure Island. He’s trying to set out a “genuine blow-byblow account” of a series of shocking events that took place in his town when he was 14. “Grant me a little licence,” Neddy asks of his readers. We do.
You read this book smiling and laughing, regardless of the horrors in it. Neddy’s conscientious voice warms us up like a bottle of good brandy. Off we go with him through the insular and sleazy, contented and malcontented, intellectually and financially impoverished community of Klynham, a facsimile of Hawera, the small town in Taranaki where Morrieson lived all his life. The backyards littered with junk, the lonely back lanes, the shabby main-street pubs.
The delinquents, the halfwits, the Salvation Army brass band. The petty class hierarchy. The unwanted pregnancies. No matter how weird the story and characters, the setting has a documentary realism. And as it romps along you hardly have time to savour the Joe Ortonstyle deadpan sarcasm that gives the plentiful humour bite.
Ask a country person anywhere what they get up to in their spare time and they’ll probably answer, “We make our own fun.” It’s a bucolic mantra. Which is where sex and alcohol come in. Neddy may be naive but he’s not stupid, or entirely innocent, lusting after his own sister in that secret way some siblings do. He can look on horrible events and be shaken but too transfixed to avert his eyes.
It testifies to Morrieson’s talent for balancing believability with farce that we trust his young narrator to relay sordid matters of the flesh so eloquently. Not to mention Neddy’s weakness for a bit of poetry: “The moon was in the gutter of the sky with its parking lights on.” Or, “It was hard to believe that the wriggling witch-doctor on the seldom drawn blind was only the shadow of our old karaka tree.”
Like most of the men in The Scarecrow, Morrieson was a feckless type, a drunk, a lecher, a charming raconteur who played in a local jazz band but had no career to speak of. He lived with his mum, wrote four novels, The Scarecrow, published in 1963, being his first and most celebrated. He died young – aged 50, in 1972 – after a drinking binge. His best mate was the local undertaker. If the real-life undertaker was anything like Charlie Dabney, the incompetent, permanently pissed undertaker in this novel, you wouldn’t want to die in Hawera.
In The Scarecrow, Dabney and his drinking buddies befriend an itinerant fellow, Hubert Salter. He is a repellently ugly individual but has grandiloquent manners and a flattering turn of phrase that appeal to the citizens and their silly pretensions. He is also a professional magician and mind reader: Salter the Sensational. What they don’t know is that he is on the run, having killed and desecrated Daphne Moran in another town. And his deviant urges have not been sated. He wants another victim.
This is how Neddy, in one of his “little licence” moments, alerts us to these vile intentions: “‘The wolf bane is blooming again,’ Salter muttered. The highlight of his life over the last few days suddenly fl ashed back to numb his brain. Ecstasy flooded his loins and his genitals.” Then, “So easy it had been. So almost unbelievably exciting. Such mad exhilaration, such sexual power the mad, evil moment granted. So easy it must always be.”
It’s common for people encountering Morrieson’s books for the first time, especially The Scarecrow, to say something like, “He is out there.” Or, “That’s trippy.” Or, “That’s really bizarre.” I guess it depends to what degree you’ve led a sheltered life. You might think, in an age of simulated autopsies on prime-time TV, blood splattering violence and bare-arsed coitus, that Morrieson’s efforts would hardly seem out there. He knows when to shut a scene down and let the reader’s imagination do the rest of the work. That’s what makes him so spooky.
Explicitness keeps the reader at a safe distance from confronting material. It doesn’t seek access to our imagination the way Morrieson’s suggestiveness does. Normality and aberration sleep in the same room in our imagination, and one sometimes climbs into the other’s bed. A novel like The Scarecrow takes us into that room within ourselves.
“Original” is another adjective that gets a run – an almost derisive term these days, when so much of literature, like much of life, is formulaic, compartmentalised, predictable. Novels are meant to be original! They are not supposed to conform to received taste, a hand-me-down set of cultural orthodoxies. And I pray The Scarecrowwill be spared the lazy contemporary habit of consigning books in which bad things happen to the dump bin of “exploring the dark side of human nature”.
Not that Morrieson would have cared where he was consigned. Towards the end of his life, when he’d been sucked down into reclusive alcoholism, he thought his writing would die with him. He reportedly said, “I hope I’m not going to be one of those poor buggers who gets discovered when they’re dead.” He was.
Craig Sherborne is a New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based writer whose books include the memoirs Hoi Polloi and Muck and a novel, The Amateur Science of Love. This is an edited version of his introduction to an edition of The Scarecrow ($15.95) that is part of the new 30-strong Text Classics series of predominantly Australian titles.