As usual, spoilers (and scarecrows) ahead.
I think we can all agree the scarecrow subgenre could use more good stories.
In fact, as far as horror subgenres go, scarecrows have a pretty embarrassingly low output. You’ve got your Goosebumps, your Batman villain, and a handful of books of varying quality, but that’s it.
And that’s a shame. Scarecrows are the perfect horror baddie: they scream Halloween. Next time you see a scarecrow I dare you not to hear the crunch of fall leaves or envision bright glowing jack o’ lanterns at the edges of dark, silent hay fields.
So why don’t more people give scarecrows a try? My theory is that people don’t really know what to do with them. Do you make them a cursed person whose damned soul has been placed inside the scarecrow? Did someone read a spell that brings scarecrows to life? Are they actually a demon who wears a hat and steals people’s eyes?
Scarecrows are really creepiest when they’re still, so how do you keep them terrifying while moving a plot forward?
I’ve always thought the key to the scarecrow story was in backwoods horror. Whatever angle you take with your scary farm ornament, place them in a remote setting surrounded by other characters who are suspicious of outsiders. It’s a popular scenario that readers love and offers the writer a lot to work with. Author Richie Tankersley Cusick seems to agree with me, as his story Scarecrow opens on a farm in the Ozark mountains . . .
Scarecrow begins when our hero, Pam, wakes up in a strange home. She’s weak and disoriented with a bandage around her head. Rachel, the kindly matriarch tells Pam she’s been in a car accident. Rachel’s husband, the standoffish Seth, saved her and brought her back to their home.
While Pam is grateful, she’s also confused. How did they find her? Well, it turns out they’re youngest child, Girlie, has a gift–some nebulous psychic power that is never completely explained, but means she can kind of read minds and kind of see the future and also heal people (???)–which allowed her to see Pam was in trouble. In fact, Girlie says she knew Pam was coming.
All Pam wants to do now is go home, but Rachel tells her she’s not strong enough to make the journey, and the farm has no electricity and no phone so she can’t call anyone to come get here. Without putting up any fight at all, Pam stays. Soon she meets Rachel and Seth’s other child, shy Micah who has only one hand and Franny, Rachel’s 18-year-old sister.
As they days go by, Pam gets the lay of the land (and so do we in a series of never ending descriptions) and even begins helping with chores. She still wants to go home, but only seems slightly perturbed when she learns that the family’s wagon is broken and that she’ll have to wait for their far off neighbor to make his yearly visit with his working wagon.
Instead of demanding an alternative, Pam decides to check out the family’s scarecrows. Every spring, each family member builds a scarecrow, which is then burned in the fall to prevent bad things from happening. Pam thinks their work is brilliant and isn’t even a little creeped out that Girlie’s looks like her. But the real piece de resistance is Franny’s creation. Six feet tall with cow hide for skin, Franny’s scarecrow is so human looking Pam almost mistakes it for Seth. It’s such a masterpiece that Franny decides she’s going to hide it instead of burning it with the others.
Soon everyone’s hearing shuffling sounds in the night, and Pam keeps seeing someone sneaking around near the edge of the woods.
That would be chilling enough, but then Micah finds Pam alone and promises to help her get away. It’s not safe for her there, he tells her. “Do you think you’re the first?”
That night, Pam goes to meet Micah in the barn only to discover Seth waiting for her. See, Micah is actually a deranged killer, Seth tells her, and had he not intercepted his son, Pam would have been killed. Pam completely believes this insane story, thanks Seth for saving her life again, and goes back to bed because that’s how people behave.
Oh yeah, somewhere around here Seth finds the hidden scarecrow and burns it, but also says that it’s probably too late to stop bad things from happening now. Darn.
Things go from WTF to WTAF when Micah is found dead. It looks like someone or something pushed him off a cliff. Could it be Franny’s scarecrow?
Everybody’s sad and then Pam and Seth have “sex” in that super problematic way where she says “no,” but then maybe means “yes” but also maybe not like totally “yes.” Probably more like “yes” in the way that this was published in 1990 by a male writer who had never actually talked to a woman about sex. That shit makes my blood boil.
Oh and this all happened just so Seth can show Pam a cave full of unmarked graves of Micah’s past victims. smh.
Anyway, after a million chapters of who knows what the fuck’s happening, Seth disappears while hunting for a lost cow. Then Franny follows suit. Pam’s all “where is everyone?” and then realizes that Franny has been locked in the trunk in her room (???). They take her out, but she’s in a fear coma and no one can get her out of it.
Then Rachel decides to go look for her husband. Then Pam decides to take Girlie and go looking for them both.
While searching, they end up in the grave cave from earlier. Girlie starts digging one up, which gives Pam the chance to see that the victim was strangled by someone with two hands, so it couldn’t have been Micah because Micah only had one hand! Omg! Could it have been Seth all along?
They make their way back to the house just in time to have the final standoff, but don’t worry Cusick has another trick up his sleeve. After Pam defeats Seth, it’s revealed he wasn’t the killer at all! No, the killer is the only person who really didn’t have a motive to kill anyone no matter how hard Cusick tries. That’s right, it’s Rachel.
She just wants everything to stay the way it is (???), so she’s killing to keep it that way. Which is fine, but, like nothing was changing, so…
Let’s tally up.
Deaths – 5
Scenes of everyone being friends and doing chores – 60000000
Killer scarecrows – 0
No killer scarecrows. Not a single one.
The good, the bad, and the bullshit of the genre are all on display in this book.
- Beautiful (and endless) descriptions of fall weather (Good)
- Weak, misogynist portrayal of every female character (Bad)
- Mysterious title character kept mostly off screen (Good)
- Rape used as lazy character motivation (Bull shit)
It kills me that Cusick was so close to writing a good book. If he had kept his plot moving forward while pushing himself to leave behind the bad horror tropes of the day, he would have had created the bible on scarecrow horror.
I need to take a moment to highlight Cusick’s writing style. His near constant use of the passive voice is maddening, and his lack of economy of words is staggering. A character never scans a room when they could scan the room with their eyes, for example.
He also seems to have a compulsion to use inappropriate verbs. I’m all for people being creative with language, but not all verbs are created equal. In other books a character’s heart may thump from fear or even swell, but in this book hearts explode and breath shatters. I’m not saying it’s wrong per say, but it makes for some awkward reading: “Pam’s heart exploded …” Oh! It did? Is the book over then?
In the end, Scarecrow is a decent attempt by an author who could have used some help. I wouldn’t recommend to the general horror fan. However, if you’re hungry for more scarecrow stories like me, you might find it worth a shot. After all, maybe it’ll inspire you to create your own, better scarecrow stories. I’d read them.