The Dim-Post

June 16, 2015

Notes on The Scarecrow by Ronald Hugh Morrieson

Filed under: books — danylmc @ 7:28 am
  • I’ve been meaning to read this for years.
  • The opening line is one of the most famous in New Zealand literature: ‘The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut.’
  • But it is a bit of a bait-and-switch. The book is mostly a tragi-comic, rather earthy coming-of-age story, mixed with domestic farce and comic sketches of provincial New Zealand life during the depression (Morrieson spent his life in Hawera). The gothic/thriller elements are minimal.
  • Which is a shame because those are the best things about the book. Some of the comic writing has dated well but most of it hasn’t, and Morrieson has a very limited repertoire. The Scarecrow is a short book but by the six-or-seventh lengthy dialogue between drunken halfwits – all written in dialect – it is no longer even slightly funny.
  • The book is weirdly similar to It by Stephen King: the small town setting; the heroes who are outcasts and misfits; the dual antagonists are a gang of young bullies and a shadowy killer; even the themes and narrative style are comparable. And the head bully’s name – Victor Lynch – is a very Stephen King name. Probably just a coincidence – King is a well-read guy but I still kind-of doubt he read The Scarecrow. 
  • Morrieson’s writing was unrecognised during his life but celebrated – in New Zealand at least – after his death, a fate he anticipated and dreaded. Both judgments feel right to me. He has all the skills and talent of a great writer and that’s worth acknowledging, but he never managed to produce a great book.


  1. Have you read “Sydbey Bridge Upside Down”? If you’re after a dark New Zealand coming of age story then it’s the book for you. Ballantyne’s another of the ‘not celebrated in his lifetime’ kiwi authors.

    Comment by Phil — June 16, 2015 @ 9:01 am

  2. I just finished Sydney Bridge Upside Down. Hamish Clayton made me read it. I thought it was excellent. My theory is that it’s been neglected because the title is stupid.

    Comment by danylmc — June 16, 2015 @ 9:05 am

  3. Fabulous book which I read around the 4th form at school. RHM lived in Hawera, not Harewa.

    Comment by Kevin — June 16, 2015 @ 9:08 am

  4. Hamish’s judgement is usually pretty good when it come to such things. I think you should tell him your theory and watch as he realises all his PhD work has been for nothing. It is a bloody stupid title though.

    Comment by Phil — June 16, 2015 @ 9:22 am

  5. As with ‘Pallet on the Floor’ and ‘Came a Hot Friday’ I think ‘The Scarecrow’ is great at provincial unease and small town seediness, but the plots are thin. Like John Mulgan – who could have been New Zealand’s Orwell – Morrieson had a potential that never quite peaked.

    Comment by Son_of_Dad — June 16, 2015 @ 9:24 am

  6. My theory is that it’s been neglected because the title is stupid.
    Yes. Good name for a sway-backed horse though.

    Comment by Joe W — June 16, 2015 @ 9:27 am

  7. Agree, but Came a Hot Friday was made into one of our better movies. Just watched it with one of the kids and enjoyed it.

    From the same part of the world Frank S Anthony wrote the Me and Gus stories that are comic but also extremely grim accounts of dairy farming life in Taranaki back in the day.

    Comment by Tinakori — June 16, 2015 @ 10:09 am

  8. I’ve been wondering if ‘Came a Hot Friday’ dates well.

    Comment by danylmc — June 16, 2015 @ 10:15 am

  9. Another vote for Sydney Bridge Upside Down. Creepy as anything, and so understated.

    Comment by Stephen J — June 16, 2015 @ 5:28 pm

  10. The Scarecrow was required high school English reading for us. As for Came a Hot Friday, it was NZ’s answer to The Sting.

    Comment by Kumara Republic (@kumararepublic) — June 16, 2015 @ 6:35 pm

  11. Last bullet point completely sums it up.

    Also agree that ‘Sydney Bridge Upside Down’ is the classic that was never recognised as a classic.

    Comment by Mark Rickerby (@maetl) — June 16, 2015 @ 7:17 pm

  12. I recall from the movie the in Came a Hot Friday they were effectively using public phones for the same delayed-coverage betting grift the cricket was trying to crack down on with the cellphones.

    There a cute play whose name escapes me where Ronald Hugh Morrieson picks up James K Baxter just when Baxter’s fleeing the Jerusalem commune and plays and chaos ensues. Oh, here it is: Horseplay, by Ken Duncum

    Comment by Lyndon — June 17, 2015 @ 9:31 am

  13. I and other drunks are forever grateful to authors like Morrison for the air of mystery they have provided our drinking. More seriously, My mother, a former Ms Hawera, said Morrison was considered the town drunk rather than an author. But then people were as ignorant and cruel as they are today.

    I agree that the book does not quite work but that the striking gothic loathing it is shot through with almost makes up for it. His work provides a counterpoint to the work of Mulgan, and perhaps the Stead of Smith’s dream; it provides a cultural explanation as to why the latter men’s protagonists chose to bugger off and worse.

    On a slighly related note I was disturbed to read from afar the reaction to Stead’s comments about Catton. Some of his comments were belittling but the righteous, mean, and vindictive attacks on that elderly man that followed, also an undeniably great writer, disgusted me. It seems to me a peculiar and nasty national trait of ours to always need to bring down one public figure in order to raise another up. Our need for scarecrows, for people to blame and destroy, is very real. Of course, many of the moral angels issuing their terrible criticism likely never read Stead or indeed Catton, probably, both authors of deep human sympathies. But the need to hoist and alight as a symbol of our national rightness and modernity in respect of gender politics was more important than any deeper consideration of the her work, just as the need to figuratively burn Stead’s work for the sake of a performative display was more important than considering the deep sympathies it contains. The Wickerwomen and the Scarcrow: both reduced to crude symbols to be manipulated with false outrage by philistines parading as intellectuals, both dehumanised and not given the respect they deserved – all due respect – in the process.

    Sorry if I’ve offended anyone’s sense of themselves as a defender of progressive liberalism (which seems increasingly to forget to be kind). I never heard that opinion voiced so I thought I would voice it. Hello friend a few clicks up. Excited to be reading through your manuscript today. Your piece on this a while back while you took a quite different tack was excrllent by the way.

    Comment by William — June 17, 2015 @ 3:06 pm

  14. And i’ll add that I didn’t hear one criticism that recognised Stead’s support of his friend Frank Sargeson during the period he was discredited for his homosexuality, going to show how shallow many of those criticisms were. And Janet Frame. It must have upsetting to have his history so publicly forgotten in the shrill calls to discard his legacy.

    Comment by William — June 17, 2015 @ 3:17 pm

  15. Agree Morrieson, who can be excellent, hasn’t managed a great book. I reckon his best – most satisfying and complete- work is a short story, ‘Cross my heart and cut my throat’ in Landfall about 1974. Worth a read if you can find it, anyway.

    Comment by Rob Stowell (@rob_stowell) — June 18, 2015 @ 9:07 pm

  16. If you’re passing through Hawera the excellent Tawhiti Museum on the outskirts of town has RHM’s writing attic mocked up. Think the personal effects were donated when the original site in town was demolished to build an all-important KFC.

    Comment by Ethan Tucker — June 21, 2015 @ 10:09 am

  17. With reference to The Scarecrow, the thing which struck me (and my wife when we compared critical notes) as being the note of genius in the story, wasn’t the Tom n Huck like tale of picaresque characters living in a parochial backwater, it was the psychological impact of the sketchily drawn psychopathic killer lurking in the shadows. This lifts the work above the level of a gothic tale about hick-town freaks and into the realms of psychological thriller asking questions about the nature of evil. Anyway I’m a non intellectual of modest education and read the book quite a while back so my opinion is just that. 🙂

    Comment by Grant — June 23, 2015 @ 8:47 am

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