James Cooper visits a familiar horror trope in his novella The Man in the Field. Reading the story made me think of movies like The Village and The Wicker Man and its premise is reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery.
Cooper introduces us to a village isolated away from the rest of the world, the name or location of which isn’t given. Cooper gives us the details slowly to reveal a commune of fundamentalist Christians who choose to live in the village as a way of protecting themselves from what they view as the wickedness of modern society.
We’re introduced to the main character, Mother Tanner, a widowed elderly woman who moved to the village years ago with her husband, Harold. The village is led by Father Lynch who is the typical cult leader—feared by some and blindly worshipped by others. There’s a group that regards Lynch with quiet suspicion and distrust. Mother Tanner is a devout Christian and never wavers from her faith, however, she does question the practices and customs of the village.
The plot centers around an annual ritual of the Turning of the Wheel and the return of The Man in the Field. The Turning of the Wheel is a term for the changing of the seasons and the story takes place at the Spring Equinox. However, the cult is clearly Christian—patriarchal and puritanical in its views. The village is like a Christian commune promising a peaceful, simple life living off the land, free from the influence of the outside world.
The residents have basic modern conveniences such as cars, clocks, and radios. However, there are no televisions or computers. At one point in the story, the main character is fascinated by a Smartphone which she describes as a small TV. The women wear long dresses and prayer caps and the men wear tunics and breeches.
The action centers around Mother Cullen, a 17-year-old single mother. She became pregnant by a young man not from the village. Mother Cullen would be homeless and banished from the village if not for the kindness of an elderly widower, Father Whittaker. However, while many people in the village refuse to even look at Mother Cullen or her baby, Mother Tanner sticks out from the other villagers as she chats with Mother Cullen and even compliments the baby.
The village is assembling for a ritual for the coming of spring and the Man in the Field is tied to the village’s prosperity. He is an enigmatic figure dressed in a white suit and black felt hat. No one has ever seen his face. He stands in the field motionless, looking away from the crowd.
A paint can filled with whitewash is the end and focus of the ceremony. A child is chosen to stir it—someone very special. As a boy stirs the whitewash, the crowd cheers. We find out that the whitewash is used to mark someone as a sacrifice. The villagers believe sacrifice is necessary for prosperity. Death must happen for rebirth to occur. After the stirring is done we learn that someone will be chosen that night.
The residents go home for a restless night. That night, someone’s house will be marked with a white circle to mark them as that year’s sacrifice. This year, Mother Cullen’s child is chosen. To be chosen as a sacrifice is considered a blessing. However, Mother Cullen doesn’t agree and neither do Mother Tanner and some other women in the village.
Cooper presents a familiar scenario. We have a tyrannical, megalomaniacal leader in Father Lynch, the rebellious young woman who is targeted in Mother Cullen, and in Mother Tanner, we have the one who questions the village authority and begins snooping around for answers.
Mother Cullen wants to go looking for her baby. Mother Tanner goes with her. Cooper presents another twist as the women are stopped by a strange man with a gun guarding the woods. He stops them and tells them to go home. Mother Tanner notes that he refers to Father Lynch as Mr. Lynch, which shows that he’s not a villager. Mother Tanner is questioned by the village council about what she and Mother Cullen were up to and what they saw. Villagers are forbidden to go into the woods.
Cooper builds the story up nicely. He unravels the story at an even pace and creates suspense. He wraps up one mystery, then presents another, giving the reader one surprising reveal after the other.
I thought I knew where the story was going. I turned over many possible twists and turns in the back of my mind. Would Cooper give us a bleak ending with the characters meeting a gruesome end at the hands of Father Lynch and the council? Would they have to face the Man in the Field? Would the women band together leading up to an explosive confrontation against Father Lynch, the council, and perhaps more armed guards from the woods?
I’ll just say that Cooper sets up a great twist but does nothing with it. As I neared the end of the story, I was still waiting for many loose ends to be tied up that never were. It was like the rug was pulled out from under me. The plot was suspenseful, and a bit melodramatic then…suddenly…falls flat.
The titular character is never revealed. He’s there, no one knows who or what he is, and we never learn. Is this the meaning that Cooper intended? Does the man in the field represent an infinite and mysterious universe we aren’t meant to know? Is he a personification of the mysteries of the natural world?
The ending was disappointing. Cooper could’ve done so much more with the story. Some stories don’t require extensive backstory or detail but Cooper skimped too much. Cooper puts details in the story that create curiosity and suspense and never offers an explanation. For example, he presents the reader with one of many mysteries with the armed guards patrolling the forbidden woods. This detail is abandoned with other loose threads.
He builds the main plot—Mother Tanner and her growing conflict with Father Lynch and the council. He ups the tension and then surprisingly offers Mother Tanner a very safe way out. He doesn’t go too much into Father Lynch’s character. He comes off like a two-dimensional typical tyrannical, arrogant, and despicable cult leader. Lynch is loathsome—an arrogant and abusive bully to blind followers that he’s brainwashed into accepting horrors that would be unspeakable in the so-called wicked outside world.
Perhaps, this is the twist that Cooper wanted to deliver? I thought I was going to read this melodramatic story of rebellion against tyranny in defense of the innocent. What the author does deliver is a story about people who become dissatisfied with a cult that offered them an idyllic life. They learn the twisted and disturbing truth about their leader and this leads to a very easy out for Mother Tanner and another cult member and the story just ends there.
Coopers paints a disturbing portrait of a cult brainwashed into excusing and even embracing horrifying acts. People joined the cult for a sense of security and protection from the outside world. Instead, some live in fear and paranoia.
If you’re interested in reading The Man in the Field, it’s a quick read ideal for a rainy Saturday afternoon. The Man in the Field will be available in June 2022 from Cemetery Dance Publications.
James Cooper has published short story collections, novellas, and novels including You Are The Fly, The Beautiful Red, Human Pieces, Head Space & Other Uncomfortable Surroundings, Terra Damnata, Strange Fruit, and Dark Father. Published by PS Publishing, Terra Damnata was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award in 2011. His novella Strange Fruit and novel Dark Father both received critical acclaim. He has another novel, Little Boy, and a new project called Scar Tissue set to publish in May 2022. Cooper currently has two projects in the works, a short story collection under the working title, Glass Shattered Fist, and an 80s-style horror novel.