Sunday, August 28, 2022

Book Review: The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb

The Night of the Hunter
Serial killers have been around as long as human beings have walked the earth. But the term ‘serial killer’ is relatively new (perhaps coined in the early 1970s). And the way society views people who go around butchering others for kicks has changed over the years. It’s a change also reflected in cinema and fiction.

The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb was published in 1953. The movie of the same name was released only a few years later, in 1955. Grubb’s tale is set in West Virginia during the Great Depression, perhaps in 1932 or ‘33. Two small children, John and Pearl, and their mother, Willa, are struggling to make ends meet. The children’s father and Willa’s husband, Ben Harper, has been locked up, though as readers we’re not at first sure exactly why.

Then we’re introduced to Harry Powell, aka ‘The Preacher’ as he drives a Model-T Ford around the countryside. He ruminates about the women he’s murdered. Perhaps it’s six, he muses, or maybe as many as twelve. His thoughts make it clear Powell is a sociopath who channels all his rage towards women. His hatred is based on his own lustful feelings and turned towards the ‘whores’ and ‘bitches’ he loathes for having power over his emotions.

When he’s locked up for stealing a car (the Model-T he was tooling around in earlier), Powell is placed in the same cell as Ben Harper. It’s now clear to the reader that Harper held up a bank, murdered two employees and got away with ten thousand dollars. The missing money has not been recovered, and Powell and all the other characters are well aware of this. The missing-money-from-a-heist is a huge crime-fiction trope, but likely wasn’t as well-worn then as it is now.

Harper is executed and the released-from-jail Powell sets out to sink his claws into Harper’s widow and get his hands on that money. Powell dupes the rubes of Cresap’s Landing, charming the women and impressing the men with his spontaneous, righteous sermons. He’s got a schtick involving the letters tattooed on the fingers of both hands: the letters on the fingers of his right hand spell L-O-V-E and the letters on the fingers of his left hand spell H-A-T-E. He laces his fingers together and gets hepped up and starts condemning all sorts of nastiness in the world. And it works a charm. A couple of people have reservations, but for the most part the locals are impressed by Powell.

Except the little boy, John. He sees through the façade and is rightfully scared of the murderous preacher, who carries around a switch-blade knife he likes to fondle. He also uses it to slit throats.

The rest of the novel involves a cat-and-mouse chase as Powell slowly comes unhinged and enraged that his little nemesis, John, won’t reveal where the money is hidden. It turns out that Ben Harper entrusted the secret hiding place with John before the police arrested him. Powell hypnotizes, marries and then murders Willa. He dumps her body in the river and then drops all pretenses and starts terrorizing John and Pearl. The children flee on a skiff their father left behind and travel down the river towards whatever awaits them.

It’s a classic tale of good versus evil told through numerous perspectives. The shifting narrative points-of-view include John, Powell, Willa, Rachel Cooper (a characters who shows up in the final third of the novel) and others. Most of the story is told in third person, past tense, though there are passages in the present tense and even a few first-person sections near the end. 

Unlike in later novels about serial killers, the focus in The Night of the Hunter is not on the murders perpetrated by the killer. In the novel, only one murder is depicted and even that is quite tame in its description. Harry Powell is simply a nasty piece of work who kills and is willing to kill again. Yet the fascination people have for murderers, and specifically the women who often fall for serial killers and end up paying with their lives, is still there.  

The film of the same name is a very faithful adaptation of the novel. Many lines of dialogue in the movie are taken verbatim from the book. Of course, there are many more scenes and all the characters are more developed in the novel simply because of the format.

Davis Grubb was a skilled writer. The Night of the Hunter is full of lyrical, descriptive passages. All the characters are flawed, damaged individuals bearing up under the weight of the depression and its attendant economic hardships. They all have secrets, troubled pasts and regrets (with the exception of Powell). Most of the characters don’t truly understand each other.

In this passage, the little boy, John, returns home after dark to find the house deserted. All except for the Preacher, who corners John in the entrance-way and breaks the news to him that he, Powell, is set to marry John’s mother, Willa:

So he had been standing there all along by the hall rack where Ben Harper used to hang his cap when he came in from the car of an evening. Preacher: standing there all along, letting him call three times before he answered. Now Preacher moved forward and the light from the open doorway to the parlor threw a gold bar of light across the livid line of lip and cheek and bone beneath and one eye shone like a dark, wet grape and the lid crinkled over it nervously.

All the adults in the first part of the novel let down John and Pearl. Until they finally find salvation in the embrace of Rachel Cooper, an old woman who finds them asleep in the boat grounded on the bank of the Ohio River. Rachel takes in waifs and orphans produced by the depression years. Her grown son is successful and lives in a distant city and has no use for her. Instead of dwelling on her lot in life, she keeps moving forward and finds solace in helping others. John and Pearl, too, have fled the ruins of their earlier life and discover a new existence. While the coining of the term ‘found family’ was decades in the future when the book was published, it is a powerful theme in the final third of the story.

It’s inevitable that Powell will find the children, and so he does. One of the young girls under Rachel’s care is Ruby—another damaged person with a troubled past. She’s older than the other children and has discovered the power of her female wiles. But she’s still quite naïve about the ways of the world. She allows men to use her along the banks of the river, reveling in the attention but failing to understand the long-term implications of her and their actions. It’s fitting that Powell finds the children through Ruby.

Sex—mainly in its repressed and destructive forms—is another powerful theme in the novel. Powell’s character is the most obvious example of this. He in turn shames and browbeats Willa into believing she is evil for daring to feel sexual desire. Icey Spoon is another example. The gossipy wife of the weakling Walt, she hides her desire for Powell under the guise of sexual innuendo. It’s only Rachel Cooper, probably the most sympathetic character in the novel, who speaks and thinks somewhat openly about intimacy.

In this tale of good versus evil, it is only appropriate that Rachel Cooper blasts Harry Powell in the shoulder with a shotgun, sending the sociopath fleeing into the barn where he is apprehended by the police a short time later.The resolution shows the main characters coming to terms with what has happened and how they will move forward. The reader is aware of Powell in the courtroom scene and later as Ruby stands outside and looks forlornly and longingly at the prison where he awaits execution. But we never again are inside his head nor do we even see him through another character’s eyes. Yet we are still aware of his presence and the effect he’s had on others and know his evil spirit will linger long after he’s been hanged.

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