Death in the Hills

I’m going to write about two West Virginia authors. One that Stephen King recommended and the other who I happened upon by chance.

The first is Davis Grubb. When I saw Stephen King onstage last summer (I’ll go into that in another post) he was geeking out on Grubb. Being the voracious reader that he is, how could he fly into West Virginia and not be reminded of Davis Grubb? One of the books that King mentioned, and Grubb’s best known, is The Night of the Hunter. Let me say right now if you like a good Stephen King suspense novel or short story, you’re gonna eat up The Night of the Hunter.

It’s set in rural, Depression-era West Virginia, and if that turns you off, you’re Still gonna like this book. Grubb’s pacing in this story is outstanding. I purposely would read a few pages of this book and set it aside to come back to later. The same way I would eat a forkful of rich, German cake at a restaurant and put my fork down to dab my mouth with a napkin. Because otherwise, I could just crank open my jaws and Cookie Monster that sonofabitch into my maw. And Since this book is quite short (200 pages or so), once it’s gone, it’s gone. Grubb died in 1980, so there ain’t gonna be another one of these heading down the pike from him. Yes, he wrote some suspenseful short stories, but there’s a reason Hollywood bought The Night of the Hunter way back in the 50’s.

There’s a killer with a knife in the story, and Grubb does get Freudian with the knife. He doesn’t linger on the phallic aspect too much nor does he return to it afterwards, so it wasn’t a huge problem for me. Since this book was published in 1953, I knew the Freudian thing was riding high in the worlds of literary and genre stories. Just a little distracting.

About 3/4 of the way through The Night of the Hunter, Grubb shifted gears and I thought, “Oh, here’s where he loses the tension.” Nope, it was just that small lag between 3rd and 4th gear. He brought in some new characters, shifted the story up into 4th gear, and pushed the pedal down again…hard.

Near the very end, he put in some first person narration, which didn’t really hang with the rest of the tale. It felt like he was trying to do some William Faulkner, stream-of-consciousness stuff. It didn’t sour the book, maybe just a misstep. 4 1/2 stars out of 5 for this short, potboiler.

Breece D’J Pancake is on the other end of the writer’s spectrum from Davis Grubb. Pancake’s sole book of short stories is all character driven. His characters are as defined by the things they don’t want as they are by the things they yearn for. Lots of ennui from Pancake, which can wear thin after a few stories. He does have one story with horror elements in it, but his stories are mostly filled with characters who are unsure about what to do next with their lives. But Pancake also puts in lots of descriptive, almost poetic prose too. He can drop you into a character’s emotions with a single, well-crafted sentence. His characters are certainly alive as he writes them. No cliches here. No paper cutouts.

Being so centered on characters, the pacing in Pancake’s stories is usually pretty slow. In one or two stories, it felt like he could have finished the tale after just about any sentence near the end and still have produced the same effect. 3 stars out of 5 for this mopey tome.

The short of it is that Grubb is a genre writer, at least in The Night of the Hunter he’s working in the suspense genre, and Pancake is more “literary.” I can see a creative writing professor assigning Pancake’s lone book for a short story class to teach about building believable characters and solid settings.

Two different writers, two very differently paced books. Both set in West Virginia.

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