BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Gordon Williams
Filed Under: Horror, Thriller.
This is a book that is (to the best of my knowledge) being reprinted for the first time since its original 1969 release. This is because it’s the basis for the movie Straw Dogs (1971), which is getting the remake treatment and hitting theaters this fall–with Dustin Hoffman being replaced by James Marsden. In fact, “Straw Dogs” is presented on the new cover in much larger type than the book’s actual title. This makes sense to me: with it’s one-dimensional characters and blindly stumbling plot, Trencher’s Farm would make a better horror movie than a book.
George MacGruder, an American professor on sabbatical, brings his family to a farm (Trencher’s Farm) in England so he can work on a book. George staunchly opposes the death penalty, and letters he wrote to the London Times and the British government influenced a widely debated capital punishment case in London. As a result, a deranged kiddy rapist was granted clemency. This pedophile, Henry Niles, escapes from an asylum ambulance on a road near Trencher’s Farm during a snowstorm, and soon after George runs him over in his car. Compassionate as he is, George takes him to Trencher’s, where they can ride out the storm and await the town doctor.
Meanwhile a little girl has gone missing, and as word spreads of Niles’s escape, townsfolk immediately correlate the two incidents. It doesn’t take the MacGruders long to realize Niles’s identity. This is where the book’s believability starts to fray. Instantly, George and his wife, Louise, go from feeling bad for the broken man on their sofa, to being mortally afraid of him, as if knowing he was a pedophile suddenly turned him into some invincible brute who could easily kill them all. It’s hard to swallow; Niles quickly proves to be nothing more than a harmless MacGuffin.
Then a search party shows up, looking for the girl. When George tells them he’s caught Henry Niles, they instantly go from drunk farmers to deranged psycho killers full of insatiable bloodlust. George barricades his family in, as he doesn’t want to give Niles up to people he believes will hang him without trial. Very soon after, the crazed farmers kill an innocent townsperson who stops by to check in during the storm, and the MacGruders find their house under siege.
That’s pretty much the set up for the remainder of the book. The whole thing is a long 3-vs-1 where drunks gone insane are too stupid to properly break into a farmhouse with one guy and his useless wife inside.
The rabidness of the farmers is pretty hard to swallow. I suppose it’s meant to be some weird insular community, like in The Wicker Man, but living in the English countryside isn’t enough to make their isolation believable. Coming together to cover up some dark town secret is one thing (and the heart of some decent horror books/movies), but being berserk murderers is another. Besides the fact they want to kill, Williams differentiates them from other English people with corny dialogue:
“Us’ll burn down the bloody house if us don’t get him.”
But even despite all that, there is very forced and jarring distinction between being English and American presented here. It fuels the attackers–and sets up some sort of artificial morality system to perpetuate the rage: Americans are soft and selfish, British are gritty and loyal to their communities. Every single character seems to have a fundamental understanding that Britons and Americans somehow occupy separate branches on the evolutionary tree. George’s do-nothing wife is continually used to prop this up.
“Don’t honey me, you all-forgiving bastard. What do you think being married is, the stupid PTA? God, you make me sick, look at you, all nicey-nicey smiles, you big sook. What’s going on in that great All-American head of yours? Eh? Be honest–for once.”
Now George really never does anything to cause all the American resentment, especially from his wife. And they’ve just relocated to England temporarily from their home in America, where we’re told they’ve lived for at least nine years, so it’s hard to imagine how she compartmentalized her resentment for so many years. The whole British and American thing simply makes no sense. Take this, again from Louise (Karen is their daughter):
Karen had her father’s habit of staring blankly at you, as though you had just told an obvious lie and she was giving you a chance to recant. It was a common characteristic in America. She’d never discovered whether the dead-pan face was meant to express contempt, or was a sign of incomprehension.
What? Her habits weren’t passed through George’s American DNA. Karen’s probably looking at her in contempt because she’s inconsistently stupid and vitriolic about Americans all of a sudden with no provocation, despite the fact that she’s lived there for a significant portion of her life and willfully raised a family there. The whole British/American thing is incessant and serves no purpose but to artificially and unconvincingly cram additional conflict into the story.
Five pages after that quote, Louise flip-flops and looks to her husband for comfort. Then she hates him again because he’s a peace-loving yankee. Then she loves him again. She rapidly cycles like a manic-depressive in need of a lithium dose. It’s just one more cheap move to prop up the toppling plot–keep in mind, during all this the murderous hick farmers are fighting a seemingly futile battle with the front door. Louise’s aberrant behavior is merely a way of forcing George into different emotional responses in order to distract the reader from the one-note story about those crazed lunatics throwing themselves against the door like a tsunami of rabid baboons. They can’t even manage to get through a window without George being able to defend himself in one way or another, so I can see the need to infuse additional tension, since that the logistics of the siege are hardly believable and not very sustainable.
That’s why the movie could be decent. You don’t need to worry about plausibility. You don’t have to rationalize psycho killers. Friday the 13th movies are watchable because (discounting the first) Jason’s basically a murderous robot. You don’t question his motives, nor are you expected to care. He’s built for that purpose. If there was a scene where he was drinking whiskey and thinking about how he could get away with wanton murder, it’d be lame. Or imagine if zombies had agendas. You don’t learn or want to learn the politics of the soon-to-be-victims. There are two possible outcomes, they live or die. The enjoyment comes from seeing that play out.
A movie adaptation can (and should easily) address the flaws in Willaims’s book. Louise’s outbursts will last only long enough to express marital discord–no need for motive or justification, we get it. George won’t need to turn to the screen and discuss the immorality of capital punishment, or dissect the irony involved when a threatened man is forced to contradict his pacifist beliefs for the safety of his family. It’ll just be a thrilling survive or die scenario. Take Jason again. You think he’s gone, the creepy music goes all andante… then bam, some naked girl gets her head cut off in a station wagon. If the whole movie was him failing to get into that station wagon while the girl argued with her boyfriend about whether he was an adequate lover or who was better at rolling up the windows, it would be stupid and unwatchable.
This book is what it is: an easy, mindless read, an empowerment fantasy, a paperback to be found on a take-a-book-leave-a-book shelf. And to that end, it’s all right I guess. If you’re looking for that sort of thing, it could be worth your time. Otherwise, wait for the movie.
Similar Reads: Lamplighter (Simmons). The movies The Shining and Cape Fear do a better job of conveying the type of thing I think Williams was going for.