The Night of the Hunter  – ★★★★★
The Night of the Hunter is best known as a film of 1955 by Charles Laughton, but it was first a great book by Davis Grubb, who based his story on a true case of serial killer Harry Powers, a deranged psychopath who preyed on and killed lonely widows in the late 1920s. In the book by Davis Grubb, Willa Harper is a recently widowed mother of two whose husband, Ben Harper, has recently been convicted and executed for killing two men in armed robbery. After the execution, Willa and her two children, John and Pearl, are the centre of sympathy in their community until their “salvation” arrives in the form of Harry Powell or “Preacher”. Preacher knows that Ben Harper disclosed to his children before his execution the location of ten thousand dollars he gained through robbery, and Preacher will use any means – kindness or more disturbing pressure to discover the location of the money. It is safe to say now that The Night of the Hunter was unjustly overshadowed by its cinematic counterpart. American writer Julia Keller called Davis Grubb’s book a “lost masterpiece”, and there is truth in that. The Night of the Hunter is a chilling, unforgettable tale of crime and evil set in the background of a Depression-hit community on a riverbank in West Virginia. The novel is suspenseful and thrilling, with great characterisations and an eerie atmosphere.
It is convenient now to talk of The Night of the Hunter as the book that resulted in a great movie, but that comparison does little to shed light on literary quality of the original source. The Night of the Hunter is not read like some kind of a screenplay (as most Stephen King books do), but a novel of literary merit with a convincing character study at the heart of it and insights into child psychology. Davis Grubb sets the books in West Virginia during the Great Depression and the times are hard for everyone on land: “….It was Hard Times in the land and larders held precious little extra for roadside wanderers” [Grubb, 1953: 188], and the author also uses evocative language to transport the reader to that time and place where uncertainty and fears about future and strangers ruled alongside American hospitality and friendliness. When Willa Harper loses her husband, she harbours hopes that she can yet find domestic bliss, and when Harry Powell arrives, it seems like calmness, security – man of God also entered her household. The only thing is that behind the vision of friendliness and stability lies something dark, cunning and merciless. Grubb makes these points across while referring to the immediate environment of the characters, hinting that appearances may be deceiving, and calm waters may not be what they appear to be:
“The river was too beguiling and treacherous in her female moods of gently passing shadows and strange voices floating crystal-sharp across the ripples and lights passing like fallen stars among the dark, distant trees” [Grubb, 1953: 187].
To instil a sense of horror, Davis Grubb relies on atmosphere, general eeriness and the persistent sense of danger, rather than on explicit scenes. When reading the novel, there is a feeling that danger is ever present all around, lurking somewhere very close and waiting to strike. The horror is almost subtle, and it helps that children are involved since few great effective horror stories can bypass children (for example, see Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw). The sense of horror comes from one charismatic character – Harry Powell – The “Preacher”. When his character comes to the scene in the very first chapter when he talks to Ben Harper in prison, there emerges one terrifying image of a man so psychopathic and ruthless it will be the substance of everyone’s nightmare. One of the most disturbing aspects of Powell’s personality is that he can present the appearance of normality, decency and respectability, and he relies on his own twisted logic and reason (including the word of God) to justify his every action. There are two sides to Powell’s external presentation, just like his tattooed fingers, one arm spelling L-O-V-E and another – H-A-T-E. When Powell gets the hint from doomed Harper than his children may know where their father hid the money, Powell finds himself released from prison and gets close to Harper’s widow, trying to make friends with Harper’s children. Will the children be able to see through “Preacher”‘s fake smiles and friendliness, not disclose their father’s secret, and finally make their escape? The deadly game begins.
The book is cleverer, deeper and more effective than it appears at first. At the start, we do not know the whole story or even where Ben Harper hid the money he stole, and find out everything in the most suspenseful way. Grubb also makes it possible for us to see the frightening situation emerging through different points of view. The author writes either “John thought:” or “she thought:” and then outlines the feelings, the doubts and the fears of the characters. In that way, explicit violence is toned down in favour of more psychological horror as John becomes increasingly suspicious of his mother’s new suitor, while his little sister Pearls becomes friends with her “new father”. Many tense moments occur, and there are memory flashes and vague premonition experienced by the characters:
“Something – the figure of a man – wandered in and out among the trees of her consciousness, through the white, blurring fog upon her mind’s shores. Now it was the shape of a lover and now something else – something frightful beyond telling – something with the body of a child in its arms” [Grubb, 1953: 86].
The story becomes even more convincingly horrifying since there is an effective use of repetition and place claustrophobia: -“But Preacher would never use that knife on Ben. Preacher wants something from Ben. Preacher wants to know about that money…Now Preacher comes back and stands by Ben’s bunk” [Grubb, 1953: 16], and there is a sense of despair and isolation since John has very few if any neighbours or friends to turn to or rely on for help.
The Night of the Hunter is a rather “cinematic” novel, but it should also proudly stand alone as an effective literary creation in its own right. The book is enigmatic, claustrophobic and suspenseful. It is a fine southern noir classic which should have more visibility and recognition.