davis grubb kicked me. not just once, but twice i yelled aloud with the tension that his book built up in me. the first was a yelp of fear while the second was one of pure desperation.
the terrible production values of this edition notwithstanding (i'm really torn about saying that because i appreciate that blackmask has it in print but the minimal attention to make this book more readable just hasn't been made -- a used copy would really be the way to go), this is a simply told yet complicated little novel, the story of john and pearl, a little boy and a little girl bound by a promise, who first lose their father to wild desperation and then their mother to persuasion, a woman seduced not by sin but by the idea of it. there's a lot of talk about sin in this novel: it completely immerses you into an echo of the world along the ohio valley, of moundsville, virginia in the era the author grubb grew up. the hunter in the title, desperate for the children to break their compact is harry powell, their new stepfather. he prefers to be called "preacher" and has a peculiar and terrifying compact of his own -- with what he believes is god. but he is hardly the only character that preaches here; this world the children inhabit seems to point fingers from the first, and the terror that jack, the responsible older brother feels, is a key aspect of the novel. this is a little boy breaking under strain as he tries to keep himself and his stupid baby sister alive. and i was caught up in his journey and his disintegration even as he tries to keep everything together. there are many deep nuances in this novel that are overlooked (by necessity) in the film.
i felt i couldn't review this novel without rewatching the classic 1955 film of the same name directed by charles laughton, starring robert mitchum (pre-cape fear). i threw it on once i finished reading. there were one or two things i wanted to refresh in my mind because i remembered them differently, and while i have seen the film many times, my memory for fine detail isn't what it used to be. what shocked me is that after confirming what i felt might be "missing", laughton's night of the hunter is no longer the film i see in my head having read the novel.
i love it still; don't get me wrong. it's an amazing adaptation: laughton really took the screenplay in hand, and when you read the night of the hunter, you see the opportunities for a screenwriter and laughton took as many of them as was allowed in his era. i've no doubt if he had the resources we have now, and were alive to utilize them, he might turn out a film that is closer to the one i picture. he certainly hints at it. this film is artfully wrought but sometimes he deals in subtext or skims over, subduing some layers of the novel, losing its ripe, heightened sense of sexuality that could only be hinted at in the film code of the time ... now having read the novel in its full bloom, i could actually see somebody remaking it, if it were done well. i think it might end up being one of the scariest movies of all time, even, if it were done well. or you could swing it to the opposite end of the spectrum and camp it up. anyway. the film is neutered in a way the novel is not. :)
i was reminded of my appreciation of the masterful handling of the shadows, camera shots and set pieces in the original film, my deep appreciation of the charisma of mitchum playing the preacher, and the powerhouse that is lillian gish in the role of rachel cooper, avenging angel, absolutely and completely embracing the spirit of the character depicted in the novel but frankly, also improving upon her just in sheer presence.
there's some sustained sermonizing from rachel cooper in the book, particularly at the very end, and while i can understand her outrage, there's far too many words from her on the suffering of the children. but lillian gish says a handful of sentences and exudes righteousness -- laughton also wisely bookends the film with her guiding presence, splitting up and substantially reducing her diatribe to bare and poignant essentials. it's a shining example (thought there are others) where i think the novel could have used a little trimming, and that's what i can't go whole hog even though i was captivated by it. sometimes it drags a little but mostly, the pace is brisk and i was swept along by the narrative, by the different voices who tell this harrowing story of frustration, of despair, of lost orphans on the road.
i plan on letting davis grubb kick me a few more times, if he can. :)