Phillip Thompson

Crime Fiction writer

A few weeks ago, a friend suggested adding the movie “Night of the Hunter” to the list of redneck noir movies. That black-and-white piece of noir (1953), starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters, is considered to be one of the most influential movies in the last 60 years, inspiring directors such as the Coen brothers (and hold that thought), who turned in their own bit of noir with Blood Simple back in the ’80s.

A few days after I wrote about the movie here, another friend suggested I read the novel from which the movie is drawn. J. Ford even mailed me a copy, which I presume to be a first edition of the 1953 novel (looks just like the one pictured here) by Davis Grubb.

I finished it two nights ago and I’m grateful to J. Ford for sending it. If you haven’t read it, and chances are you haven’t, take the time. It’s a beautifully crafted Southern Gothic story that will touch you and terrify you at the same time. Grubb writes as skillfully and confidently as any American writer of note.

Set in the hills and hollers of West By God Virginia, it’s a story of good and evil, or in Grubb’s treatment, love and hate. Touch and terrify, all at once.

Ben Harper is husband to Willa and father to young John and Pearl during the Depression years in West Virginia. Frustrated by his poverty, he robs a local bank, shooting and killing a bank employee in the process. He is promptly captured by the police, or the “blue men” as his son calls them, convicted and sentenced to death. But the money he stole, some $10,000, was never recovered — his death sentence was brought in largely because of his refusal to disclose its location at his trial.

Ben is sentenced to hang, and hang he does, but not before sharing a cell with an inmate professing to be a “Man of God.” Preacher is Old Testament — malevolent and vengeful, with his fingers tattooed — “HATE” on the fingers of one hand, “LOVE” on the fingers of the other. He, like everyone else Ben has contact with before his date with the gallows, tries to get Ben to tell him where he hid the money, to no avail. Ben carries the secret with him to his death — not even telling his wife, Willa, because, as he scolds her, she’d be “hellbound” if she had it.

But John — and Pearl — know where the money is. The kids were with Ben when the blue men came, gathered in an open field near their house, and Ben made John swear he would never tell. Ever. 

That promise is easy for John to keep until, a few weeks after his father is hanged, a stranger shows up in town.  A preacher who had recently left his prison ministry to carry the Word the world, his heart aching as it was for those poor wretched souls in the prison. The preacher is unusual, though — John notices right away that, unlike any other preacher he’s ever seen, this one has tattoos on his fingers. When the preacher takes a shine to his momma, John is filled with dread and distrust as he slowly discerns the preacher’s real intentions.

Like I said, the story will terrify you at times. Grubbs masterfully ratchets up the tension, then holds it throughout the entire story. And his use of language, dialect and imagery has a sort of “True Grit” dignity to it. I’m speaking of the novel (mostly), not the movies, but — interestingly — in the Coen brothers’ remake, there is a song, an old hymn, that meanders through the soundtrack. One of my favorite hymns of my youth, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” I thought it an odd choice for the soundtrack, until I read Night of the Hunter. One of the preacher’s most-often sung hymns is, you guessed it, “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

I still haven’t seen the movie version, but I’m looking forward to it.

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