I’d seen the film version of Davis Grubb’s The Night of the Hunter years ago. Recently, I decided to watch it again. Robert Mitchum’s performance as the sociopath Harry “Preacher” Powell was terrifying. And the movie works as well today as when it was released in 1955.
I was so moved by the story of the two orphans—John and Pearl—who barely escape the clutches of the murderous ex-con that I read the novel. And wow. Grubb’s style is mesmerizing, the phrasing dark and poetic. If you want to terrify a reader, don’t scream at them. Whisper.
There are three main things I was left with after finishing this masterpiece of Southern Gothic suspense.
Most People Will Believe Anything
People in Cresap’s Landing are under the impression that when Ben Harper was about to be arrested for bank robbery and murder, he tossed the stolen money in the river. This is the legend. But Harry Powell, Ben’s former cellmate, knows better. Ben hid the money somewhere in his house.
In this small river town, the residents are Christian. And though they may know the words of Scripture, they don’t necessarily understand them. Harry Powell, a career criminal, knows this. And he puts this all too human trait to good use. He applies his charm, good looks—and yes, the Bible—to woo the local widow, Willa, so that he can steal the money.
When Your Gut Tells You Something’s Wrong, You Should Listen
After Harry arrives, he sets about charming the residents with a made-up story about being the prison chaplain who witnessed the death of Ben Harper. The reality is different. Powell was a prisoner himself and, after serving his time, he was released. Though Ben never admitted to him where the stolen money was, Preacher is confident he can find it. Even if it means terrorizing Willa’s children.
The only person who is not fooled by Preacher’s deception is John Harper, Willa’s son. He knows in his heart that the stranger is after the money. And because of a promise he made to his late father, he’ll never tell. Interestingly, a man named Walt Spoon has heard Powell’s stories and also has his suspicions. But when his wife, Icey, berates him for doubting the good preacher, Walt sets those feelings aside. He should’ve paid better attention to them.
People Can Be Saviors, Too
After John and Pearl escape downriver in a boat, a widow named Rachel Cooper discovers them and takes them in. “Miz Cooper” has devoted her life to looking after children who have no home. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of this novel is the crushing poverty of the Great Depression. And the despair it causes. Rachel Cooper is a bright light in an otherwise cruel, dark world of greed and deceit.
In fact, when Harry Powell arrives at Rachel’s farm to take possession of “his” children, she sees right through him. She knows in her soul, this stranger is no man of God. He misquotes Scripture and tells stories that make no sense. So, she runs him off her property with a shotgun.
Rachel Cooper saves John and Pearl, as she has other children. And in doing so, she demonstrates that, in the end, evil can be defeated. It’s an old story. But in the hands of this author, it’s one that is masterfully told.
You can find this review at Goodreads.
Two young children, Pearl and John Harper, are being raised alone by their mother in Cresap’s Landing, Ohio. Their father Ben has just been executed for killing two men in the course of an armed robbery. Ben never told anyone where he hid the ten thousand dollars he stole; not his widow Willa, not his lawyer, nor his cell-mate Harry “Preacher” Powell. But Preacher, with his long history of charming his way into widows’ hearts and lives, has an inkling that Ben’s money could be within his reach. As soon as he is free, Preacher makes his way up the river to visit the Harper family where—he hopes—a little child shall lead him to the fortune that he seeks.
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