Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dark Harvest

It is such a pleasure to read Norman Partridge's work.

I was first introduced to Partridge by people who knew of my affection for Joe R. Lansdale's work. I was looking for idols, people to emulate, and I really connected to the energy and enthusiasm of his stories and the joy that was evident in the craft. I read some of the anthologies that he contributed to, picked up the issues of Cemetery Dance that showcased his work, and quickly breezed through his novels.

Some years later, I found myself in a small liberal arts college in Northern California. I was walking through the quad when I overheard a couple of students chatting nearby. The name Norman Partridge came up. I asked if they were fans and they regarded me blankly. Turns out Partridge held employment at the university.

I sprinted over to his department, where I found him chatting with a coworker. I stammered out an introduction, told him I was a huge fan of his work, and proceeded to act like a fanboy. While I attended the university I must have bugged him a thousand times, hitting him up for autographs of my well-thumbed paperbacks. He was always gracious and kind. One time he stopped by at the video store I part-timed at. We chatted for a bit, I gave him a copy of Pumpkinhead, and he presented me with a fresh, autographed copy of his hardcover short story collection The Man With The Barbed-Wire Fists.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I think I always knew that I wanted to turn my hand toward this writing thing, and I tended to gravitate toward writers who made it look fun. I've yet to come across a Partridge story that I didn't fly through with a big, stupid grin on my face. It's been a long time since I revisited his work, and I heard that his novel Dark Harvest had won serious accolades so I picked it up.

Dark Harvest is another one of those haiku stories, one where the form is fairly familiar but the artistry lies in the execution. It's essentially a "sacrifice of the harvest" tale, one where the security of a rural farming community is kept up by quasi-pagan human sacrifice. The form, most famously used in King's "Children of the Corn" and Jackson's "The Lottery", tends to be a hard one for me to connect to. I'm a city boy and seasons pretty much look the same to me, plus or minus variations on temperature, but I really got into the tale.

The story takes place in the early sixties, where the teenagers of an isolated corn belt town are locked up for five days and then turned loose to attack the October Boy, a pumpkin-headed sacrificial avatar the town butchers at the behest of the mysterious Harvester's Guild. The winner of the contest gets a large cash prize and is allowed to leave the town. Thrown into the mix are mobs of insane teenagers, a young protagonist itching to leave his dead-end life, and a sadistic brute of a cop who acts as the town executioner. Eventually the secrets of the town are revealed, including the ghastly truth behind the contest, and disaster comes to the town.

One of my favorite elements of Dark Harvest is the narrative voice. The story is told in a breezy, conversational style that is characteristic of Partridge's work, but as the tale unfolds we see that the narrator has specific, terrible connections with the dreadful ritual the town participates in. As the story progresses, the secrets that are uncovered hit the reader dramatically. Not unlike Clive Barker's recent Mister B. Gone, we become directly involved with the story.

There is a lot to like about Dark Harvest. Partridge captures the itchy, impatient rage of adolescent males, the trapped, ominous doom of small town secrets left to rot, and the anxious complacency of life in the early sixties. My complaints with the story were fairly minor, mostly that a secondary female lead was almost irrelevant to the story and that a wonderful character moment was missed for the mournful man who waited for the October Boy in the church with the riot gun, but these little gaffes are overshadowed by the energy of the narrative and the strength of the writing.

I think when I was younger I enjoyed his work on a more superficial level. Partridge's work is high energy and wacky, full of bikini killers and burned out boxers and split-personality Nation of Islam hitmen, but rereading his work I am struck by the poetry woven into his writing. The October Boy's lonely quest to reach the old church is told with real emotional weight that lesser writers would have dismissed in favor of the raw visceral action of the tale. Partridge doesn't have the same elegant sensuality that I love in Clive Barker's work, but Dark Harvest draws it's sense of poetry and imagery from the sensibilities of the isolated, small-town Midwestern setting. There's a real working-class lyricism in Partridge's work, and the strong, masculine tales that he spins have a real grace under their barbed-wire fists.

Partridge is one of my favorite writers. If you haven't read any of his work, do yourself a huge favor and read Dark Harvest.

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