My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Pumpkin Farmer (2015) by Michael Hughes summons and resonates the storyteller’s magic found in similar books like John Fowles’s The Collector (1963) and Cormac McCarthy’s The Orchard Keeper (1965). Pumpkin Farmer goes a bit further and deeper, however, and considers the alter egos found in Horace the Slayer and John the Recreant, and the reader just might wonder — if but for a moment or two — if the two men are actually one and the same as the reader catches Horace and John crossing paths in the first chapter. But reality is to be questioned in this sinister tale of murder and sociopaths.
In June 1979 the two main characters, Horace the wealthy maniac who has survived the Jonestown Massacre of November 1978 and John who is the passive lamb of the narrative, meet on a California highway much like the opening to The Orchard Keeper when Marion picks up a lone hitchhiker named Kenneth Rattner and sets the story in motion. But Horace and John will be the representations of aggression and passivity throughout the story until fate will bring them together by the book’s end.
After months of struggling to get Stateside and upon arriving home to meet his savior Uncle Nelson, Horace — with the cold calculated concentration of one of Cormac’s killers — quickly dispatches with the sick uncle in order to claim his family’s fortune,
“Horace put the pillow back exactly as it had been. He just stood there, not sure exactly where he was. It was almost like how he had felt after emerging from the jungle bramble brush by the airstrip in Guyana the prior November. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Horace had managed to slip out of Jonestown and walk all the way to the airstrip, curious to see if the Congressman’s delegation would indeed leave” (p 14).
John, meanwhile, upon returning to his girlfriend’s home in hope of surprising her does exactly that and little else as he watches in stunned silence and passively walks away with a grumble that boils for the entire novel until the boiling point is ready to explode. But now, the bedroom scene poor John must witness awaits us voyeurs:
“Laura was certainly alive and well. She was flat on the bed. Her lithe five-seven frame convulsed in a throbbing rhythm as her long and smooth dirty blonde locks lay haphazardly scattered across the pillow. What was far more disconcerting was the hulk of a hunk riding her. Oh why didn’t she ever sound quite like that for him, John thought. Why didn’t she grab onto his arms like that, writhe and squirm in the same way?” (p 18)
With Horace now a wealthy man again and John now a dejected loser with a job on the verge of collapse, the two are much like meteorites heading for a collision course and nothing will be able to stop them. Horace takes high delights in smoking joints while John spirals deeper into alcoholism and despair.
“Horace looked at the title page and discovered that the book was titled, On the Growing and Preparing of Various Gourds: A Treatise. A bit pompous sounding, but hey. This particular volume dated from 1929…
“He took a couple of wrapping papers out of his wallet and rolled himself a joint, a joint he lit with Nelson’s old engraved sterling lighter.
“The smoke found its way into Horace’s lungs as he continued to flip through the pages of the old book. A few tokes and the illustrations began to look warped. The drawings began to move to and fro, the pumpkins increasing and decreasing in size against their rustic backdrops, the whole page now black, white, and looming ominously by the time he had smoked the joint down to the point where it required a roach clip” (p 28).
Later, Horace buys a pumpkin farm on the outskirts of town in twisted anticipation of using an old cellar for a torturer’s dungeon—and this does ring eerily similar to The Collector and his mad designs of kidnapping a woman and raping her to gain power over the woman and his carnal cravings. But something darker lurks beneath Horace’s stern face and steady eyes:
“Horace had always yearned for experience. Life was boring and he wanted feelings and not thought. That was what had first drawn him towards drugs. He was in seventh grade when he first got high. Pot satiated him for a while, but it gave way to harder things: acid, mescaline, inhalers. You name it, he did it. And it wasn’t as if grass was the gateway drug they said it was. He had no qualms about the harder things, it was just that they were harder to get. He had downed a whole fifth of whiskey over one weekend the summer before eighth grade and sniffed some glue the weekend after that. It didn’t matter the conduit, it was the result that mattered. It was all about transcending what was, for what was often was not so terribly fulfilling” (p 47).
And so Pumpkin Farmer cleverly begins to dissect the killer within, and the psyche unfolds chapter by chapter as even John’s nature begins to reveal itself in the forms of his mother and father who have divorced and are involved with much younger partners—a classic Hollywood lifestyle, one might imagine:
“It was rather like the Leave it to Beaver tide had receded to reveal the rather barren nature of people’s relationships. Maybe it really was for the better, who could say? John figured that the admission that no one could really say showed how weak the foundations were in the first place. His parents had seemed happy enough, and it was not as if his mother lived in a valley of dolls, but he could see in retrospect that they had grown tired of one another’s presence” (p 51).
After another night of hard drinking, John picks up Ellie at a local bar. When Ellie remarks that John is driving her to her boyfriend’s place, John wants to hear none of it and drops Ellie off on the side of the highway in the middle of nowhere, where Horace happens to be a few minutes behind and happily does his civic duty of helping out a stranded pedestrian,
“Horace slowed down and took a careful look. A pretty girl, her thumb out, just waiting to be taken. It was too easy” (p 97).
And it was all becoming too easy for the villain of the story as even the hero seemed too weak and afraid to face his own miserable life. With Ellie taken back to the pumpkin farm, Horace is now able to fulfil his evil, sadistic plans:
“Horace clumsily looped the chains around her arms and legs and intertwined them behind her such that she couldn’t undo them. He did this as quickly as he could for he feared that she would fight back. But she didn’t; she was too stunned…
“The look on Ellie’s face was one of sheer apoplectic shock. She was a stone-faced statue when Horace shut the door and locked it. He walked down the hall, locked the door to the front of the chamber, went upstairs, and made himself some bacon and eggs for breakfast” (p 104).
And all three characters do eventually emerge, but will any of them live up to their roles? Horace the Killer? Ellie the Victim? John the Hero? There’s a way to find out: you could read the book.
But how about a hint? A clue? An inkling to the end? I would not leave you so easily, would I? Without a little bit more?
The story draws to a close on Halloween, roughly five months since the opening scene when Horace and John first met on the highway, and Horace is there at the pumpkin farm watching kids at play:
“Horace retired to the second floor of his hacienda to watch all the kids play around the field. A couple of them picked up some of the smaller pumpkins that never really bloomed. A few others approached the maze, but they had a hard time getting to the center, where the real spectacle was. Yes, there was a scarecrow in the middle of the maze, a very life-like one, too. Granted, it was nothing but some straw and burlap, but he had put a lot of effort into all the features. Might as well try to scare the kids a bit; everyone was so cynical and jaded these days, so a real scare might be refreshing” (p 184).
The horror Pumpkin Farmer shapes out of its visions shaded in the shadows of Cormac and Fowles will leave you questioning the natures of Good and Evil, and perhaps that is exactly what people do not wish to see: to see how close and connected Good and Evil can be. And Michael Hughes expertly crafts a dark, visionary world that rips away the fabric of false reality that hides the true natures of men and women out there in the everyday.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers