The Night of the Hunter
By Davis Grubb
A brief word about Pulp Fiction.
“Lurid,” “overwrought,” “thrilling,” “titillating,” “preposterous,” etc.—these and other words can describe a type of popular novel that might go over the top in any number of ways, even multiple ways. “Trash” might even be appropriate for many such novels and stories churned out over the years.
Many, however, call attention to themselves as simply outstanding pieces of work. And many writers who produced them we now consider first-rate novelists with something to say about life and the world, among them Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson (a personal favorite), James Cain, and others. And then there is Davis Grubb, who soared over the pack in the mid 50s with his blockbuster bestseller, The Night of the Hunter.
From time to time, we’ll be taking about these, the cream of the pulp crowd, giving them their just due.
Davis Grubb was born in Moundsville, WV in 1919. He died in New York City in 1980, after a successful writing career. The Night of the Hunter may be his best known work. It was a 1955 National Book Award finalist and produced as a film starting Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters, one that has influenced many of today’s top directors and that the Library of Congress ranks as significant.
Described succinctly, the novel is a heated melodrama with a social conscious, and well worth the time of today’s readers. That’s because the issues Grubb dramatized back in the early 50s (original publication date: 1953) still exist today.
In The Night of the Hunter, Grubb offers up a simple story of murder in the pursuit of a small fortune to raise our awareness of larger issues concerning the dangers of hijacked faith, deadly temptations in desperate times, the plight of neglected and abandoned children, and the power of an individual to right, at least in a small way, the wrongs of society. Now that’s a lot for one novel to accomplish, and accomplish superbly.
Summarized, in the depth of the Great Depression, Ben Harper, a despairing family man, awaits execution by hanging in a cell with an auto thief who is more: “His name was Harry Powell but everyone called him Preacher…” and he, unbeknownst to authorities, is a serial killer of widows. Ben has hidden the loot from a bank robbery gone awry; he killed two men in a confused moment. He refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the money to officials–even though doing so might spare his life–and Willa, his wife. Only his children, John, nine, and Pearl, four, know he secreted the cash in Pearl’s doll. Before apprehension, he secured their promise to divulge the secret to no one. John takes his pledge to heart. That Ben did not reveal the hiding place to Willa causes her wrenching anxiety and even greater suffering later. In prison, Preacher relentlessly inveigles Ben for the whereabouts, but Ben goes to the gallows with his secret. Afterwards, Preacher finds his way to Ben’s home. He wins over Willa, Pearl, and friends, the friends encouraging her to marry him, which she does. John, however, resists, because in the first minutes of meeting, he understands what Preacher really wants and Preacher discerns John knows where the money is hidden. Employing devious and psychologically damaging tactics, Preacher hounds and persecutes John, stealing away the boy’s and Pearl’s mother, turning the family’s friends against John. Finally, fearful and seeing no alternative, John flees with Pearl. Preacher pursues them, obsessed by the money. John and Pearl live as feral children, until they end up in the yard of Rachel Cooper, who proves to be more than a match for Preacher.
Several themes emerge in the story. Religion’s dangers lay in the potential for believers to be manipulative, hypocritical, and deluded. Preacher is a self-proclaimed stump minister of the fire and brimstone school, a man who has the words Love tattooed on the fingers of his right hand and Hate and those of his left, intertwining them regularly to illustrate for others and to visualize for himself the battle between good and evil. But he is psychotic and a psychopath, a man who justifies his actions as the will and guidance of God, as in this introduction to him:
“He would pay his money and go into a burlesque show and sit in the front row watching it all and rub the knife in his pocket with sweating fingers; seething in a quiet convulsion of outrage and nausea at all that ocean of undulating womanhood beyond the lights; his nose growing full of it: the choking miasma of girl smell and cheap perfume and stogie smoke and man smell and the breath of ten-cent mountain corn liquor souring in the steamy air; and he would stumble out at last into the enchanted night, into the glitter and razzle-dazzle of the midnight April street, his whole spirit luminous with an enraptured and blessed fury at the world these whores had made. That night in his dollar hotel room he might crouch beneath the guttering blossom of the Welsbach flame above the brass bed and count his resources and think to himself: Time to go out again and preach the word? Or is it time for another one? Is it time yet, Lord? Time for another widow? Say the word, Lord! Just say the word and I’m on my way!”
And Preacher is crafty and manipulative, exemplified by how he turns everyone against John, including the boy’s own mother. Willa succumbs to a perilous religious fervor bred in her conflictions of inadequacy and guilt by the scheming of the Preacher. Belief consumes and blinds Icey Spoon, a Harper family friend. Preacher is a man of God; she believes him implicitly. When husband Walt dares to express a smidgen of doubt, she browbeats him into submission, and delivers Willa, John, and Pearl into the clutches of the demon in Godly guise. Unquestioning belief results in no good. Icey is also hypocritical, as in the end she is on the vanguard of all who turn against the one they praised in the beginning.
Ben Harper is an everyman of sorts, a good man in an untenable situation. He loves his wife and his family. He wants to do his best for them. He has the American consumerist aspiration. But he realizes he will never achieve enough to satisfy his conception of what they deserve. To seal his fate, the Great Depression has insured he and they will get nowhere. So, he resorts to armed bank robbery, a heist pitifully ill conceived and with an inevitably disastrous outcome. He’s not a bad guy; he’s a victim of a bad system.
As hopeless as this sounds, there is hope in the form of the boy, John, and a savior, Rachel Cooper. Though only nine, John’s nobility, fidelity, perceptiveness, and courage shine from start to finish. His two goals, at which he is successful, are to keep his promise to his father and to protect his sister. Apart from Rachel, he is the only person able to see through Preacher’s fiery declarations of righteousness. And Rachel, religious but also rational, loving but also hard-edged, provincial but also worldly, good of heart but also never weak or deluded, is salvation, for innumerable abandoned children of the Depression, and for John and Pearl. In a world where hope is hard to come by, there are Rachels, and there should be more of them.
As Grubb wrote: “To Rachel the most dreadful and moving thing of all was the humbling grace with which these small ones accept their lot. Lord save the little children! …. For each of them has his Preacher to hound him down the dark river of fear and tonguelessness and never-a-door. Each one is mute and alone because there is no word for a child’s prayer and no ear to heed it if there were a word and no one to understand it if it heard. Lord save little children! They abide and they endure.” c/w