Wednesday, August 15, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #97: A review of "The Crawl" by Stephen Laws

It was only a matter of time before we got to slasher horror, but unlike most tales of its ilk, there is something deeper going on here, something that maybe all of us can identify with. It’s a terrifying character flaw, but it’s also a survival tactic. You’ll see.

Paul and Gill are a married couple with a few problems, but nothing too big. While visiting her parents in an isolated setting, Paul has a few too many and lays into a dinner guest pretty harshly. As a result, the trip home the next day is terse, to say the least. They get into a big argument, and Paul sees that they’re in danger of hitting a pedestrian. He warns Gill, who is driving, but it’s too late. They think they hit the man—bad enough to bust in the windshield—but when Paul glances back, he sees the guy just standing by the road, doing nothing.

Infuriated, he marches over to the guy to give him a piece of his mind, but when he gets closer, he sees what he believes is a scarecrow, a mask for a head, gloves on its hands, straw everywhere, propped up by the side of the road by a scythe. He starts to feel foolish for yelling at an object, but then . . . it starts walking toward him, scythe ready to kill.

What ensues is a white-knuckled, relentless chase scene. Paul and Gill’s car is so fucked up that all it can do is crawl, and the scarecrow follows after them, never quickening his pace (Jason, anyone?), giggling at the prospect of using its weapon on the couple.

It’s a pretty harrowing tale, but that’s not what makes this story one of the best in the anthology. As stated earlier, it goes deeper.

On two occasions, they run into people who can help them. The first time, it’s a tow truck driver who seems willing to help at first. But Gill is so far gone, she won’t stop the crawling car for anything. When Paul mentions the fellow following them, the driver decides that this is a domestic dispute, and he wants nothing to do with it. He abandons them. The second time, it’s a hitchhiker who, upon learning of their predicament, decides to leave well enough alone. He has a run-in with the scarecrow, but the villain seems to want one thing and one thing only: Paul and Gill dead.

And then a third person comes along . . . . SPOILER ALERT: The car finally grinds to a halt, and the scarecrow is gaining on them. Paul then gets the bright idea to put the car into reverse and run the scarecrow over. This plan works pretty well, and he feels like celebrating, until his wife sees the scarecrow directly behind him. The slasher presses the scythe’s handle against Paul’s throat and starts turning the point of the blade toward his victim’s eye when a farmer happens upon them and demands the scarecrow to stop.

He does, and when he starts advancing on the farmer, the poor bastard’s bravado disappears. He begs Paul and Gill to help him, and while Paul wants to, he feels a great deal of relief. He and his wife are safe. The farmer, on the other hand? He’s fucked. Better him than us.

How many of us would have done something different? How many of us would have had the courage to take on such a single-minded, relentless bad guy? A bad guy who has a scythe while you have nothing but your fists? You may think you have the guts, but should this ever actually happen to you, you might surprise yourself.

It haunts Paul, and it destroys his marriage. And every night, he lays awake, listening for the scarecrow’s return . . . . END OF SPOILERS.

That’s a pretty nasty little story. Nothing very different happens in the story, but somehow, it sets itself apart from others of the sort. It carves a special place into the heart of a reader, and it most certainly belongs in this anthology.

[This story first appeared in DARK OF NIGHT, and it cannot be read online at this time.]

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