Depression-Era Evil: Horror In A Haunted Land
Julia Keller's latest novel is A Killing in the Hills.
When the actor James O'Neill played the title character in a stage version of The Count of Monte Cristo, it was a piece of "good bad luck," his son Eugene O'Neill later said. James O'Neill could never escape the shadow of the role that made him famous.
A related kind of "good bad luck" befell Davis Grubb in 1955, when a movie was made of the novel he had published two years earlier, The Night of the Hunter. So vivid and menacing is the film, which stars Robert Mitchum as the sinister predator with l-o-v-e tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and h-a-t-e on the other, that most people have forgotten all about the novel.
That's a shame, because The Night of the Hunter is a gorgeous gut-punch of a book, a crime novel and ghost story and morality tale all rolled into one, an ugly-beautiful book that makes you leap at shadows and shudder when the sun goes down. Its style is earthy and visceral. It pays scant attention to narrative niceties like punctuation. It is rough-hewn, wildly over the top and fiendishly entertaining, with some crucial social commentary tucked in there as well, like a precious coin smuggled in a raggedy old sock.
Pearl and John are two small children being raised by their mother, Willa, in Cresap's Landing, a sorrowful speck of a town along the Ohio River near Moundsville, W.Va. This is the Great Depression — a time, notes one of the book's characters, that has "turned up the undersides of some mighty respectable folks." The children's father, Ben Harper, has just been executed for a murder committed in the course of an armed robbery. No one knows where Ben hid the money he stole, except his children.
While Ben was in prison, awaiting execution, his cellmate had been a creepy, twisted waste of a man known as Preacher. Once Preacher is free, he seeks out Ben's children, certain that they know the location of the dough. Preacher woos and marries Ben's wife — while the boy, John, watches in mounting terror. Soon John and his sister, Pearl, are on the run through the haunted, poverty-pocked landscape of the Ohio River Valley, escaping from what the book calls "something as old and dark as the things on the river's bed, old as evil itself."
Davis Grubb was born in Moundsville in 1919 but left the state at 21 for New York, with a dream of becoming a writer. By the time he died in 1980, Grubb was a forgotten man, and his extraordinary novel had long since been eclipsed in the public mind by the film it had inspired.
Recently I found myself drawn back to Grubb's intense and sinuous tale, back to its dark and fevered magic. So if you like your stories served up raw, and if you want a look at how dire poverty can bring out the very worst and the very best in human nature, then open this novel — but beware. It may do to you what the proximity of Preacher does to the young boy John, putting "the smell of dread in his nose," until "doglike his flesh gathered and bunched at the scent of it."
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva and Rose Friedman with production assistance from Annalisa Quinn.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. It's time now for another installment in our series You Must Read This, where authors talk about a book they love. Author Julia Keller likes her fiction creepy, that's why she's recommending a forgotten American classic that she calls terrifying. It's "The Night of the Hunter" by Davis Grubb.
JULIA KELLER: You could call it good bad luck. It's what happened to Davis Grubb in 1955. A book he published - "The Night of the Hunter" - was turned into a movie, and it's a good one. Robert Mitchum is the sinister predator. He's got love, L-O-V-E, tattooed on one hand and hate, H-A-T-E, on the other. It's such a vivid, menacing movie, but a lot of people forgot all about the book. And that's a shame because it's a gorgeous novel. It's rough and raw and melodramatic with some social commentary tucked in there too.
Pearl and John are two small kids being raised by their mom, Willa. They live in a sorrowful speck of a town along the Ohio River in West Virginia. The father of this family has just been executed for a murder he committed during an armed robbery. Only his kids know where he hid the money. Then we meet a creepy, twisted waste of a man known as Preacher. Now, he's certain the kids can lead him to the dough, so Preacher woos and marries the widow, while the boy, John, watches in mounting terror.
Soon, John and his sister are on the run from their stepfather, escaping from what the book calls something as old as evil itself. Davis Grubb was born in Moundsville, West Virginia, in 1919, but he left for New York City when he was 21. He wanted to be a writer, and he had some real success. "The Night of the Hunter" was a huge hit, a bestseller. But by the time he died in 1980, Grubb was a forgotten man.
So if you like your stories blunt and unpolished, then get your hands on this novel. But beware: You may end up feeling a little like poor young John, who runs from the smell of dread in his nose until - doglike - his flesh gathered and bunched at the scent of it.
CORNISH: Julia Keller is the author of "A Killing in the Hills." The book she recommended was "The Night of the Hunter" by Davis Grubb. You can comment on this essay at nprbooks.org. You can also like us on Facebook for updates on books throughout the day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.