Joe McIntyre thought he deserved to be a famous writer. Ever since he’d been a boy, scribbling love poetry to the girl next door, he’d dreamed of literary fame and had always been convinced that, one day, his name would stand with Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin as one of the century’s greats. To that end, he’d spent many years churning out screeds of verse but, by his early 40s, had only achieved a very moderate and local success. He became embittered. “An occasionally underrated writer”, the editor of a small magazine had said. Joe did not underrate himself and knew exactly what was wrong. The poetry scene, he thought, was dominated by a small elite of self serving individuals who conspired to keep newcomers out. They had developed a house style with cute intellectual references, meaningless line breaks and little rhyme. Joe wrote more muscular poetry, in the style of Ted Hughes, about natural subjects like ferrets and budgerigars. Joe was convinced that while a coterie remained in charge of things he would reach old age without achieving his creative ambitions, one of which was to teach creative writing in an all girls American college. He occasionally dreamed of murdering who he saw as the main culprits but he lacked the nerve and the practical abilities to carry it out. Besides, Joe knew that there was a second or third rank of equally insipid writers ready to take their place should the first lot be justifiably, or accidentally, wiped out.
Joe wrote a series of long and well argued letters to newspapers and literary publications
outlining his position but, like his poems, none of them were published. He’d gone to see the local
writer in residence. She’d promised him help but, soon after their meeting, she’d moved out to a
small inaccessible croft to work on her forthcoming anthology of poems about menstruation.
It occurred to Joe that everyone was getting published because they had a gimmick. Because they wrote in some impenetrable dialect, because they were handicapped, or women. Joe struggled to find an angle himself but somehow being one of the school of short-sighted, balding writers of ferret poems was not enough. His iron will was such, however, that he could not give up, and, through the increasingly dark and desperate months, he continued to recycle his pointless littlepoems, spending the small amount of money he’d inherited from his parents on huge amounts of brown envelopes and broad green acres of second class stamps. Then, one day, he met, or rather re-met, Kevin McCutcheon, a psychopath.
He’d known Kevin from years before when they had both attended a writing class run by a man called Justin Everard Duckley, who had since, to Joe’s incandescent rage, produced a slim volume of poems short listed for a major book award. Kevin had only been interested in writing lurid crime fiction and had left the course early. Joe assumed that he had abandoned any literary ambitions and so entered into their new found relationship with at least one dangerous
They had met together in the Douglas Arms and, since it had been their only real point of contact, had begun talking about the writing course, a conversation that inevitably led to Joe’s agenda of injustices. Kevin was impressed by the other man’s passion on the subject for, ironically,in spite of having no apparent talent at all for writing poetry, Joe did have considerable talent in the field of complaining about it.
“Just ‘cos I’m not trendy, just ‘cos I’m not gay, just ‘cos I’ve not seen caribou galloping
across the tundra, just ‘cos I’m not living in a big city crawling up the right peoples’ arseholes
doesn’t mean I’m no good” he sobbed, over his eighth pint of Guinness.
“You could move” said Kevin helpfully. “Or travel and see interesting things.”
“ It’d be no use” cried Joe, “I’m a man of my environment. A woodland poet. Take me out of trees I’d be useless.”
Kevin, having heard Joe’s seminal work ‘Ferret at Dawn’ six times, had concluded that he was useless anyway but, being a highly intelligent and complex man, he listened to Joe’s slow disintegration into self-pity with interest, and no small compassion. He wanted to help. He also hated Justin Everard Duckley and had many times thought about killing him.
“Of course,” Kevin said at last, “poets often become famous when they’re dead.” Joe’s pitiable weeping was now attracting the attention of the bar staff but he managed to stutter “Only if someone takes them up. Decides they’re brilliant. None of these wankers are going to take me up, dead or not.”
“Or”, said Kevin, “become famous by the nature of their death.”
Joe wiped his eyes with a grubby handkerchief. “What do you mean?”
“Well, think of it” said Kevin. “Chatterton, Baudelaire. Dissipation, death and poetic fame.”
Joe shook his head. “They were young, and I couldn’t be dissipated where I live. They’d move me to a council house.”
After a long pause, Kevin leaned across the table and whispered “I could kill you….. In a really, really imaginative and innovative way. It would make all the papers. And it needn’t hurt.”
Joe stared across at him. “It would make all the papers because it was a gruesome crime.” He was speaking slowly, as if addressing an imbecile. “You’d become famous, I wouldn’t. I would
just be some bloke who keeps writing crap ferret poems who’s had his head cut off by a really gifted and clever killer.”
Kevin’s eyes were unblinking. “But what if”, he said with growing excitement, “a manuscript of poetry was found shortly afterwards which seemed to prefigure the death, predict it in every detail, mirror the feelings of a man who knows exactly the imminence and the manner of his death but is powerless to predict it.”
Joe shivered. “You could call it” added Kevin quietly, “Stalked by the Reaper”.
Joe shook his head. “But, how would….?”
Kevin interrupted, his face flushed with enthusiasm. “Yes. It would work. You finish the manuscript, give it to me, and after the….deed, I’ll send it to the papers and publishers, pointing out as a friend and confidant of the deceased how chilling and resonant the poems are and how much of the detail seems to prefigure the murder, or at least such detail as has been released by the police and the press!”
Of course the idea was ridiculous. Joe knew it even as he staggered away from the pub. Poetry without forest life was beyond him anyway. The next morning he put the little card with Kevin’s phone number at the bottom of a drawer and forgot about it. Two months later, though, months spent in the usual routine of revising poems, sending them off to and receiving them back from more and more obscure publications, Joe was informed in a very matter of fact way by his doctor that he had stomach cancer, and had probably had it for some time. The prognosis was not good, the original centre had spread, surgery was not, at this stage, an option. There followed weeks of debilitating treatment during which time he did not lift his pen once. His focus became drips and sheets and drugs and nausea and he seemed to be disappearing from the world, shrinking into himself. In the midst of all this misery and darkness, one flame still burned: his desire, his obsession, to be immortal through his writing. Maybe it was because he was depressed, but more and more in sleepless, sick nights he thought of Kevin McCutcheon and his idea, began to visualise the stark black cover of ‘Stalked by the Reaper’, could see his own name in gold letters under the title and just above the TS Eliot Award Sticker. So, after his second course of treatment, when he had regained a little strength, he phoned Kevin McCutcheon, and arranged for them to meet.
Kevin was sorry to hear about the illness, listened to Joe with real sympathy and interest. He hoped that he would be better soon. When Joe brought up the subject of their previous conversation in the pub, he didn’t scoff as Joe had feared, or laugh it off as a joke. Instead he cupped his hands underneath his chin and listened intently. He looked like some kind of bank manager.
“Of course in these matters” he said, “it is the practicalities that count. Everything must be worked out to the last detail and with great care. All must be in place. This is not a murder, after all, rather a business plan.”
Joe nodded. Kevin resumed. “You can leave all the logistics to me and when it comes to the actual deed…” he coughed discreetly, “I can promise you’ll feel nothing. We’ll use drugs. There will be no pain.”
Joe agreed. “No pain” he repeated. He’d had enough pain. Kevin stared into Joe’s eyes. “You write the poems. Just concentrate on that. You are the artist in that field.”
Although he entered into the work with no great optimism, Joe found that the poems came easily. They had a dark force and urgency completely lacking in his previous work. His time in hospital had added an extra dimension, a new vocabulary, into his poetry which, though dark, was now compelling. He found himself writing a series of poems about his mortality, his feelings of impending death, which far excelled anything he’d ever written before. Into these poems he laced tantalising details as to the place (a remote barn), the time they’d chosen for his death (Halloween), and, as importantly, the manner of it. Kevin had announced this on a day out they’d had to a country pub. It was Autumn, leaves were red and falling, but somehow trees didn’t seem to matter to Joe anymore. He was a real poet, and soon his poetry would live forever.
“I thought I’d slice you completely in half” said Kevin. “Top to bottom. Don’t think it’s ever been done before as far as I can see.”
At such times Joe had to concentrate on the end goal. After all, he wouldn’t feel a thing.
“I’ll need a chain saw. Would you buy one? It’ll be pretty messy.” He shook his head apologetically. “No avoiding it, I’m afraid. All these intestines, brain matter. Not to speak of blood.”
Joe shuddered. Well, his intestines hadn’t been very good to him anyway. He wondered what they’d look like gleaming on the cobbled floor of the barn. He was already forming the lines of his last poem in his head.
Kevin reminded him of the precise details of their last rendez-vous, reassured him with a measured calm that recalled, for Joe, the doctors in the hospital. They shook hands in a very civilised manner and parted. In the next couple of weeks, Joe had typed up the collection, tidied it up and bound it between sheets of card. He wrote ‘Stalked by the Reaper: Last poems by Joe McIntyre’ and sent it, along with a brand new chainsaw he’d bought, to the address supplied by Kevin McCutcheon. All was organised, and for the best.
At 11.20 pm on October 30th, Joe got into his car and drove into the country. Kevin had assured him it would take about 30 to 35 minutes. It did. He parked his car by the farm track and, his breath coning, moved towards the isolated farm building. The moon was high and round in the sky. With a few yards to go he paused for just a moment and listened to the wind in the branches, the distant bark of a dog. He would never hear these things again, but it didn’t matter. He looked at his watch. It was midnight when he opened the door to the barn.
He must have fainted at the sight of Kevin McCutcheon’s dismembered body because, when he came to, the police cars were already blaring along the little country road. The chainsaw, covered of course in Joe’s fingerprints, lay among the shining viscera. Kevin’s hands, what were left of them, were gloved. It was, after all, very cold. As he was arrested, Joe was wondering, almost with admiration, how a person could inflict so much damage on himself. There was no sign of drugs.
Kevin McCutcheon’s book, ‘Stalked by the Reaper’, was published the following Spring to overwhelming critical acclaim. Seamus Heaney called it “a superhuman vision of life and death almost without parallel in this century, or perhaps in any other.” It won fourteen major awards and is currently being made into a movie with Ewan MacGregor as Kevin McCutcheon.
Joe McIntyre, after his defence was rejected by the judge as a callous and incredible attempt to “manipulate the boundaries of belief and blacken the character of a man with almost limitless artistic potential”, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Having had successful treatment for stomach cancer, he is now at Peterhead Special Unit where he has shown no aptitude at all for creative projects.