I’m taking a break from James Gunn to look at this week’s weird fiction selection.
Review: “Dearth’s Farm”, Gerald Bullett, 1923.
I liked this story by an author I’d never heard of.
It’s one of those old school chum stories.
The writer meets, on Fleet Street in London, his acquaintance Bailey (not his real name, we’re told).
He hasn’t seen Bailey in five years, and he gives us his memories of him from their days at Cambridge. Then Bailey was sleek, young and possessing “an almost feline love of luxury” with a “flaming personality” and great imagination. He spun fantastic theories out about Theosophy. However, Bailey did “badly in his Tripos” and left Cambridge without a degree.
The story is a bit contradictory in how long since they’ve seen each other. The narrator first says five years, but he tells Bailey it’s been six or seven years.
As the narrator notes, many a man left Cambridge without a degree and still was successful. Not Bailey though. He’s now shabby and unshaven and looks older than his years. Bailey himself he didn’t have gray hair until a month ago.
He’s an unpleasant and unlikeable character and a moocher. He asks to borrow a pound off the narrator. He then jokingly says the narrator should write his story, “You may get your money back”.
So the narrator listens to Bailey’s tale.
Bailey, a few weeks ago, said he stayed with a cousin of his, Monica. He never liked her, but it’s “free board and lodging, and hunger soon blunts the edge of one’s delicacy”. Ten years his senior, Monica bullied Bailey into learning to read when they were young. (This is an example of Bailey’s ingratitude given his later intellectual interests.)
Ten years ago, the cousin married a James Dearth over the objections of her family. They were mainly of a religious nature given the family is “primitive and methodical” in their faith.
The couple went to his Norfolk farm which is on a windswept hill. When Bailey first meets the man, he is “repelled by so odd a being”; specifically, Dearth has a very horsey face. Dearth is friendly and well read and deferential, even flattering, to Bailey. It’s here that Bailey says he was “cashiered during the war . . . Never mind why.” (Presumably, he’s speaking of World War One).
In the afternoon, Dearth’s Farm is idyllic on rare days, but mostly it has heavy winds that make Bailey insecure. Bailey says he’s “not a courageous person”.
Cousin Monica is polite and confiding in him. As an adult, Bailey seems to like Monica better and finds the adult Monica somewhat beautiful.
One day Monica confides that her marriage to James is an unhappy one. When she gets Bailey to confide he finds James’ face unseemingly “equine”, she tells him a story and how James wasn’t always as he is. At the beginning of their marriage, both Monica and James loved horses. Over the years, James has slowly and subtly come to resemble, physically and mentally, the horses he loves. Monica says James’ face, taken on its own, is not that off putting, but it is the “psychical atmosphere he carries about with him” that is disturbing.
She then tells Bailey about James’ favorite horse, Dandy. It’s sort of a story of transmigration of soul while both parties are still alive. She says Dandy no longer roams the fields. James keeps him in the stable where he is “eating its head off and working up energy to kill us all”. Dandy even attacked her once while James was in the house supposedly sleeping, and he’s uninterested when Monica tells him about it.
When Bailey gets up the courage to visit Dandy in the stable and stares into his eyes, they make him fearful and remind him of James. Dandy also grins menacingly and unnaturally at Bailey. (Does Dandy possess the capacity for physical violence James lacks?)
Monica nd Bailey then spend 16 fearful days at the farm.
One night, all three are spending an awkward night in the kitchen. Bailey thinks James suspects, wrongly, that Monica is being unfaithful with him. James seems to fall asleep, but Monica checks on him in the chair and finds he’s actually dead. Bailey then opens the blinds and Dandy is menacingly stare into the house, so Bailey takes a gun from off the mantle and shoots Dandy.
Bailey says he knew then that James’ soul, expelled from Dandy, is seeking to re-enter his body. Indeed, James comes back to life. (Though he may never have been dead is the rational interpretation. As with so much here, we only have the inconsistent and fanciful Bailey’s account of things.)
Then the ominous bit of the story comes:
‘Monica’s eyes raised to mine; I can never for a moment cease to see them. Three hours later I stumbled into the arms of the stationmaster, who put me in the London train under the impression I was drunk. Yes, I left alone. I told you I wasn’t a courageous man. . . . ‘
We never hear exactly what happened to Monica or James. Bailey then leaves the café where he’s told his story, and the narrator never sees him again.
It’s an interesting variation on transmigration and metempsychosis and effective in its omissions and ambiguity. Perhaps this is Bullett’s variation on Edgar Allan Poe’s “Metzengerstein”.
The story is from Bullett’s collection The Street of the Eye. There is an interesting reference to Dearth at the beginning of the collection. A friend of the narrator talks about the Unseen and his theory of types. He also says of Bailey that
sometimes, here and there, some beautiful or terrible flower shoots up from that underworld into the light of conscious existence. As for your friend’s experiences on the farm, I think, frankly, that there was sheer deviltry in it, black magic.
Was James’ up to something with Dandy? What was it? Was the well-read James a magician of some sort?
Or, perhaps, was James himself a sort of victim? The story is called “Dearth’s Farm”, and Bailey speaks of how psychic energies can manifest themselves as natural energies and that the near constant winds around the farm are trapped like “maddened devils”.