This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing.
John Metcalfe was a writer whose name was completely unknown to me, but that’s one of the advantages of the Deep Ones discussion group – we cast our net wide.
Review: “The Bad Lands”, John Metcalfe, 1925.
As one character says, towards the end, “Bad Lands” “usually means that bit in the States”. Not here, though.
I liked this story up until the end which was confusing and weakened the effect. Protagonist Brent Ormond goes to Todd in northern England to recover from his neurosis. It seems to be about the year 1910 since the actual narrator says this all happened about 15 years ago.
Ormond exercises and walks around a lot and sends letters to his sister Joan from the hotel he’s staying at. He becomes fascinated with a nearby tower built, seemingly, for no good reason and the road that leads off from it. He senses an increased interest in the tower and, especially, the land to the southwest of the tower, is not healthy. That land seems sinister to him. Still, he visits the tower multiple times a day.
One night Ormond strikes up a conversation with Stanton-Boyle, another guest at the hotel. The latter says the land beyond the tower, the land that the road goes into, seems abominable to him. It merely seemed depressing last year to Stanton-Boyle, and he didn’t take much notice of it. Now it seems abominable to him.
That night Ormond has a dream in which he goes through that land and sees a house seemingly deserted. The next day Ormond goes up the road by the tower.
He meets a man on the road and gets a curt answer when he asks where he’s at. The man has a “withered countenance”. Ormond supposes that this country makes men old before their time. The place names the man gives him somehow seem familiar from his dream.
He then finds a deserted house, and dust can be seen on everything inside through the windows. He sees a giant spinning wheel that, to him, seems sinister. The pine trees look strangely like palm trees. Ormond senses that this is the “centre and hub of this wicked country”.
On the way back, Ormond meets Stanton-Boyles. The latter says he’s been to the house and saw the spinning wheel – and something else he won’t reveal. He says “Fennington is the centre of rottenness.” Ormond says he’s going to burn the house down. Stanton-Boyles says he will be a brave man if he does. The story then says, perhaps ironically, “the neurotic was as good as his word” next morning. Ormond sets off with his arson materials.
Back at the hotel, Stanton-Boyles, returning after walking to the road with Ormond, sees a policeman hanging around. Then Ormond’s Joan shows up and, citing Ormond’s letters to her, criticizes her brother’s health and activities at the hotel.
Shortly after that, a disturbance is heard.
And here the actual presentation of the story gets muddled and runs off the rails into obscurity.
Ormond is accused by three policeman, including the one Stanton-Boyles saw, of trying to burn Hackney’s farm down. He’s also been seen, with another man, sleeping in Hackney’s barn several times.
Ormond admits he did try to start a fire. He even has a piece of the sinister spinning wheel in his pocket.
Evidently no charges are pressed, and Ormond is allowed to go to bed.
Stanton-Boyles then, in the hotel, discusses the matter with three unnamed people. He has a theory that of
a new kind of terre−mauvaise, of strange regions, connected, indeed, with definite geographical limits upon the earth, yet somehow apart from them and beyond them. ’The relation,’ he said, ‘is rather one of parallelism and correspondence than of actual connection. I honestly believe that these regions do exist, and are quite as “real” in their way as the ordinary world we know. We might say they consist in a special and separated set of stimuli to which only certain minds in certain conditions are able to respond. Such a district seems to be superimposed upon the country to the south−west of this place.’
The listeners are unimpressed.
A cryptic reference is made by Stanton-Boyles of something similar in “the case of Dolly Wishart”. (I have found no historical references to her.)
Ormond’s coat is brought in and examined. There are no bits of a spinning wheel inside. There is a handle from a “patent separator” (I assume this is a milk separator from my childhood on a farm with milk cows) with the branded letters G. P. H. as in George Phillip Hackney.
So is Ormond going to jail? Is there some sort of folie à deux going on with Ormond and Stanton-Boyles reinforcing each other’s delusions though we get no indication the latter is neurotic? What did he see in the house beside a spinning wheel? Was Stanton-Boyles the other man sleeping in the barn? Is Ormond’s dream really a memory of his sleep walking?
And why are Hackney’s initials on the separator? It seems odd a mass produced product would have that unless Hackney is the patent holder? Has his invention subtly caused a pastoral landscape to be corrupted by the machine?
I like the idea of a malevolent landscape from outside our universe subtly superimposed on a landscape in our world, and Metcalf does a nice job evoking the sense of a bleak landscape in England in late October and November.
Despite its weak ending, I still liked this story.