Haystacks In Art and Storytelling

Haystacks and haybales are multivalent symbols in storytelling, utilised in horror as well as in cosy pastoral stories.

The Thing That Stalks The Fields is a supernatural story about haystacks. It is also an example of a creepypasta.

A creepypasta is an urban legend for the Internet age: a paranormal story that has become a meme. In earlier days of the Internet, memes were ‘copy and pasted’ rather than ‘reblogged’, ‘retweeted’ and ‘shared’. ‘Creepypasta’ is a corruption of ‘copy paste’. (Nothing to do with pasta.) Like a tall tale told around the campfire, the aim is to shock readers by sort of getting them to… believe it.

“The Thing That Stalks The Fields” is the first person account of a farmer whose haybales seem to approach his farmhouse. One night something decapitates all of his horses. Then he sees a cat-like creature with a caved-chest. The thing next kills a visitor, and suddenly the farmer understands; he is the monster’s captive. It has used his haybales to delineate the bounds of his ‘cage’. At story’s end, he is thinking of making a run for it, and the reader can easily deduce that he is about to die.

This creepypasta is a good example of modern cosmic horror. Here is a description of the monster. In cosmic horror, the human witness is so horrified they’re having trouble explaining what it is, exactly.

It was composed entirely of something awful and alive which was lashed together in a messy semblance of a human form. Whatever it was made of looked so polished and hard, that if it weren’t for the minute writhing of the stuff, I’d think it was made of granite.

The Thing That Stalks The Fields

HAY SYMBOLISM AND HISTORY

So why a scary story about haybales for the modern era? How many people have anything to do with haybales in this day and age? Sure, farmers do. But not many of us live in rural areas anymore.

It may be difficult for urban dwellers to understand the importance of haybales, and their prominence on the landscape. In earlier times especially, and also today, haybales are the difference between life and death for livestock farmers. Last year’s Australian drought rammed that one home to us all.

Rituals from antiquity remind us of the importance of haybales. You’ll have heard of Christmas, but what about Loaf-mass?

Lammas is ‘hlaf-maesse’ (loaf-mass) in Old English. The word is used in the 9th century Anglo Saxon Chronicle. On the first of August, bread made from the first harvest was blessed in church. This bread was considered magic, and used to protect new grain. The painting below by Eric Ravillious (1934) shows the shape of those old ‘loaf’ shaped haybales.

Furlongs by Eric Ravilious, 1934

Hay, in storytelling, is one of those multivalent symbols. Idioms such as ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ convey our long relationship with hay as a comforting symbol of life and propserity. In children’s books, the haybale, and all the work associated with hay forms part of a utopian rural lifestyle. The country life has long been considered nourishing for children, in contrast to city life, considered stifling.

Here is another illustrated example of the loaf-shaped bale. Frank Ormrod’s black and white values convey the ominous potential of the haystack.

Life on the Land by Fred Kitchen illustrated by Frank Ormrod
Life on the Land by Fred Kitchen illustrated by Frank Ormrod

When superstition mixes with religion, you get the image below.

Corn-Angel-of-Midnight.-Joseph-Breck-and-Sons-1886
Corn Angel of Midnight from Joseph Breck and Sons, 1886
Edmund George Warren - Harvest
Edmund George Warren – Harvest
John Linnell - Reapers, Noonday Rest
John Linnell – Reapers, Noonday Rest
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema - Ninety-Four Degrees in the Shade boy reading haystack
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema – Ninety-Four Degrees in the Shade
James Clarke Hook
James Clarke Hook
John Clayton Adams - Returning from the Harvest
John Clayton Adams – Returning from the Harvest
John Clayton Adams - A Golden Harvest 1889
John Clayton Adams – A Golden Harvest 1889
1910 Embossed Postcard Thanksgiving Greetings Elk Series 636 Wheat & Sickle
1910 Embossed Postcard Thanksgiving Greetings Elk Series 636 Wheat & Sickle
Fritz Baumgarten, By the wondrous people and the four seasons, 1958 haystack
Fritz Baumgarten, By the wondrous people and the four seasons, 1958
The Juvenile almanack, or, Series of monthly emblems c1822-1824 july august making hay
The Juvenile almanack, or, Series of monthly emblems c1822-1824
George Bernard O'Neill - Nestlings 1870 hay
George Bernard O’Neill – Nestlings 1870 hay

Is the image below a cosy one or a scary one to you? It’s from the middle ages.

Summer, Jan Saenredam, after Hendrick Goltzius, 1590 – 1600

Even in images meant for adults, the hay imagery is an important way advertisers historically convey the wholesomeness of farm life, helping non-farmers to avoid the realities of hard labour, pestilence and slaughter.

But then you’ve got the haystack. The hay stack can be a different beast altogether, because in the twilight it literally looks like a monster. This must come from the realities of rural life of yore. I’m reminded of “The Wolf Pack” chapter of Little House In The Prairie, in which the little house is one night surrounded by wolves. Pa has to stay up all night with his shotgun, because he hasn’t yet made doors for the house and barn.

Wolf Pack howling Little House On The Prairie, illustration by Garth Williams

My kid asked if those were wolves or rabbits. Fact is, under moonlight, creatures (or haybales) can look like almost anything. The only limits are the imagination.

Artists and storytellers can do what they want with haystacks. They can be horror props or utopian props.

Back to the ominous, gothic haystacks, Theodor Kittelsen knew all about those. Those stacks by day give off a completely different vibe by night. Unlike the creepypasta above, cornstacks themselves turn into monsters. Without modern technology, humans are only able to make haybales a little bigger than themselves. That’s how they end up looking like very large men.

Corn Stacks in Moonlight 1900 Theodor Kittelsen
Corn Stacks in Moonlight 1900 Theodor Kittelsen

I’m pretty sure the haybales below are meant to look utopian and pleasantly pastoral, but if you’ve just looked steadily at Kittelsen’s walking moonlit examples, you may be affected as I am. These haybales have an ulterior motive.

Edzard King - Calendar magazine August 1920 hay
Edzard King – Calendar magazine August 1920
A vintage Halloween card pipe smoking pumpkin corn
Arthur Sarnoff, mid-60's Halloween illustration
Arthur Sarnoff, mid-60’s Halloween illustration

When an Australian ad agency was asked to create a series of commercials for Tooheys extra dry, they took the creepy, magical mythology of haystacks and ran with it, resulting in the exhibition of creepiness below.

Moons and haystacks go together as a magical duo. Romance also comes into it, probably due to the bedlike softness of a bundle of hay (at least by the comfort standards of antiquity). However, the illustrator was clearly not a character specialist. The girl looks too young, and not especially happy to be there, adding a different layer of creepiness to this ‘romantic’ image.

“Harvest Moon” (Young Lovers on a Hay Rick) signed ‘Norman Rockwell’, 1920s. Though this illustration is apparently of ‘lovers’, the girl looks about eleven years old to me.
In 1926 Rockwell Kent and his new wife, Frances, traveled to remote northwest Ireland for their honeymoon. While there he did this drawing of a haystack
Thanksgiving A Holiday Book by Lee Wyndam, illustrated by Hazel Hoecker (1963) hay cart
Thanksgiving A Holiday Book by Lee Wyndam, illustrated by Hazel Hoecker (1963)

HAY AS COSY MATTRESS

Childcraft Poems of Early Childhood, edited by J. Morris Jones Little Boy Blue illustration by Eloise Wilkin. Little boy asleep on a haystack with farm in the distance.
Childcraft Poems of Early Childhood, edited by J. Morris Jones Little Boy Blue illustration by Eloise Wilkin
The Puffin Book Of Nursery Rhymes, Iona and Peter Opie, Ill. Pauline Baynes (Penguin Books Ltd, 1963)
Jessie Willcox Smith (September 6, 1863 – May 3, 1935) hay sleep. Girl asleep in hay inside a barn. Her hat is in the foreground.
Jessie Willcox Smith (September 6, 1863 – May 3, 1935)
Music Round the Town edited by Max T. Krone, Irving Wolfe, Beatrice Perham Krone & Margaret Fullerton, illustrated by Val Samuelson (1963) haystack
Music Round the Town edited by Max T. Krone, Irving Wolfe, Beatrice Perham Krone & Margaret Fullerton, illustrated by Val Samuelson (1963).

HAY AND THE LABYRINTH

Walking through fields of wheat can feel disorienting, like walking through a maze or labyrinth. In this case, hay catches some symbolism from the labyrinth, which is vast.

Haying by Grant Wood 1939

Header illustration: ‘Every trapdoor must have a lid and a railing’ Illustrator unknown, 1930s barn hay

Lemon girl young adult novella

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