I’ve gone my whole life without ever seeing those vast cornfields that Boomer and Gen X writers are obsessed with. Children of the Corn, In the Tall Grass, and countless other examples demonstrate how terrifying cornfields are to them. Now, I have never seen these interminable rows of clustered vegetation because I have never been to the midwest. And when my family traveled, it was into deserts or so far west that we ended up in the east. The closest example to cornfields in my life might be the rice paddies that patterned every roadside in the Philippines. While they are not tall enough to get lost in, they are spread out enough you can lose your way. And while there were no scarecrows, there was the thought that you could fall in and get stuck, or worse, someone who had the misfortune of falling in before would reach up and take you with them.
While I’ve never seen a scarecrow in the middle of a cornfield, there is horror in farms — the large tracts of land and dense crops, and, in the case of this week’s Goosebumps book, something one step from humanity that shouldn’t be human. It’s time for The Scarecrow Walks at Midnight.
Our protagonist is Jodie, who is going to visit her grandparents’ farm with her lazy brother Mark. They’re traveling with their grandparents’ farmhand — a man named Stanley. It’s not explicitly said, but Stanley has some kind of mental disability. This is such a trope — the simple-minded farmhand — but I don’t know how common it was by the time this book was published (1994). I don’t know if the stereotype is offensive but I would guess that it’s very offensive.
Anyway, Stanley starts mumbling that “the scarecrow walks at midnight.” The children ignore him and as well as the title of the book they exist in. When they arrive at the farm, Mark opens a corn husk and worms pour out. Stanley says that his book says it’s bad luck and freaks out. And then they stare at scarecrows.
We meet Stanley’s son — an older boy named Sticks. He is some kind of prankster and he doesn’t share his father’s disability.
The kids notice their grandfather is acting strangely because he won’t tell them scary stories. He used to tell the kids scary stories at night, but this time, he doesn’t want to, insisting that he’s tired.
That night, Jodie looks out the window and sees the scarecrows twitch and pull at their stakes. That’s creepy. Surprisingly, it’s not a dream. I genuinely thought it was going to be a dream. Instead, Jodie covers herself and doesn’t get up until the morning.
She rushes down to get their grandmother’s beloved pancakes. However, their grandmother gives them cornflakes instead. She says she forgot how to make pancakes. Jodie notices her hand is made of straw!
Just kidding. She was holding a broom.
For some reason, Stanley keeps hanging out with these kids, seemingly shirking his farm duties. The trio goes to the pond to catch fish and a scarecrow’s hand grabs Jodie.
It’s just some weeds. Geez, this girl needs to lay off the caffeine.
Then Jodie sees a scarecrow and thinks it’s Sticks playing a prank on her. Then it just disappears. When she tells Stanley about it, he says he has to read his book. This guy is starting to sound like me. If someone asks me a question, I answer, “I have to read my book.” However, something weird is going on with Stanley, whereas when I say, “I have to read my book,” I’m trying to get out of a conversation.
Later, Jodie believes that scarecrow is stalking her. She runs right into Sticks and is that convinced he’s the stalker scarecrow. Since we’re only halfway through the book, that’s clearly not the case.
Meanwhile, her grandparents are still being weird. The grandmother used to make apple pie, but that night, she serves them a cherry pie. Jodie remarks that her grandfather is allergic to cherries. He says he doesn’t mind and neither does Stanley.
After the second night in a row where their grandfather won’t tell them any stories, Jodie wakes up to scratching at her window. It’s her grandfather with clumps of straw for hands!
Yeah, that time it was a dream. But her grandfather is missing.
The next morning, the siblings ride horses. While Jodie is on a horse, a scarecrow steps out from the cornstalks, scares the horse, and bucks her off.
She hits her head and wakes up moments later. A scarecrow is laying facedown on the trail. Jodie convinces herself that it’s just Sticks pranking them, but she wonders why Sticks wants to hurt them.
Jodie ventures into the barn and finds Stanley’s “scarecrow supplies,” which includes a pile of torches and kerosene. While investigating the materials, Sticks pops out and acts like the red herring he is.
“I warned you,” he said, lowering his voice to a whisper. “I warned you to get away from here, to go back home.”
“But why?” I demanded. “What’s your problem, Sticks. What did we do to you? Why are you trying to scare us?”
“I’m not,” Sticks replied. He glanced back nervously at the barn doors.
“Huh?” I gaped at him.
“I’m not trying to scare you. Really,” he insisted.
“Liar,” I muttered angrily. “You must really think I’m a moron. I know you threw that scarecrow onto our path this morning. It had to be you, Sticks.”
“I really don’t know what you’re talking about.” he insisted coldly. “But I’m warning you-”
And Stanley interrupts them and Sticks goes with him to do tractor business. Man, people in Stine novels are always pranking, or thinking they’re being pranked, or spouting cryptic nonsense. The only time I said weird half things was when I was trying to regain power without any actual plan. “Oh, you’ll be sorry. You’ll see. I totally have a plan. I’m not stalling for time as I back away.” And speaking of continued pranking.
Jodie concocts a plan to put Mark in a scarecrow costume and scare Sticks. She tells him to get into position. While waiting, Mark leaves his, well, mark. But she soon realizes that the moving scarecrow isn’t Mark!
Jodie finds Sticks and, since there are only a few pages left, Sticks finally speaks like a human being, instead of a quest giver in a Sierra game.
“Dad brought the scarecrows to life,” he said softly. “Last week. Before you came. He used the book. He chanted some words — and they all came to life.”
“Oh, no,” I murmured, raising my hands to my face.
“We were all so frightened,” Sticks continued. “Especially your grandparents. They begged Dad to recite the words and put the scarecrows back to sleep.”
“Did he?” I asked.
“Yes,” Sticks replied. “He put them back to sleep. But first he insisted your grandparents make some promises. They had to promise not to laugh at him anymore. And they had to promise to do everything he wanted from now on.”
Sticks took a deep breath. He stared toward the guest house window. “Haven’t you noticed how different things are at the farm? Haven’t you noticed how frightened your grandparents are?”
I nodded solemnly. “Of course I have.”
“They’ve been trying to keep Dad happy,” Sticks continued. “They’ve been doing everything they can to keep him from getting upset or angry. Your grandmother fixes only his favorite food. Your grandfather stopped telling scary stories because Dad doesn’t like them.”
I shook my head. “They’re that afraid of Stanley?”
“They’re afraid he’ll read the chant in the book again and bring the scarecrows back to life,” Sticks said. He swallowed hard. There’s only one problem,” he murmured.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Well, I haven’t told Dad yet. But . . .” His voice trailed off.
“But what?” I demanded eagerly.
“Some of the scarecrows are still alive,” Sticks replied. “Some of them never went back to sleep.”
Ooh, that’s some good cliffhanger horror there, Stine. That would be the hook in the trailer.
The scarecrows corner the family and they hop off their sticks and lumber toward the family, which is terrifying. Fortunately, since Mark is dressed as a scarecrow, they think he’s their leader and does whatever he does. So he pulls off his scarecrow head. The scarecrows imitate him and pull off their heads.
The family expects the scarecrows to fall since they don’t have heads. However, it just makes them headless scarecrows and Mark doesn’t look like them anymore. The headless scarecrows continue encroaching on the family.
So the family sets the scarecrows on fire — the original plan.
Things go back to normal, but now grandpa’s stuffed bear is making noises.
At first, I wasn’t sold on this one. There were too many fakeouts and I was pretty sure that Stanley was an offensive stereotype and it creeped me out that he hung out with twelve-year-olds. Then, if Stanley does have a mental disability, who is the woman whom he knocked up, and wouldn’t that be considered abuse? There are some unpleasant implications in this book.
And then there’s the part with the broom and I thought our main character was too jumpy for no reason. Oh no, a broom. Oh no, a bear statue. Oh no, some weeds.
But I never really hated it because I like the scarecrows pulling themselves from their stakes. When the scarecrows take off their heads and lumber toward the family, I was delighted! That’s a good twist. The end of this book really makes up for the beginning. And you know what? I’d rather have a great ending than a great beginning.
Also, stop sending kids into the countryside for the summer. Just let them watch cartoons and eat cereal all day. Farms are terrifying!
For a list of every Baby-Sitters Club, Goosebumps, and Fear Street book review I’ve done, go to RereadingMyChildhood.com or follow RereadMyChildhd on Twitter. For more information about me, Amy A. Cowan, visit my website AmyACowan.com or follow my Twitter: amyacowan.