The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Black Reaper" (1819)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Black Reaper” was written by Bernard Capes and first appeared in At a Winter's Fire (1899). Capes (1854-1918) is an author who should be far better known than he is. He is best-known for his historical novel The Lake of Wine (1898), but his detective and horror fiction is of the highest quality.
"The Black Reaper" is set in 1665 in Anathoth, a remote English farming village. The narrator describes how he and his friends in the village were hypocrites, worshiping Christ with their mouths and not their hearts, and how their vicar was neither listened to nor respected. They were “a community of roysterers and scoffers, impious and abominable.”1 But the plague broke out in London, and a new man arrived in Anathoth, perhaps an old colleague of the vicar's, perhaps a wandering Dissenter, but either way a righteous preacher and a scourge against the village, telling all that they were sinners. That August the land was overrun with infected men and women fleeing from London, and one afternoon, when the men of the village were gathered around a dry well, the preacher appeared and told them “Behold, ye that have not obeyed nor inclined your ear, but have walked every one in the imagination of his evil heart! Saith the Lord, ‘I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape; and though they shall cry unto Me, I will not hearken unto them’”2 and other such joyful noises. The preacher even tells the villagers that the Lord of Hosts is going to bring evil upon them, that their hour is nigh, and that they shall “be mowed down like ripe corn.”3 The villagers—not the narrator—rush him, and despite one of the children telling the men not to hurt him, and despite the preacher's saying “I spare the little children!”4 the villagers shove the preacher down the well and cover it up with rocks. The narrator feels guilty about this and is carrying his daughter Margery on his shoulders to the corn field for the reaping when they see a man, “sprung out of the earth, as it seemed,”5 who begins reaping the corn.
The face of the reaper cannot be seen, and “he reaped swiftly and steadily, swinging like a pendulum; but, though the sheaves fell to him right and left, no swish of the scythe came to us, nor any sound but the beating of our own hearts.”6 The narrator and the villagers are convinced that the reaper is the minister come back for vengeance. The narrator then realizes that Margery is sleeping in the path of the reaper. The narrator rescues Margery and runs away from the reaper, but the other villagers aren't so lucky: every time the reaper gathers up a sheaf, one of the villagers falls dead. They try firing the field, but as the fire dies out those who set the corn aflame burn. The reaper, finished with the smaller, upper part of the field, starts toward the larger part of the corn field, and the villagers know that if he makes it to that part of the field, they will all die. The vicar tries to stop the reaper. The reaper hesitates for a moment, then puts his hand, gently, on the vicar's head, and the vicar sinks into the corn and disappears from sight. But before the reaper can go into the field the narrator remembers what the Dissenter had said, and has the villagers line their children up in front of the reaper. The reaper cannot find a space between them, and will not harm the children, and so leaves, waving his hand once, his face “radiant and beautiful as an angel's.”7
Capes was popular at the turn of the century but today is forgotten by everyone except connoisseurs of supernatural stories. This is a shame, since his best stories are the equal or superior of the work of better-known authors. G.K. Chesterton described Capes as carrying on “the tradition of the artistic conscience of Stevenson; the technical liberality of writing a penny-dreadful so as to make it worth a pound.”8 “The Black Reaper” is one of Capes’ best stories. Its only real flaw is the narrator's voice, which uses difficult and antiquated vocabulary and phrasing and though realistic in context stands as an impediment to the story's enjoyment. But the story is otherwise extremely enjoyable. The story has some creepy moments and a clever resolution, and although the story is slow to start, Capes does use that interval to establish a nicely ominous mood.
Print: Bernard Capes, The Black Reaper. New York: HarperCollins, 2017.
1 Bernard Capes, “The Black Reaper,” in At a Winter’s Fire, Project Gutenberg, accessed Feb. 11, 2019, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/14045/pg14045-images.html
2 Capes, “The Black Reaper.”
3 Capes, “The Black Reaper.”
4 Capes, “The Black Reaper.”
5 Capes, “The Black Reaper.”
6 Capes, “The Black Reaper.”
7 Capes, “The Black Reaper.”
8 G.K. Chesterton, “Bernard Capes,” in G.K. as M.C.: A Collection of 37 Rare G.K. Chesterton Essays (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2016), 124.