Friday, February 23, 2018

The Flesh Eaters by L.A. Morse (1979): Eat 'Em and Smile

Behold the Frazetta glory that adorns this paperback! Inhuman brutes, their flesh gone grey-green from their ghastly diet (yet somehow they're ripped as hell), drag along another hapless victim to their lair hidden by great rocks in a misty, nightmarish landscape—what self-respecting horror fan could resist reading this book? Why it promises terrors beyond imagining! Slim, grim, and altogether grimy, The Flesh Eaters (Warner Books, Dec 1979), an unheralded vintage title by one L.A. Morse, operates in that unwholesome arena of dead-eyed depiction of graphic, taboo-obliterating violence with not a whiff of concern for taste or restraint. As you'll see, this is an altogether good thing.

This story of legendary Sawney Beane and his unholy clan is a master class in unsettling the unwary reader. Me, I had some idea of what I was getting into, but even so I was somewhat astonished—and impressed—at the darker turns the narrative took. A straightforward tale of supposedly historical events: a preface declares the factual (meh) basis of the novel, and Morse spares no ugly detail in describing the sheer shittiness of life in 15th-century Edinburgh. There are the houses basically made of mud and straw, the miasma of garbage and human waste, the scavenging creatures animal and man alike, the cathedral filled with light and wealth. The townspeople have no experience of any alternatives. If a clean town does not exist for them, then this town is not dirty.... This filth is merely one of the necessary accompaniments of progress.

We're introduced to Sawney and the other townspeople as they're watching the merciless executions of several prisoners, a momentous event that breaks the monotony of daily life. Of course after watching the men killed in vile ways he feels a tingling throughout his body, a pleasant warmth in his groin. He even sniffs blood from the ground and totally gets off on it. Then it's off to work in the blacksmith's, a horrible abusive guy, known as Master, but he's got this hot teenage daughter, Meg, who hates being her father's slave. Meg and Sawney develop I guess a "relationship." One night the blacksmith is drinking with a pal, and they humiliate Sawney and grope Meg. After being rejected by Meg, the pal leaves, and the blacksmith then attempts to rape his own daughter—till Sawney steps in to stop him. You can guess what happens:

At last Sawney Beane and Meg become exhausted and stop. There is blood all over them. Sawney Beane puts his hand in a wound on the Master's chest and brings it out covered with blood. He licks his hand, then holds it in front of Meg's face. She licks one finger slowly with the tip of her tongue; and then takes each of the other fingers into her mouth and sucks them greedily. Her lips are swollen, as though with passion.
They begin to laugh maniacally. 

ebook cover 2014

Two kids have killed the father, now they've gotta be on the run. That they do. Before, Sawney Beane was practically mute, a cipher, a dullard, a nothing, barely existing, barely thinking, barely feeling. Post-murder he is in touch with desires and sensations that before had only moved about him like beckoning shadows. Oh he has solved the sweet mystery of life, Sawney Beane has! He explains to Meg as they leave that dirty old town:

"We will become hunters. We will be like the great wolves of the forest. Only we will not attack cows and sheep and deer. We will hunt men... Aye, eat them! Feed upon them..."

Well all right! Now we're talkin'. The two self-imposed exiles trudge through spooky forest and across lonely beach and lo and behold, Sawney finds a tiny crevasse in a cliff face which he explores, finding that it turns into a dry, lofty cavern: the perfect home for he and his carnal bride, virtually invisible to any human eye. Here will be their hearth from which they will venture only to kill unsuspecting travelers on the road above. What follows are simple, sometimes gut-wrenching depictions of remorseless killers at work and the enjoyment they find in overpowering the weak things. To wit:

  They are the hunters and it is natural to hunt; anything else would be unnatural. Eating the flesh of their victims no longer has special significance. It is natural for hunters to eat what they kill. They feel no connection between themselves and their victims, no common humanity... they stand over their fallen victims, yelling at the corpses, cursing them, kicking them, spitting on them, dancing in triumph over their bodies

Then the inevitable occurs: Meg becomes pregnant. The baby's birth makes Sawney squeamish; he can't watch and he certainly can't cut the umbilical cord! Even looking at this mewling creature is beyond him... till he realizes: their numbers can increase. So will their strength. And so then will the fear they can cause in the others. Our numbers will increase.... We have only begun.

Once the Beanes start to procreate, things get sketch as eff. Meg gives birth yearly. The children have no names but their jaws are strong. They function almost as one organism, moving and breathing in harmony. The children know no life other than that of the cave; they accept it as normal. Sawney rules as patriarch, of course, teaching his loathsome offspring that "the things are stupid.... It is very funny when they know they are dead." To his clan he spins a myth of the grey wolf of the forest, a tale he remembers from his hazy youth: the wolf is both his own father and he, the supreme predator of the dark woods. The children lie in wait in lonely roads, one pretending to be injured, perhaps, to lure the unsuspecting travelers to aid; then father pounces. The eldest son wants dearly to be a hunter like his father, and the younger children want to partake in the kills on their own. Sawney is not sure if they're ready... but he is willing to let them try.

(Maybe skip this section if you want to experience the book for yourself) If you thought murder and cannibalism were the deepest depravities Flesh Eaters was going to plumb then you've thought wrong. There is rape and incest, and, in one dizzying moment of pure outsider horror, Morse notes the undercurrent of sexuality in the family... sexual energy crackles through the cave; the smell of lust is heavy. Like a pack of wild dogs, the family couples at every opportunity. All but the youngest children are involved, and these imitate their elders, pressing their naked loins together, thrusting their hips in a parody of the sexual act. Holy Jeezus.

They exist apart from human notions of morality or value; again and again Morse notes the uselessness of money and clothes and other "booty" accrued from their victims. "It's shit," Sawney Beane says more than once, tossing away gold coins and fine clothing, "all that belongs to them is shit. This is why they are weak." Morse crafts these scenarios for maximum impact with minimum stylized force: he doesn't overwrite or oversell his disturbing visions; his plain, unadorned prose simply documents horrific events but does not comment on them. Victims rarely have identity; those that do serve a larger purpose to the plot.

The only image of author Morse found

There is more to the novel than these grotesqueries of appetite and destruction:  the townspeople hear of more and more traveler disappearances (the story takes place over two decades). Their idiot Sheriff is lazy, not very smart except when it comes to avoiding difficulties, cowardly, and inordinately fond of his own voice. Perhaps it is a demon responsible? A priest is called. No luck. Several innocent men are accused of devil worship and human sacrifice after a rotted arm is found washed ashore; the men are tortured to confess and executed (the classic "throw the accused in the water, if he drowns he is innocent" is employed to sad effect). Morse gets good mileage out of dry political satire in these instances. Finally the King is involved, a search party started, and the noose begins to tighten around the Sawney Beane clan.

This brief work—just over 200 pages—has power and pull; you'll read it quick as Morse goes straight for the jugular with his clean prose shaved to the bone (he was also the author of several hard-boiled crime novels and won an Edgar Award). Don't let that Frazetta cover fool you: this is no tale of dark fantasy or thrilling adventure; it is all too prosaically real. Like Jack Ketchum, whose own landmark work of stark yet extreme horror Off Season (1981) was almost surely inspired by this novel, Morse notes depravity with clarity but does not linger or cheapen. Flesh Eaters is perhaps not a book for every horror fan, but it is a must for every horror fan who likes horror fiction nasty, brutish, and short. Get your hands on this book, devour and enjoy.

3 comments:

K. White said...

I am now morbidly curious what the plot of "The Old Dick" is...

John said...

Man, how did I miss this one?!

Unknown said...

Hi will
I'm going to look for that one for sure!!