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Book Report: The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (Straw Dogs)

Time to break out something new here on ECN, book reviews! Some of you may aware that I, myself, have dabbled in bookery… so when Titan Books offered us a peek at the first reprint of Gordon M. Willams’ thriller “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” in damn near 40 years, how could I say no? Especially considering that this is the book that cinematic legend Sam Peckinpah used in creating his controversial, yet seminal, 1971 masterpiece of violence and retribution – Straw Dogs. In light of the soon-to-be-released remake starring James Marsden and Kate Bosworth (as well as some Swedish dude who plays a vampire on TV), let’s jump in the Way Back Machine and check it out!

It’s probably fair to say that, were it not for Sam Peckinpah’s controversial 1971 film Straw Dogs, Gordon Williams’ short novel “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” would have been forgotten altogether. As it is, the book has been out of print for decades. Now with a new film version of Straw Dogs about to be released (somewhat based on the previous film that was loosely based on the book, natch), Titan Books has rereleased Williams’ pot-boiler in a new paperback with the requisite movie poster cover.

  Williams, a former journalist, was living in County Devon in England when notorious gang affiliate and supposedly “child-minded” Frank Mitchell escaped from Dartmoor prison in 1966. The ensuing panic inspired Williams to crank out “Siege” in a matter of nine days. One of a multitude of pulp crime novels to come out in 1969, “The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” didn’t really generate any kind of controversy until it was used as the basis for David Goodman and writer/director Sam Peckinpah’s script for Straw Dogs which is arguably one of the most controversial films in British history, even having been banned from being released on video in the UK until 2002. The basic premise of the film and book are very similar. Bookish American professor George Magruder (renamed David Sumner in the film) rents an old house in an isolated town in rural UK with his English-born wife, Louise (Amy). The couple is struggling through the usual difficulties. He’s detached and painfully ‘civilized’, while she yearns for a more exciting life and a more assertive mate. Eventually they find themselves stranded in their remote homestead, snowed in and protecting an escaped mental patient named Henry Niles, who may or may not be a violent child molester. When a village girl goes missing, a handful of angry, drunk and dejected men show up and lay siege to the house. The film adaptation takes off from there and becomes an envelope-pushing study of violence and retribution, both celebrated and reviled for its shocking scenes of rape, murder and brutality. Williams’ book, on the other hand, becomes a surprisingly tense examination of the escalation of aggression when class, caste, culture, gender roles and family responsibility are thrown into the mix and liberally salted with anger, resentment and alcohol-fuelled rage.

  There are problems with the narrative throughout the first half of the book, where Williams tries to set up the juxtaposition in viewpoints between the townies and the Magruder’s. I found there were too many characters and too many narrative voices to sort through and too little in the way of transition from one to the other. Consequently, the first half of the book felt cluttered and forced and a little dull in places. Another point of issue with some readers will be the distinctly chauvinistic world view. Louise is the only female character given more than a few lines description – a mouthy ‘bitch’ who is ultimately revealed to only want her husband to “act like a man” by taking charge, telling her what to do and how to behave. Believe it or not, the turning point for her character comes when she is relieved that her husband slaps her hard in the face and demands that she stop acting like a “stupid bitch”. No one is going to accuse Williams of writing great female characters, but he uses it well to stage the tension between the Magruders. 

  Once through the setup and into the meat of the thing, the slow moving first half morphs into a lightning fast, high-tension second half that I tore through in a matter of hours. The Magruder’s daughter (absent in the film version) being in the house adds another level of suspense, what with the convicted child killer in the house and the mad townsfolk outside. It also serves as another juxtaposition of cultures, as the main aggressor is the father of the missing girl, who he believes has been abducted by Niles. This man, Tom Heddon, is the English equivalent of poor, white trash and clearly shows little real concern for his daughter, outside of feeling cheated by Life, yet again. Magruder, on the other hand, dotes on his daughter and sees himself in every aspect of her personality. Using the danger to the daughter as a stepping off point, things fast become almost unbearably suspenseful, with a series of horrifying injuries and attacks between the marauders and Magruders. A man from town, simply trying to reason with the attackers, has his face blown off, interlopers are bashed and broken, doused with boiling water and all manner of home-made weapons whipped up in defense of Trencher’s Farm. As things move at breakneck speed, tensions flare, threats and brutalities spiral out of control until madness reigns and bodies line the floors.

  The book is filled with easy commentaries and obvious comparisons between English and American cultures, between bull-headed traditions and modernity (1960’s modern, but still…), men and women, children and adults, etc. I found it added a layer of thoughtfulness to what, otherwise, would have been another bleak and violent thriller. By the end, I was surprised at the lasting effect the story had and the more philosophical questions of social mores it raised. On reflection, it also struck me how much our current culture is moving back in this direction – with politicians trying to revoke women’s rights and corporations shoving us all back towards serfdom – and especially with certain groups using the anger, resentment and disenchantment of the poor and downtrodden to incite anger, violence and class warfare. Today a like-minded writer would flip the sides and have a prim, reserved Englishman being abused and attacked by snarling backwoods Tea Partiers. The upcoming film remake would seem to come pretty close to that premise. Maybe it’s time for Williams work to be appreciated again. Williams was fairly vocal in his distaste for Peckinpah’s film, and in distancing himself from the idea that his book was merely about violence and misogyny. Ironically, it is for those very reasons that his work lives on.

“The Siege of Trencher’s Farm” is available now in trade paperback from Titan books

Straw Dogs (1971) is available on DVD now and on Blu-ray September 6

Straw Dogs (2011) will be in theatres September 16, 2011

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