Published by Valancourt Books on October 10, 2016
Genres: Dark Fiction, Fiction, Gothic, Horror, Occult & Supernatural, Supernatural
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'A writer of subtle, finely crafted supernatural tales.' - T.E.D. Klein
'[H]is stories . . . build up a unique sense of unease.' - Brian Stableford
'[T]ense, cryptic . . . brooding supernaturalism . . . unjustly forgotten.' - E. F. Bleiler
Something is wrong with Colonel Habgood's young son Denis. Some mysterious force seems to be sapping his physical health, and his behaviour has become oddly evasive and deceptive. Habgood suspects the pernicious influence of Raoul, a sinister handyman with whom Denis has become infatuated, believing that the man may be corrupting and defiling his son. But even after Raoul's departure, the troubles continue, and Denis's strength continues to wane. In an old book of medieval legends, his father finds a possible, if implausible, answer in stories of a nameless horror from behind the grave that feasts on the young in order to return to life. Or could what's happening to Denis have any connection to an unexplained death in the attic turret nearly eighty years ago? And isn't there something strange about the scarecrow out in the fields, which seems, barely perceptibly, to have moved . . . ?
Originally published in a limited hardcover edition by the legendary Arkham House, John Metcalfe's The Feasting Dead (1954) is worthy of being ranked alongside The Turn of the Screw and the tales of M.R. James, L.P. Hartley, and Robert Aickman. This new edition of this classic novella, previously available only in expensive secondhand copies, will allow modern readers to rediscover the unjustly neglected Metcalfe (1891-1965).
THE FEASTING DEAD, by John Metcalfe, was written in 1954. First of all, I have to say that it reminded me quite a bit of the type of stories M.R. James is famous for. As he is perhaps my personal favorite of the “old-time” horror and supernatural stories, I can think of no higher praise. This supernatural tale is rich with a “menacing air” that seems to permeate everything the story touches upon.
We begin with Colonel Habgood, and his son, Denis, after the untimely death of their wife and mother, respectively. Staying home from school for a time after this tragedy, Denis comes across a vacationing father, Monseur Vaignon, and his two children. A friendship of sorts is initiated, with the kids taking their vacations at each other’s home. Colonel Habgood is uneasy right from the first, with no real idea as to the cause. His fears materialize more concretely when Denis begins taking up with an enigmatic “handyman”, known as Raoul, that he befriends on one of his holidays to the Vaignon home.
In Habgood’s opinion of the nondescript, Raoul: “. . . his most outstanding characteristic, to be paradoxical, was his characterlessness . . . “
The real terror of this story doesn’t stem from gratuitous gore or bloodshed, but rather from a slowly building tension and apprehension. As young Denis begins to follow his new idol everywhere, his mind becomes solely fixated on Raoul even as his body shows signs of physical weakening. The mystery surrounding Raoul merely deepens as the sinister atmosphere and weather combine to pervade everything in the vicinity. The oppressive tension practically leaps off the page with each word read.
The ominous sense of an inevitable horror is the driving force behind this tale, more-so than any “answers” that may be found. From stories of a long-dead man who happened to once live in the Vaignon’s home, to the barely perceptible movement of a scarecrow when one isn’t looking, I found this to be a fantastic example of an old-fashioned, gothic tale of terror.