Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Night of the Hunter - Davis Grubb

First published 1953; cover shown is the 1999 Prion Books (UK) softcover. Cover design by Bob Eames shows Robert Mitchum in the 1954 film.

This amazing novel packs so much atmosphere and tension into its 266 pages that it's hard to put down. The dialogue doesn't include quotation marks, which adds to the tension and is surprisingly easy to get used to.

John is a nine-year-old boy growing up in the Depression era in West Virginia. When his father Ben steals $10,000 from a bank and kills two men in the process, he leaves his son with the responsibility of keeping the money hidden and taking care of his four-year-old sister, Pearl. After Ben is hung for the killings, a strange man named Preacher comes to town, claiming to have known him.

From the outset the reader knows just how evil Preacher is, with his L-O-V-E and H-A-T-E tattoos on the fingers of his hands. A misogynistic serial murderer of women, Preacher has always evaded detection. It is only the increasingly withdrawn and troubled John that sees Preacher for what he really is: rotten to the core, with the whereabouts of the $10,000 his sole goal.

Worming his way into the life of Willa, the children's mother, and the Christian townsfolk of the small rural town, Preacher succeeds in gaining the love of little Pearl. Soon he has married Willa and moved into her house, subjecting John to endless torment and questioning about where Ben hid the money. In a matter of weeks Willa has changed into a Gospel screaming banshee alongside her new husband, filled with the need to repent her past "sin" of lust with Ben.

The story takes a new turn when Preacher takes another life: Willa's. Now John knows he must flee, to save himself and his sister from the man who treats killing a human like killing a hog. John heads to the river and his dead father's restored skiff, managing with terrified strength to push the boat into the fast current seconds before Preacher reaches them. John and Pearl continue down the river for days on end, living a Huckleberry Finn style life of begging for food from farmer's wives and stealing fruit from trees.

When they meet a kind, elderly woman on the riverbank one morning it seems that - finally - life may get easier. But John has spent his long, short life being continually disappointed and mistreated by the adults in his life... and with Preacher still searching for them and getting closer every day, John's nightmare is not over yet.

Davis Grubb (1919 - 1980) was born in a small town on the Ohio River, near where The Night of the Hunter was based. Hailed as a Gothic masterpiece, The Night of the Hunter is Grubb's best known work.

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