Monday, 30 May 2011

West Virginia and The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb (1953)

Harry Powell, the widow-killing antagonist of Davis Grubb's West Virginia-set Night of the Hunter, was based on the real-life serial-killer Harry F. Powers who operated from his small home, Quiet Dell, near a West Virginia hamlet where he lived with his wife Luella, posing as a "wealthy widower" in lonely-hearts columns. In 1931 it would become known in the media as the "murder farm" when the bodies of Asta Eicher, 50, a Chicago widow and her three children (Greta, 14; Harry, 12, and Anabel, 9) were unearthed in the grounds of Power's garden and garage during the investigation into their disappearance. Eicher, who struggled to raise her three children, had responded to an "American Friendship" ad which read "Wealthy widower worth $150,000. Has income from $400 to $2,000 a month." After the family went missing a series of love letters led the police to Powers home where the bodies of the mother and children had been buried in shallow graves. The body of another woman was discovered in the garage, Dorothy Lemke, a 50 year old divorcée from Northboro, Mass who had gone missing around the same time. Although Powers only ever confessed to the five murders, there was a strong suspicion that he killed before, and a search of his home yielded a trunk-load of correspondence from more than 100 love-starved widows and spinsters from all over the country suggesting that he had been operating as a love racketeer for more than a decade. In 1932 Powers was convicted of his crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. There are numerous similarities with Harry Powell of Night of the Hunter, most obviously his name, that he operates in West Virginia, and that he preys on lonely widows, but Davis Grubb's protanist is not solely motivated by money. Instead he is compelled by what he believes to be the word of God to take the lives of sinners, specifically lustful widows (the money is further motivation). In this aspect the character is firmly routed in the Southern Gothic tradition in its use of irony to examine the character of the rural South. Powell - who has love and hate tattooed on the knuckles of his hands - claims to be an agent of love but is in fact the complete opposite.

The book also includes some wonderful descriptions of the Ohio Valley, where the majority of the book takes place:

"In the Ohio Valley it is the river that gives and takes the seasons. It is as if that mighty stream were the vast, alluvial artery of the land itself so that when the towns grow weary of snows and harsh fogs the great heart pumps green spring blood down the valley and the banks are warmed and nourished by it and soon the whole environing earth blossoms despite itself and the air comes alive and lambs caper and bleat upon the hillside paths. And so now it was the prime of spring in the bottomlands. Soon the redbone hound would kelt in the creek hollows on nights when the moon was a curl of golden hair against the shoulder of the Ohio hills. Soon the shantyboat people would join their fiddle and mouth-harp racket to the chorus of green frogs down under the mists in the moonlit willows."

I took great relish in reading this book. Despite its pulpy subject matter it's very well written, it moves at a lightning pace, with some truly nail-biting sequences in which the serial-killer pursues the children in an unrelenting almost Terminator-like manner down the Ohio River, and the character of Harry Powell is a wonderfully horrific creation. I re-watched the 1955 Charles Laughton-directed Robert Mitchum film adaptation after finishing the book (I've not seen it in ten years). It still holds up as a great, truely unique film in its appliance of an expressionist style to a rural setting, and although the book doesn't have the surrealism of Charles Laughton's vision it's a shame that it has been overshadowed by the growing reputation of the film over the years. Most of the films dialouge is lifted straight from the page, and it's to Grubb's credit that he created such a believable monster.

Next: Virginia

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