The Night of the Hunter

Vintage Movie Classics spotlights classic films that have stood the test of time, now rediscovered through the publication of the novels on which they were based.

Movie Adaptation of Davis Grubb's

Produced by Paul Gregory. Directed by Charles Laughton. Starring Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish. Screenplay by James Agee.

Davis Grubb


Davis Grubb (1919–1980) was an American short-story writer and novelist. Born in Moundsville, West Virginia, he moved to New York City in 1940 to be a writer
His stories were published in magazines such as
, and
Woman's Home Companion
, and in three collections.
The Night of the Hunter
, the first of his ten novels, was an instant bestseller and finalist for the National Book Award. Some of his short stories were adapted for television on
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
and Rod Serling's
Night Gallery
; his novel
Fools' Parade
was the basis for a 1971 film starring James Stewart.


Twelve Tales of Suspense and the Supernatural

The Siege of
: Thirteen Mystical Stories

You Never Believe Me and Other Stories


The Night of the Hunter

A Dream of Kings

The Watchman

The Voices of Glory

A Tree Full of Stars

Shadow of My Brother

The Golden Sickle

Fools' Parade

The Barefoot Man

Ancient Lights


Copyright ©
by Davis Grubb, copyright renewed 1981 by Louis Grubb as Executor of the Estate of Davis Grubb

Foreword copyright ©
by Julia Keller

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Ltd., Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Harper & Brothers, New York, in 1953. This edition published by arrangement with the Estate of Davis Grubb.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Movie Classics and colophon are trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The Cataloging-in-Publication Data is on file at the Library of Congress.

Vintage Books Trade Paperback ISBN: 

eBook ISBN 

Cover design: Evan Gaffney Design

Cover photograph © Glasshouse Images/Superstock



Davis Grubb's Lost Masterpiece
by Julia Keller

If you close your eyes and throw a stick while standing in the forest of American popular culture, you'll hit a million serial killers, give or take. In novels and TV shows, in movies and comic books and ballads and video games, there are constant iterations of the ruthless, machinelike murderer who whips through a victim list with perverse efficiency and no residual guilt. From the Hannibal Lecter novels of Thomas Harris to the TV series
Criminal Minds
to the Wes Craven film franchise featuring that fiend-in-a-fedora Freddy Krueger, serial killers are everywhere—hiding in toolsheds, penning come-hither Craigslist ads, serving you a sumptuous dinner while fingering the carving knife behind your back. The true-crime genre is similarly besotted with these rapacious, cackling masterminds, these damaged souls of diabolical intent, who kill again and again simply because they get a kick out of it.

But to see how a writer might, with originality and audacity, turn that stereotype into the catalyst for a penetrating, atmospheric exploration of Depression-era poverty and human depravity, read
The Night of the Hunter
by Davis Grubb. First published in 1953, it's a neglected masterpiece, a gem that somehow got lost in the back of literature's kitchen drawer along with the stray buttons and the tarnished spoons and the spare pennies.

Chances are you're familiar with the title, but you may know it best as the moniker of the 1955 film version of the book. The movie stars Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, and Lillian Gish and is generally regarded as a noir classic. Dominated by Mitchum's slow-burn depiction of the sinister predator with
tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and
on the other, the movie is so stark, so viscerally menacing, that the novel upon which it is based has drifted far out of the spotlight.

That's a shame, because
The Night of the Hunter
is a gorgeous gut-punch of a book, a crime novel and ghost story and morality tale all rolled into one. It's an ugly-beautiful work that pays scant attention to narrative niceties such as proper punctuation. It's rough-hewn, melodramatic, and wildly entertaining, with some crucial social commentary tucked in there, too, like a precious coin smuggled in a raggedy old sock.

Pearl and John are a sister and brother being raised by their mother, Willa, in Cresap's Landing, a sorrowful speck of a town along the Ohio River near Moundsville, West Virginia. This is the Great Depression—a time, notes one of the book's characters, that has “turned up the undersides of some mighty respectable folks.” The children's father, Ben Harper, has just been executed for a murder committed in the course of an armed robbery. No one knows where Ben hid the money he stole.

While Ben was in prison, his cellmate was a creepy, twisted, God-haunted wreck of a man who calls himself Preacher. Once Preacher is free, he seeks out Ben's children, certain that they know the location of the dough. Preacher woos and wins Ben's widow—while John watches in mounting terror, immune to Preacher's charms. Indeed, the man's very presence puts “the smell of dread in his nose” until “doglike his flesh gathered and bunched at the scent of it.” Soon John and Pearl are on the run across the Ohio River Valley, desperate to escape what the novel calls “something as old and dark as the things on the river's bed, old as evil itself.”

Grubb based
The Night of the Hunter
on the real-life case of Harry F. Powers, a serial killer who preyed upon middle-aged widows. Powers was hanged for his crimes in 1932 at the state penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia—Grubb's hometown—but the case continues to intrigue. Most recently, Jayne Anne Phillips imagined the inner lives of some of Powers's victims, a widow and her children from Park Ridge, Illinois, in her 2013 novel
Quiet Dell

There is often a timeless quality to great fiction, a sense that the story could be occurring anywhere, to anyone, but there is also fiction that belongs right where the author put it.
The Night of the Hunter
is set during the Depression, and it is soaked with a stain of urgent necessity, with the recklessness and sorry compromising brought on by lack of money. Like any good psychopath, Preacher takes advantage of the family's economic troubles; he knows that Willa is in no position to refuse his advances—not if she wants to be able to feed her children.

To a world that routinely gorges itself on lurid spectacles of fictional gore,
The Night of the Hunter
is a reminder of the power of the less explicit. Grubb doesn't need to show us shredded flesh or shattered skulls or writhing intestines to create revulsion and fear. He doesn't need the grotesque. Instead he relies upon the insinuating force of evocative language: “Something had moved in the dark and secret world of night: something like the quick soft break and gasp of a sudden blowing flame in a coal grate in the dead of a winter's night.”

Serial killers come and go in popular culture, and rarely rise above the banal, but Preacher is something special. Eager for the next kill, he waits for God to give him the go-ahead—“Is it time yet, Lord? Time for another widow? Say the word, Lord! Just say the word and I'm on my way!” Sometimes, as when he surveys a prostitute whose pale neck seems to beckon the knife he keeps in his pocket, Preacher is overwhelmed: “There were too many of
. He couldn't kill a world.”

Killing a world: Was there ever a better, more succinct mission statement for a serial killer, for the kind of criminal whose compulsions come in bunches and never let him go? Grubb's novel is about a dark soul in a dark time, and it is about, too, the solace of fighting back against that darkness, and of “knowing that children are man at his strongest, that they are possessed, in those few short seasons of the little years, of more strength and endurance than God is ever to grant them again.” In other words: Game on. Let the hunter's night commence.


An earlier version of this essay was read on National Public Radio. West Virginia native Julia Keller is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and the author of a series of novels set in Appalachia, the most recent of which is
Last Ragged Breath

Other books

Bible Difficulties by Bible Difficulties
This Blue : Poems (9781466875074) by McLane, Maureen N.
Fools' Gold by Philippa Gregory
My Happy Days in Hollywood by Garry Marshall
Orchard Valley Brides by Debbie Macomber
House of Many Tongues by Jonathan Garfinkel
The Golden Acorn by Catherine Cooper