"The Night of the Hunter” by Davis Grubb (published by Penguin Books)

A good bloody yarn, or a bloody good tale

Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel about slayer Harry Powell is based on real-life Dutch-born American five-time killer Harry F. Powers, who was hanged in Moundsville, West Virginia, in 1932 for the murders of two widows and three children, earning him nicknames such as "the lonely hearts killer", "the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell" and "the butcher of Clarksburg”.
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In August 1931 Powers’ was charged with killing Dorothy Lemke of Massachusetts and Asta Eicher and her three children of Illinois. The bodies were found at Powers’s home in Quiet Dell, near Clarksburg. He had met the two wealthy widows through the American Friendship Society of Detroit, a match-making concern that specialised in introducing well-off singles.

Powers, using the alias Cornelius O. Pierson and calling himself a civil engineer, had pledged to marry each of them, thus luring them to their doom. He had been arrested on lesser charges as John Schroeder and as Herman Drenth, his birth name in the Netherlands in 1892.

In 1910 at age 18 his family emigrated from the Netherlands to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, United States, and at age 32 he moved to Quiet Dell, West Virginia, under the name Harry Powers. Standing a short five feet four inches (1.62 metres), weighing a light 175 pounds (79 kilogrammes) and wearing thick glasses, Powers ran a small grocery store in Clarksburg’s Broad Oaks neighbourhood.

He began to take out personal advertisements, posting false information to attract lonely, wealthy women. According to the US Post Office, letters poured into Clarksburg at the rate of 10 to 20 a day. At about this time he built a garage and basement behind his home.

Asta Eicher, a widowed mother of three from Park Ridge, Illinois, with her children Greta, Harry and Annabel, fell into his trap and the family of four all disappeared.

Powers then corresponded with Dorothy Lemke, of Northboro, Massachusetts, and persuaded her to move in with him and to withdraw $4000 from her bank. Meanwhile, police in Illinois began to investigate the disappearance of the Eichers. Her last known contact was Cornelius O. Pierson of Clarksburg.

The description fitted Powers, and the sheriff and his deputies found four subterranean rooms secreted beneath Powers’ new garage. They discovered the small bloody footprint of a child, a burned bank book and blood-soaked hair and clothing.

A crowd gathered as police dug into a new-made ditch behind the house. It contained five rotting bodies. Hysteria ensued. On September 20, 1931, thousands of spectators surrounded the Harrison County jail where Powers was being held and demanded that he be given to the mob. The fire department had to use tear gas to disperse the crowd.

The trial lasted five days. So many people wanted to attend that the venue was moved a block away from the courthouse to Moore Opera House, a cinema. Found guilty, Powers was taken to Moundsville to be hung. This was carried out on March 18, 1932.

Plenty of gory material, then, for a good bloody yarn, or a bloody good tale, and West Virginia native Davis Grubb (1919-1980) came up with what’s required, and a whole lot more. This is his most famous novel, set in a small town out in the sticks that’s rather backward and poor. It is the American South during the Great Depression.

An early thaw is beginning but these are still mean times. “…. It was Hard Times in the land and larders held precious little extra for roadside wanderers.” There are winter mists, snow, dark wind, barren branches, frozen road,  a river flaked with shards of ice. “It’s cold enough to freeze the horns off a muley cow!” exclaims one inhabitant in the backwoods idiom that Grubb employs throughout.

Ben Harper, with a wife and two young children, has got plumb tired of working for low pay in a hardware store in Moundsville, and one day he takes the owner’s Smith and Wesson gun and commits a desperate and rather ludicrous bank robbery, not even bothering to wear a mask. He gets away with $10,000 but shoots dead two employees.

Ben barely has time to return home and stash the loot before Sheriff Wiley Tomlinson and four policemen track him down. But he refuses to disclose where he has stashed the loot. Only Ben’s chidren, John, 10, and Pearl, 5, know, and he swears them not to tell a soul. They will have it when they are older.

He won’t even tell his wife Willa, saying that the money is bloodied and has the curse of Cain. If she got her hands on it she would just go to hell headlong. She’s a Baily, and according to him “there wasn’t ever a Bailey… that knowed the worth of a five-cent piece and… there wasn’t a one of them ever got their hands on money that didn’t drag himself and all his kin down the fancy road to perdition”.

So Ben is in a jail cell. His wife, the warder, the hangman, Miz Cunningham at the secondhand store, practically the entire town in fact, is musing over the secret of the stolen money. But Ben won’t even let on at his trial, even though it might mean life in jail rather than the noose. In particular, he won’t tell his cellmate, Harry Powell, who calls himself Preacher but is a funny sort of son of God, having LOVE and HATE tattooed on his fingers.

Now begins the meat of the novel, the story of Preacher, the hunter of the title, who on release from jail heads straight to Marie Ernest’s boarding house in the town, determined to seduce and even marry Willa in order to find the stash. Meanwhile Willa, in an act of kindness for the poor widow, has been given a job waiting on tables at a little ice-cream parlour for five dollars a week and meals.

The evil evangelist shows up just when Willa is at her most vulnerable, and the depressed townsfolk are in need of hope and the promise of salvation. With his Bible in hand and the word of God pouring forth from his lips, Preacher is welcomed by the community with open arms. He’s come out of his way to bring a word of cheer to a grieving widow!

Almost everyone is completely won over by his by grand manner, the flashing eyes and rolling booming voice: The sermon he is invited to give in Cresap Landing’s  little frame Presbyterian Church, where he tells of the battle between his right- and left-hand fingers, with LOVE winning, has the congregation buzzing and chattering all the way home.

Somehow the simple inhabitants are taken in by the ridiculous religiosity of this psychopath, who is constantly ranting about waging war on sin when really all he wants is to find the  money. One person, however, is not at all convinced by Preacher’s smooth talk and sweet hymns. The boy John Harper seems alone in his instant dislike, rather his extreme loathing and fear, of Preacher.

Grubb skilfully presented a family driven to desperation in hungry times, and which, with the malign and murderous introduction of Preacher, collapsed altogether. With a ready-made story to draw on, the author extrapolated to great effect.

It is safe to say now that “The Night of the Hunter” was unjustly overshadowed by its acclaimed cinematic counterpart starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters in 1955. In our opinion, the novel wins out, though, with its hair-raising tale of villainy and despondency on a gloomy riverbank in West Virginia. The writing is suspenseful and thrilling, with great characterisations and an eerie atmosphere.

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