Inspired by the true story of Depression-era serial killer Harry Powers, The Night of the Hunter, first published in 1953, is an old-timey thriller featuring the dynamic, psychopathic, mercenary preacher, whose name is changed to Harry Powell for the novel. Powell, commonly known as Preacher, seeks out and marries a widow, Willa, whose late husband hid a large stash of money somewhere on their property. Willa doesn’t know where the money is, but her two young children, John and Pearl, do. Powell sets off on a psychological-turned-physical hunt to discover the children’s secret.
Grubb uses his novel to criticize the questionless credence some people give to anyone who declares himself a “man of God” and who publicly (emphasis on publicly) behaves according to those expectations. The book also takes a delightful feminist tack in the character of Rachel, the primary heroine, who demonstrates a superior level of resourcefulness, intelligence, love, and strength, independent of any man, standing in commendable contrast with the foolish, meddlesome, and sheepish townswomen.
|Mugshot of serial killer Harry Powers, 1920|
Grubb’s narrative is eloquent and smart, and his crafting of the townsfolks' dialect enhances his portrayal of rural Americana, which isn’t especially complimentary. While he employs stereotypes of small-town ignorance, the characters are never corny, and Grubb differentiates between simplicity and stupidity. His smart characters aren’t fancy, but they’re strong and sharp.
|Davis Grubb |
(Photo from lib.wvu.edu)
The story’s plot is compelling. The author creates suspense and evokes strong and appropriate emotions about each character, good and bad. The stereotypes are recognizable, but they don’t create a predictability that detracts from the story. Instead, the roles support and strengthen the telling of this classic American thriller. Read it and enjoy the retro ride.