In which two libertines learn a hard lesson about the Law of Unintended Consequences.
First published in 1923
Collected in The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories (Available via Project Gutenberg Australia)
Marjorie Bowen was an athlete among authors. Her total output was north of one-hundred and fifty books, and she wrote everything from biographies to historical novels, including (obviously) supernatural horror. Ms. Bowen produced her first novel in 1906, at the age of 16; it’s a work so violent that it was rejected multiple times for sheer inappropriateness.* Graham Greene and Fritz Leiber numbered themselves among her literary admirers, and she’s an influence on modern horror authors such as Jessica Amanda Salmonson.
Despite her vast output, Ms. Bowen is remembered best for her dark fantasy stories, which make up only a small fraction of her total. We’ve see this phenomenon before — think of Robert W Chambers, who wrote romances, mysteries, and comic fantasy, but whose fame rests primarily on one book, The King in Yellow. In contrast to most genres, dark fantasy has incredible longevity; many of its fans feel honor-bound to keep the good stuff available through any means possible, and to pass it on.
“Kecksies” is likely Ms. Bowen’s most famous supernatural story. It was written in 1923, when she was 33. Modernism hovers over it, as is evident from the almost jaunty opening paragraph:
“Two young esquires were riding from Canterbury, jolly and drunk, they shouted and trolled and rolled in their saddles as they followed the winding road across the downs.”
The young esquires mentioned above are Nick Bateup and Ned Crediton, and both are nasty pieces of work; the extent of that nastiness becomes evident as the story progresses. Seeking shelter from a rainstorm, Nick and Ned hole up in the two-room cabin of Goody Boyle, who’s rumored to be a witch. In fact, Nick has heard that the Devil himself sometimes leers at passersby from Goody’s windows, which makes her an above-average witch, at least as far as public image is concerned.
Shortly after taking cover, they learn that Goody has another guest, who’s lying quietly (for now) in Goody’s other room. It’s the corpse of Richard Horne, a one-time rival for Ned’s wife.
Horne had fallen onto hard times, engineered by Ned. Driven into the nearby swamp, he eked out a bare existence for a number of years, before dying from ague.** This is the night of Richard’s viewing, when his mourners, “queer and even monstrous people,” whom he knew from his time in the marshes, will come to show their respects.
Ned demands to see the body. Upon confirming that it’s Richard, he and Nick heap a string of insults on the dead man. They’re so obnoxious that Goody is forced to retreat from the room, her fingers in her ears.
In a short while, Goody tells Nick and Ned that she has to confer with the gravedigger, leaving our anti-heroes alone with the corpse. It’s then that Ned has the idea for a sick practical joke, one that will backfire horribly…
“Kecksies” is straightforward, but covers a lot of ground. It’s clearly a critique of what we now call the one percent. In addition, the dualist idea that the forces of Good and Evil are evenly matched is an element, although a muted one. And “Kecksies” is also a variant on the standard “grateful dead” tale***, except that here the dead man is vengeful, not grateful. You would be, too, under the circumstances.
In closing, I’ll leave you with another small excerpt from “Kecksies.” It makes a fine trailer for the story.
Goody is speaking:
“‘But you’ll remember, sirs, that he was a queer man and died queerly, and there was no parson or priest to take the edge off his going, or challenge the fiends who stood at his head and feet.’
“‘Saw you the fiends?’ asked Ned curiously.
“‘Question not what I saw,” muttered the woman. ‘You’ll have your own familiars, Esquire Crediton.’
“She unlatched the inner door again and Ned passed in, bowing low on the threshold.”
* It’s called The Viper of Milan, and you can find a free copy here. I love the Internet.
**Which is a generic term for any malaria-like ailment that involves frequent shivering and high fevers. Yes, I had to look it up.
***The standard “grateful dead” tale I mean is the one from folklore, not the one about the bad acid you dropped that time in Akron just as Jerry started on his 10-minute guitar solo in “Dark Star.” That would be your Grateful Dead tale.