My parents were from the country, and as a kid, despite living in Chicago and its suburbs until I was fourteen, I spent a lot of time in rural regions in the summer. We moved to rural Kansas the summer I turned fifteen, to a small town with a population of less than a thousand, a post office and no home mail delivery, and a blinking red light at the cross roads in the center of town. There has always been a sense in this country that the simpler life, i.e. living in the country, is somehow more pure, more American, than living in the cities; I’ve never really understood this, frankly. I’m not disparaging rural life, or people who chose that lifestyle; it’s simply not my preference.
But there’s nothing like the countryside for setting a horror novel, is there? Isn’t it interesting how some of my absolute favorite horror is set either in the countryside or in a small town? Hmmmm…I wonder what to make of that.
My favorite novel from former actor turned author Thomas Tryon is The Other; which is certainly Gothic and creepy, but I am not including it in my list of Halloween horror novels because I don’t really think of it as a horror novel; maybe other people think so–but other people aren’t making this list, now are they?
I awakened that morning to birdsong. It was only the little yellow bird who lives in the locust tree outside our bedroom window, but I could have wrung his neck, for it was not yet six and I had a hangover. That was in late summer, before Harvest Home, before the bird left its nest for the winter. Now it is spring again, alas, and as predicted the yellow bird has returned. The Eternal Return, as they call it here. Thinking back from this day to that one nine monthe ago, I now imagine the bird to have been sounding a warning. But that is nonsense, of course, for who could have thought it was a bird of ill omen, that little creature?
During the first long summer, its cheerful notes seemed to stand both as a mark of fulfillment and as a promise of profound happiness, signifying the achievement of our heart’s desire. Happiness, fulfillment–if promised, they came only in the strangest measure.
The house, though new to us when we purchased it in the spring, was almost three hundred years old, an uninhabited wreck we had chanced upon, bought, and spent the summer restoring. In late August, with the greater part of the work behind us, I was enjoying the satisfaction of realizing one’s fondest wish. A house in the country. The great back-to-the-land movement. City mouse into country mouse. Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Constantine and daughter, landed gentry, late of New York City, permanently residing at 11 Penrose Lane, in the ancient New England village of Cornwall Coombe. We had lived there less than four months.
Despite some things that wouldn’t play today–there’s a rape scene, for example, which isn’t really dealt with or intended to lose sympathy in the reader for the rapist, for one, and Mrs. Theodore Constantine, really? Yet those were signs of the times–Harvest Home still holds up for the most part today. It’s hard to imagine, though, in this day and age, a rural hamlet that would be so remote and a community so insular and wrapped up in itself that its secrets would never escape; the Internet and smart phones have pretty much connected everywhere (or so I think, in my smug urban-dweller experience). But it’s a chilling book, really, even if there are no supernatural influences going on in the book. Ned and Beth, with their asthmatic daughter Kate, move to the country so Ned can work on his dream of being a serious painter rather than an advertising executive. (For those who were not around in the late 1960’s/1970’s, there was a big movement, or desire/fantasy, for city dwellers to give up the rat race and chase their dreams by moving back to the simpler, country lifestyle, and interestingly enough–here’s a dissertation topic for someone: there was also a literature of the time in which this desire/fantasy, upon achievement, turned into a hideous nightmare; just asThe Stepford Wives showed that moving to a suburb to escape the horrors of city life was into the fire from the frying pan–and there’s the title! From the Frying Pain. I expect to be in the acknowledgements, whoever does this.)
Harvest Home is more of a mystery novel, I suppose, than a horror novel; Tryon’s novels really defied description or categorization, blending elements of different genres together into a dark whole. The book really kicks off when Ned discovers the grave of Gracie Everdeen outside the hallowed ground of the town cemetery, and starts looking into her story and why she was buried out there. Pulling one thread unravels and unspools many others,and the town’s secrets–and strange rituals–slowly come to be revealed to Ned, and to his horror…his discoveries not only put himself at risk but his wife and daughter as well.
And at the center of everything is the aged Widow Fortune–is she a force for good, or a force for evil? In either case, she is one of the most compelling and interesting characters in the novel. (The book was made into a Made-for-TV movie, with Bette Davis in the role.)
It’s a very creepy novel, and the tension/suspense builds and builds. The ending is satisfying–if not the ending the reader may be hoping for, of course.
I always have entertained the notion of writing a biography of Thomas Tryon. He was gay, he was a movie star, and he was rather a good writer, who has sadly been mostly forgotten (although The Other has been brought back into print by New York Review of Books Classics). He also had a long term relationship with Casey Donovan, one of the more famous gay porn stars of the 1970’s.
Because of course I have so much time.
And now back to the spice mines.