Davis Grubb,
Night of the Hunter
(Harper, 1953; Vintage, 2015)

Davis Grubb isn't a name likely to leap out at you from the pantheon of great American novelists. In fact, save for a small legion of loyal fans, his name might not be remembered at all save for a classic film based on his best known work.

The Night of the Hunter, published by Harper Brothers in 1953, quickly became a bestseller and a finalist for the 1955 National Book Award. The movie rights were snapped up and a memorable film version created starring Robert Mitchum, directed by Charles Laughton and with script written by James Agee. The film is a black-and-white masterpiece worthy of all the praise it has won over the years.

But, if you haven't read it, the novel is the real prize.

Inspired by a real-life serial killer in his native West Virginia, Grubb's first novel is a lyrical prose jewel of good vs evil, mainly told through the eyes of John, a 9-year-old boy intent on keeping his promise to protect Pearl, his 4-year-old sister, and keep the secret of where Ben Harper, his father, hid money stolen in a doomed bank robbery.

John does his best, eluding the guiles of greedy neighbors as well as the pleas of his needy mother, left a widow with two small children to support in the depths of the Depression, until he comes up against "Preacher" Harry Powell, a hymn-singing, Bible-spouting hypocrite, a thief and switchblade-toting murderer who failed to wheedle the secret out of Ben while the two shared a cell in prison. Now Powell slithers out of the darkness, the words "Love" and "Hate" tattooed on his hands, woos and weds the hapless Willa, then cajoles and threatens the children in a desperate bid to achieve his goal.

When Willa disappears, John and Pearl flee downriver in their father's skiff, Preacher hot on their trail. Eventually they are taken in and sheltered by Rachel Cooper, a tough, self-reliant widow "mothering" a band of orphaned and abandoned children. Miz Cooper is the antithesis of Preacher and stands against him in a nail-biting conclusion to the novel.

This novel is a morality play, a thriller, a gothic tale and so much more. If you haven't read it, you're denying yourself a treat.

(Note: The Harper version is long out of print. Count yourself lucky if you can find a copy in a used bookstore. Vintage Books also released a new paperback edition in 2015.)

book review by
John Lindermuth

7 January 2017

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