NZ Classics: Ronald Hugh Morrieson

The Scarecrow - Ronald Hugh Morrieson

"The same week our fowls were stolen, Daphne Moran had her throat cut."

-- Ronald Hugh Morrieson, the opening words to "The Scarecrow"


Morrieson (1922-1972) always feared, in his lifetime, that he would be "another one of those poor buggers who gets discovered when he's dead", which very sadly turned out to be true. Most of his books were published in Australia years before they got published in NZ, and that in fact didn't happen until after his death. 


Still I reckon most kiwis my age remember that first sentence to the Scarecrow by heart.


The book "The Scarecrow" was published in 1963, but was made into a movie in 1982, starring a bunch of local unknowns and John Carradine. I am to this day still scared of that man. The Scarecrow is described by the publishers as "A tragicomic story of a sex killer in a small town", and I can tell you it scared the bejeebers out of me when I was young. Giving this to 13 year olds to study was maybe not well thought out! 


Plotwise, it's fairly straightforward (from the blurb): Fourteen-year-old Neddy Poindexter and his mate Les take swift revenge on the chook*-rustling Lynch Gang, but things turn sinister when vulture-like Hubert Salter stalks into Klynham. There’s a sex killer on the loose, and Neddy is in deep fear for the safety of his sister.


One newspaper reviewer described it as "a brilliant, hallucinatory mixture distinctively his own", and another with "Had Dickens begun his career in the twentieth century and with a novel whose major theme was sex he might very well have produced a book like The Scarecrow."


Came a Hot Friday is another tragicomic (yes, that word is used a lot for Morrieson, and it fits) morality tale about a couple of jack-the-lad types who come up with a scheme to rip off a bookie in another of Morrieson's finely drawn kiwi small towns. Helped along (or not so much) by a lunatic maori man who is convinced he is a mexican bandito. 


Both were made into films that are most beloved in NZ, but I like the books better. The film version of The Scarecrow manages to hit all the horror/scare notes of the book, and miss a good deal of the comedy, while "Came a Hot Friday" does the exact opposite, it's one of the funniest movies I've ever seen, but it has none of the gothic tragedy of the novel. 


In any case, Morrieson wrote only four novels, and I think all of them were adapted into films at one point or another.  Still, the movies are a lot easier to get hold of than the books, so:


Came a Hot Friday is on youtube (this is a playlist in 7 parts):  and was (finally) released on DVD in 2011. 

Some info and an excerpt from the movie The Scarecrow is available at the NZ On Screen film database.

Also here's a really nice (and quite recent!) review of one of his other books, Predicament, in the Telegraph.

The final book was called "Pallet on the floor", also made into a movie in the 80's, but I really think The Scarecrow is the one to read.


And more kiwi fun on the NZ Classics reading list.


* Chook being kiwi for Chicken of course :)