Showing posts with label Serial Killers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Serial Killers. Show all posts

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.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Jeffrey Dahmer: Confessions of a Serial Killer

Time flies. One minute you're looking ahead to the turn of the century like it's some far off, mystical event. And then suddenly, it's more than 20 years since Jeffery Dahmer was locked up for eating people. I recently watched an interview of Dahmer that was conducted by Stone Phillips for Dateline NBC more than 20 years ago (but only aired for the first time about ten years ago). The interview lasted 90 minutes and was entitled Jeffrey Dahmer: Confessions of a Serial Killer. Dahmer's father (Lionel Dahmer) and mother (Joyce Flint) were also interviewed. It's a very compelling, insightful, and downright creepy viewing experience.

Most people carry around a storyline about themselves that nicely explains their circumstances and their place in the world. A not-so-secret wish for many is to have others accept this storyline. Serial killers attract a lot of attention  and almost inevitably are given the chance to explain themselves and their actions. And so, Dahmer offers up his own narrative on his twisted desires and what he believes contributed to his motivations to kill.

Jeffrey Dahmer newspaper headline
Dahmer's bland, shameless explanation for his crimes together with his claim that he won't try to put the blame on anyone but himself, will go a long way to convincing people that he is telling the truth. But I don't quite buy everything that he says. First of all, Dahmer knows that his blunt admissions and refusal to blame others contribute to a profile that screams: I have nothing left to hide; I am going to share all the horrific details of my crimes and accept my punishment. In other words, many people will assume that with nothing to gain, he probably is telling the truth.

Of course, he knows this. And perhaps some of what he says is true. But then he can slip in other details to craft the public image he leaves behind. Granted, it's pretty difficult to rehabilitate such a horrific legacy. But someone like him probably wanted to sculpt and refine the nastier details so as to increase his infamy.

I also have trouble believing him because he contradicts himself. Mere minutes after proudly declaring that he won't blame anything or anyone else for his actions, he does just that. Like many prisoners who have nothing but time on their hands, Dahmer decides that proclaiming a belief in the invisible sky daddy will give him numerous dupes in the outside world to manipulate for the remainder of his days. And so he blames his slaughtering and cannibalism spree on the fact that he wasn't, at that time, a believer in the nappy-haired little Jewish carpenter who lived 2000 years ago. Which means he is shifting blame for his nasty crimes onto the big, bad, horrible society in which he was born and lived.

As the interview goes on, Dahmer continues  spinning and crafting the image he hopes people will accept. Did he try to stop the insanity? Why yes, he says. But after the second time he killed, it was pointless, he claims. But right at the moment he says this, he offers up one of those classic, body-language "tells." The nose-touch. I am fully down with the idea people do get itchy noses, and a scratch is not always a sign that they are lying. But it is interesting how often that gesture comes right at the moment when a person is trying to sculpt their own story or are otherwise commenting in a way that shines a light on their character.

Dahmer describes some of the usual background behaviour associated with serial killers. For example, he killed young animals when he was a child and says that he was obsessed with examining their innards. Just as all people want to know their fellow humans, this bit of childhood nastiness by many sociopathic murderers apparently is their literal attempt to understand life.

Father-Son Freakshow

Dahmer's father sits alongside him during parts of the interview and offers his own take on his piece-of-filth offspring. Both father and son exude the same bland, weirdly  unsettling matter-of-factness as they discuss the sick actions committed by Dahmer. I suppose there really is nothing else they can do as they have decided to discuss such macabre and repellent crimes. But the presentation of the supposed facts and their feelings comes across as weirdly unaffected and blasé.

I've often felt that people who are involved in any kind of traumatic events can benefit from writing books and getting caught up in the potential publicity of interviews and other public interactions where they are able to discuss their experiences. It all casts a surreal haze over everything and elevates their horrible, dreary lives into something worth discussing. And, in a weird way, while they are writing about and reliving their involvement in any number of terrible situations, it somehow makes it all seem easier to deal with.

And so, Dahmer's father felt it necessary to write a book after his son ate a bunch of people. I haven't read this book, but Philips references some passages and the overall types of musings from it during the interview with Dahmer and his father. Many of the half-baked possible causes that Dahmer's father discusses in the book regarding why his son slaughtered people are raised in the interview. All of the questions Dahmer's father apparently discusses in the book have the vague feeling of being interesting thought experiments on abstract ideas. Yet they are actually related to the murdering scum he fathered and who calmly sits next to him pontificating on his crimes and motives in his flat, monotone voice.

The parts of the interview where Dahmer and his father riff off each other and discuss their belief in god and dismiss evolution are some of the most revolting. The self-righteousness that comes through as Dahmer pukes up the standard jail-house horseshit of criminal filth converted at the last minute is truly pathetic.

Destroyed Lives

The calm, navel-gazing, oddly disconnected responses Dahmer and his father provide are in contrast to the interview with Dahmer's mother. It's impossible to know how people are affected by events based strictly on what they say and their manner (and Dahmer's father does mention this, noting that his outward appearance can make people think that he is somewhat cold and unfeeling), but you can only really listen to what they have to say. What people say, and how they say it, tend to indicate how much importance they attach to those words. And Dahmer's mother expresses what appears to be real pain for what her son inflicted on others. She comes across as being truly and irrevocably damaged by what took place, as opposed to the strange, sterile interview with Dahmer and his father, both of who seemed, at times, pleased that their bizarre story warrants such attention. Of course, in her words and rationalizations, there is still plenty to criticize about Dhamer's mother as well.

The interview continues on. Dahmer's father is also interviewed alone, Dahmer answers questions alone, and Dahmer's mother appears alone and with a co-author of a book she had planned on writing (but which was never published). Dahmer's mother never appears next to her son during the interview. In fact, the parts of the interview where Dahmer and his father sit next to each other, of course, took place in prison, while the interview with Dahmer's mother was conducted elsewhere.

I can't really see any reason why the people involved consented to these interviews. Aside from money (I have no idea if they were paid), or the aforementioned desire for attention, I can't see the benefit. However, Dahmer's father apparently encouraged his son to do the interview, as the book Dahmer's father had written was released just prior to that time. Stone Philips briefly mentions this as a motivating factor. As for Dahmer's mother, she likely wanted to ensure that her side of the story was heard. She divorced Dahmer's father years ago, and apparently didn't like some of the suggestions or outright claims he made in his book.

But if part of the motivation was to help people understand Dahmer, or even to paint him as a sympathetic figure, then it was a complete failure. No matter how rational or convincing you may sound, it's simply too hard to reach people when your offspring does what Dahmer did. The nastiness is bound to cloud most people's judgement of anyone related to such a perpetrator of evil.

Only nine months after the interviews were conducted, a fellow inmate bludgeoned Dahmer to death in prison. I wonder what was going through Dahmer's mind as the life was being hammered out of him? Relief? A dull sense of interest at this final experience before he ceased for all eternity? Hard to say. But something tells me no real remorse ever troubled the mind of this vile fleck of human excrement, either in the years following his crimes, or during those last, well-deserved moments of brutal justice.