Book Review: The Man in the Field

The Man in the Field by James Cooper, pub. Cemetery Dance Publications 10.6.2022 is available on amazon.

Synopsis:

The village: a remote, God-fearing place, governed by ancient rituals that provide eternal balance to the land. Here, people have faith in working the soil, the good Lord above, and their own peaceful community. This is how they have lived for centuries, the Council providing spiritual oversight and the charismatic Father Lynch lighting the way.

As he does every year, according to an age-old custom, the man in the field arrives amid much rejoicing and apprehension. To sanctify the newly planted crops and ensure a productive harvest, the village must make a personal sacrifice in his name. This is the tradition that must be honored. For every blessing, there is a debt to be paid . . .

Mother Tanner, an older member of the village, has seen all this before. She has been born and raised in the shadow of these harsh solemnities and feels increasingly disturbed by them. Celebrating the Turning of the Wheel and exalting in God’s bounty is only half the story; there is much here that she is starting to distrust. Not least of which is Father Lynch himself and his beloved Council. And the enigmatic man in the field, who gazes not at the village, but at the distant horizon, thinking only of the overdue debt and the stroke of midnight when it will be time to collect . .

Review:

The Man in the Field by James Cooper drew me to it with its promise of rural isolation and strange doings. With its ritual nature, it sounded very much like a folk horror, which is a genre I love. It sort of is, but with a layer of dystopia washing over it.

My first impression, as the villagers respond to the sudden—although expected—appearance of the man in the field, is of an isolated community set some time in the past. It reminded me of the setup of the film The Village, being similarly bordered by forbidden woods. As these villagers respond to the man’s presence—the precursor to horrific events portrayed as a ‘blessing’ by the males of the community and by the council in particular—little bits of modern living are dropped in: the references to the city, the discovery of someone watching a video on their mobile phone, the journey taken at the end away from the village. All of this is neatly done, adding to the sense of dislocation and difference of the village and its inhabitants.

At the heart of the story is the relationship between Mother Tanner and Father Lynch. The latter is effectively the leader of the council, whilst the former is someone Lynch considers a challenge to himself, disrupting his authority within the community. When Mother Tanner discovers some of his secrets following the awful outcome of The Offering, she comes under increasingly close scrutiny and is in a position of some danger—from the men, from some of the women, and from some of the strangers in the woods. I still can’t quite believe that the women allow the offering to go ahead if they are the subjugated, but there is little they can do.

The sinister presence of the man in the field is something I would like to have known more about. With his sudden appearance and his continual unmoving position, with his back to the people of the village so they never see his face, he gives an almost supernatural feel to the tale. Apart from his presence denoting the start of the sacrificial ritual and the resultant offering, nothing more is explained.

Throughout the pages, the events are a backdrop to this ongoing ‘duel’ between Mother Tanner and Father Lynch, told with an excellent building of tension and pace. If this is a standalone novella, then I would say that the ending is somewhat unsatisfying. If there is to be a sequel, then it is the perfect place to stop. I also have the suspicion that any follow-up will play more to the dystopian nature of the story than the folk aspect, but that is my own opinion! Regardless of this, I would still highly recommend this atmospheric and weird little tale.

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