Normally, before I write up posts labelled as reviews, I don’t look up any critical material or biographical material on the author. I just present my observations and opinions — however banal and lacking in insight. This time around, though, I read some material on Marjorie Bown before writing this review.
She was amazingly prolific and popular in her day with even film adaptations done of some of her novels. While many of her works are now regarded as slight, she still commands respect among connisseurs of weird fiction. Based on this story, my first exposure to her, I can see why.
This week’s subject of Deep Ones’ discussion over at LibraryThing.
Review: “Kecksies”, Marjorie Bowen, 1923.
Our main characters are two young esquires.
The older is Sir Nick Bateup and his younger friend is Ned Crediton.
As the story progresses, we have less and less sympathy though Nick is shown to have some decency in the climax.
The story starts out innocently enough.
The two are riding home from Canterbury and seek shelter from a gathering storm. We learn more of their character when, in the largely deserted countryside, they force their way into a poor vassal’s house, Goody Boyle. The Boyles have an unsavory reputation as being a family of witches.
Crediton is still handsome, but he’s already showing the influence of a life of “insolence and excess”. Bateup is more effeminate and dresses like a fop. However, Nick’s reputation is worse than Crediton. He is unwed and gets up to frequent mischief (presumably with women). Crediton is wed and sort of loves his wife of five years who sort of checks his behavior. Both men have killed people.
They don’t treat Goody very well. They ask why candles are lit. For the dead, she replies. They mock her and ask who it is and what she does with dead people.
Things take on an ominous tone when she replies it was somebody who took shelter there and is now dead. They demand to see the body and the deceased’s name.
She tells them it was Richard Horne. The name is well known and not at all liked by Crediton. Nick says Crediton’s wife will be happy to hear that. It seems that Horne was a bit of a stalker, constantly seeking Anne Crediton’s attention. Even after she married Crediton, he still still stalked her until Crediton banished him to the marsh near Goody’s house.
Nick tells Crediton it’s a wonder that Horne didn’t put a curse on him since he had “fearful ways and a deep knowledge of unholy things”. Goody calls him a warlock.
Then we get the two pivotal lines of the story:
’The Devil’s proved an ill master then,’ laughed Crediton. ‘He could not help Richard Horne into Anne’s favor—nor prevent him lying in a cold bed in the flower of his age.’
‘The Devil,’ smiled Sir Nicholas, ‘was over busy, Ned, helping you to the lady’s favor and a warm bed. You were the dearer disciple.’
Crediton demands to see Horne’s body so he can tell his wife he’s truly dead. Goody warns him that Horne was “a queer man and died queerly”. He was unshriven. There was no priest to hear his confession or “challenge the fiends who stood at his head and feet”.
Ned asks if Goody saw those fiends.
She mutters that he shouldn’t question her. “You’ll have your own familiars, Esquire Credition.”
The two men go see Horne’s body and mock him, and Goody leaves the room (there are only two in the house). Since she’s a known smuggler, they demand some good wine, and it’s delivered. Goody mentions that Horne left money to entertain mourners.
Crediton sarcastically ask if that would be a crow and bugs fom the marsh.
No, replies Goody, it will be the friends Horne made among the people of the marsh when he was banished. Goody says that Horne, as he lay dying, mentioned a good woman: Anne.
Goody says they’ll bury Horne in Deadman’s Field and goes off to get the delayed gravedigger.
While she’s gone, Nick and Ned come up with a practical joke. They take Horne’s body and cast it into a bed of hemlock, the “kecksies” of the title. Ned gets under the deadman’s shroud. He’s going to scare the mourners at the right time. When Good returns, Nick tells her that Ned has returned home.
“Egyptians, eel-catchers and the like, outcasts and vagrants” show up as mourners. But Nick is disturbed that Ned just keeps laying there all night, not moving, not even snoring. Has he fallen into a drunken stupor? Nick goes over to the shroud and takes it off. It’s Horne’s body or Ned’s “dead and frozen into a likeness of the other”.
A mourner demands to know what they did with Horne’s body. Nick tells him. The mourners force him out of the house. Horne’s body isn’t in the kecksies, and Nick’s horse is gone.
Ned sets off for Crediton Manor. He meets Ned on the road (at a crossroads, significantly). He’s dressed, for some reason, in Horne’s clothes. Ned strangely says “If Crediton could steal his shroud he can steal his cloak.”
They ride furiously to the manor where they are admitted. Nick just goes past the servant who lets them in the gate.
Nick tells the servant his master is “crazy drunk”. Nick has a bocquet of hemlock in his sash, for Anne he says.
Anne shows up, and Nick ominously says “I’ve long been dispossessed, Anne, but I’ve come home at last.”
The two retreat to their bedroom.
Ned talks to Masters, the servant, and they hear horrible cries coming from the bedroom. Anne cries for mercy.
Nick has many faults, but he doesn’t like people brutalizing women. Masters and Nick listen at the door to the servant’s chamber. We learn from Masters that Crediton sometimes uses “buckles and straps to her”, but Anne never complained before. “She is a very dog to her lord and takes her whip mutely”.
They go to the bedchamber’s door, and Ned asks what’s going on. They only hear moans and wails. Ned demands Crediton come out right now or he’ll have the door battered down and run him through.
Just then, they hear a noise at the door. It’s the mourners of Horne with a body.
But it’s not Horne’s. It’s Nick minus his coat and hat. They never did find Horne’s body. Whose up with Anne then, asks Ned.
Masters starts moaning and gibbering. He loved Anne since she was a little child. He asks
“Did he not say he’d have her? And did not yon fool change places with him? . . . Might not the Devil have lent him his body back for his own pitchy purpose?”
Eventually the bedroom door opens, and Horne does come out. Nude to the waist, he looks like a corpse. Anne is dead.
The story has a memorable last line:
The mourners rode back and picked up Robert Horne’s body whence it had returned from the kecksie patch and buried it in unholy ground with great respect, as one to whom the Devil had given his great desire.
This deal-with-the-devil story is not only a memorable for its horrific end but also its clever plotting. Bowen teases, at many turns, with a more conventional plot. However, Goody doesn’t turn out to be a witch who curses the two men. Horne and Anne were not secret lovers. The mourners don’t avenge Horne’s banishment.
It’s also complex in the morality of its characters. Horne calls Anne a good woman, but he kills her. He was also a friend of outcasts, but seems to have deserved his own banishment. Crediton may love Anne after his fashion but he beats her. Ned may be a rake, but he is genuinely enraged at Horne’s actions.