The Feasting Dead

November 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

feastingThe Feasting Dead by John Metcalfe

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The Feasting Dead is another title in my Valancourt Books project, and since so many of those have been so good, I had high hopes for it. I also learned this novella is one of the books Stephen King recommended in Danse Macabre, so of course my expectations were that much higher. Like so often happens when I get my expectations up, I wound up being disappointed in the story, though I think it has a lot to do with reading the story out of its context.

Colonel Habgood is our narrator, but our main character is his young son, Denis, who makes a friend in the groundskeeper named Raoul who works at a French estate. The friendship becomes an obsession, and when his son moves back to England with his father, Raoul shows up and worms his way into their household. Shortly thereafter, Denis takes ill, and remains that way for several weeks. Meanwhile, dogs bark at Raoul, and word has it that when Denis is out with Raoul, he appears to be talking only to himself. The Colonel is left to solve the mystery of Raoul, despite his son’s protests for him to stay.

The story was originally written in 1953, and during that time, it might have been something new and original. Now, 64 years later, it feels out of time, out of place, and not nearly as effective as horror being written later. It’s not that my sensibilities are too outdated (I’m finding that the Valancourt reprints from the ’70s and ’80s are better than the stuff being published today), but what I look for in horror is a fresh perspective, either through the horror itself or in how the story is told. The Feasting Dead has its moments, but it’s nothing fresh. The characterization feels light, the atmosphere is thin, and the ending feels weak.

There’s some effectively eerie imagery in the story — Raoul’s face is such that no one can get a sense of what he looks like, and he remains featureless throughout the story; a scarecrow features in the third act, and every time the Colonel sees it, it appears to have moved — and it starts strong, but the middle portion of the story is comprised of a lot of hand-wringing that grows tiresome and doesn’t do much to move the story forward.

Metcalfe makes the narrative somewhat difficult to read, as he chooses to write out the stammering of characters speaking under stress. Using this device once or twice would have been fine, but Metclafe uses it frequently, enough for it to slow down my pace. Also, the story is set partly in France, so the narrative is peppered with French words and phrases. Some of them are easily understood through context, and others are translated in the narrative, but there were enough that stood on their own and forced me to translate them to understand their impact that it slowed me down considerably, enough so that the novella took my almost an entire day to read, when normally it would only have taken me a few hours at most.

Over sixty years ago, this might have been an effective piece of horror fiction; today, it pales in comparison with works that came later. Writers like Poe and Lovecraft continue to entertain and chill, so I can’t help but feel like it’s more than just its era that makes it less effective. The story is fine, but it’s nothing I would recommend over, say, Michael McDowell or Bernard Taylor.

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