Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Dark Passages: "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World"

Norman Partridge.  Joe R. Lansdale.  Gary A. Braunbeck.  Al Sarrantonio.  These horror-genre heavyweights have all composed narratives featuring scarecrow figures.  But Thomas Ligotti gets the laurel for author of the weirdest scarecrow tale ever, 1990's "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World."  Here's the second paragraph from that macabre masterpiece:
Adjacent to the edge of town, the field allowed full view of itself [phrasing suggests sentience] from so many of our windows.  It lay spacious beyond tilting fenceposts and under a bright round moon, uncluttered save for the peaked silhouettes of corn shocks and a manlike shape that stood fixed in the nocturnal solitude [a wonderfully rhythmic and evocative image].  The head of the figure was slumped forward, as if a grotesque slumber [poetic echo of 'slumped' reinforces the sense of lethargy] had overtaken its straw-stuffed body, and the arms were slackly extended in a way that suggested some incredible gesture toward flight.  For a moment it seemed to be an insistent wind which was flapping those patched-up overalls and fluttering the worn flannel of those shirt sleeves; and it would seem [notice the rhetoric of uncertainty throughout] a forceful wind indeed which caused that stitched-up head to nod in its dreams.  But nothing else joined in such movements: the withered leaves of the cornstalks were stiff and unstirring [alliteration reinforces the pairing of adjectives], the trees of the distant woods were in a lull against the clear night.  Only one thing appeared to be living [uncanny animation] where the moonlight spread across that dead field.  And there were some who claimed that the scarecrow actually raised its arms and its empty face [scarecrow paradox: a visage-less vigilant] to the sky, as though declaring itself to the heavens [but to what dark gods?], while others thought that its legs kicked wildly, like those of a man who is hanged [the scarecrow as persecuted figure], and that they kept on kicking for the longest time before the thing collapsed and lay quiet.  Many of us, we discovered, had been nudged from our beds that night, called as witnesses to this obscure spectacle [a phrase that encapsulates the Lovecraftian].  Afterward, the sight we had seen, whatever we believed its reason, would not rest within us but snatched at the edges of our sleep until morning [this straw-stuffed effigy is the stuff of nightmare].
And the eeriness only intensifies when the townspeople tear apart the scarecrow and discover its bizarre innards.  "The Shadow at the Bottom of the World," collected in The Nightmare Factory, is the perfect story to haunt a reader's autumn evening.

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