Thursday, October 22, 2015

Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon (1973): What No Man May Know Nor Woman Tell

All I recall about my reading of this paperback of the bestselling Harvest Home (Fawcett Crest/June 1974) in the late 1980s is that there was one scene that left me breathless with horror, but I have never been able to remember specifically what happened in that scene. Rereading it recently proved no help, as there were several scenes that now left me breathless with horror. Well, maybe not breathless exactly, but in a state of extreme suspense. Actor-turned-author Thomas Tryon (1926-1991) continued his success after 1971's The Other, another tale of quiet down-home horror.

Long a well-known pre-Stephen King bestselling horror novel, I assume most readers of TMHF are familiar with Harvest Home's set-up: New York ad-exec Ned Constantine wants to paint full-time, so he and his family (wife Beth and sulky asthmatic teen daughter Kate) buy, through some coincidental luck, an 18th century home in New England's Cornwall Coombe. This pocket of "heart's desire" is of course as picturesque a country town as one could imagine, a veritable rural Shangri-La of endless cornfields and dark woods. The Constantines settle in, welcomed by some, looked at askance by others, but generally find things satisfying. Life revolves around corn here, everything is tied to its cycles ("the eternal return"); these people are an ancient agrarian culture living in the 20th century. Most welcoming to them is aged matriarch Widow Fortune, a bespectacled black-skirted dowager who dispenses down-home wisdom and tends her farm with the energy of someone half her age. She speaks in that maddening country way in which answers only raise more questions.

"Just what is Harvest Home?" I asked.
"Harvest Home?" [the Widow Fortune] peered at me through her spectacles. "Why, I don't think I ever heard a pusson ask that before. Everybody knows what Harvest Home is."
"I don't."
"That's what comes of bein' a newcomer. Harvest Home's when the last of the corn comes in, when the harvestin's done and folks can relax count their blessin's... It means success and thanks and all good things. And this year's the seventh year."
"The seventh year?"
"Ayuh. For six years there's just feastin' and carryin' on but the seventh's a special one. After the huskin' bee there's a play, and—well the seventh year's particular for us. Harvest Home goes back to the olden times."
"When does it come?" "She looked at me as if I were indeed a strange species. "Never heard a pusson ask that either. Harvest Home comes when it comes
all depends."

Ned and family learn all about this Harvest Home business as they meet the inhabitants of Cornwall Coombe. Tryon does an able job of introducing characters and keeping them distinct personalities, like Justin Hooke, the Harvest Lord (a traditional role in the festival with many perks and only one downside); his wife Sophie, chosen to be the Corn Maiden; Tamar Penrose, seductive postmistress who spells trouble for Ned, mother of little Missy, creepy little Missy who makes creepy little pronouncements about the future; Jack Stump, local ragamuffin man with a big mouth; the Soakses family, dangerous hillbillies out in them thar woods; Robert Dodd, a blind, retired college professor; and Worthy Pettinger, a rebellious, reluctant teen who has been chosen (by Missy in a creepy little scene) to be the next Harvest Lord. You'll spend a lot of time with these folks, and more. Bit by tiny bit Tryon ratchets up mystery and foreboding, and the downhill swing begins when poor Jack Stump gets his... well, I won't spoil it.

Ned becomes close with young Worthy, who may have innocent designs on Kate, and finds that Worthy is none too happy about being the next Harvest Lord. It's more than just teenage surliness; Worthy seems almost panicked and eventually leaves town, trusting only Ned. This is a huge disgrace to the Pettinger family. And the more Ned tries to learn about Cornwall Coombe, the more mystified he is, especially after he notices the gravestone of one Gracie Everdeen, outside the cemetery proper. What happened to her? How did she disrupt Harvest Home years earlier? Did she really kill herself? This unsettling tale swirls beneath everything that happens, a dark secret Ned pieces together himself.

 TV-movie tie-in, Fawcett Crest 1978

The hinge of Harvest Home is that readers must be in as much perplexity as Ned himself; I'm not sure they are, at least today. Those worldly smarts of a city slicker, his arrogance and condescension, mis-serve him in the environs of Cornwall Coombe and he misapprehends much, till it's too late. Of course. It wouldn't be a horror novel if he figured out what Harvest Home really was all about 20 pages in, would it?! The long climax I think works, secrets and horrors and suspicions piling up till a final reveal that satisfies (it put me in mind of "The Rats in the Walls" actually), and must have even more shocking in the early '70s. Tryon writes a composed line of prose, thoughtful, literate, upper-class; this lends a gravitas to the proceedings which enhances the horrors.

Relying a little too easily on cultural stereotypes—the simple ways of countryfolk, their unthinking allegiance to tradition, their lusty women, their secrets and their distrust of outsiders as well as insiders who don't conform, the bloody rituals of paganism—Harvest Home could seem dated to the modern general reader. Gender politics may grate: Beth and Kate are somewhat under-characterized, Tamar is an evil vamp, yet Widow Fortune emerges as one of the great characters of '70s horror fiction (no surprise she was portrayed by the venerable Bette Davis in the TV-movie!). While touted as a horror novel, Harvest Home is not just that; the tactics of suspense loom larger than generic horror conventions. Some might not have patience for the hundreds of pages of country livin'.

Those looking for a roller coaster ride of shock and violence would well remember that this novel predates King and his progeny on the bestseller lists. Aside from a few moments here and there the tone is one of taste—at one point Ned goes to a doctor for fertility test and the exact mechanics of that go completely unmentioned! The lone violent, overheated sex scene, promised in early chapters and delivered near the last, was sure to please adventurous readers who wanted some well-written salaciousness between the hardcovers.

One bit of cleverness I noted on this reread: is the name "Constantine" a little in-joke for the history buff? Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor who converted and stopped the persecution of Christians and heralded its spread over the Western World, hastening the end of pagan rites and worship as he and his heirs destroyed their holy sites. Ned is confounded by the villagers' atavistic beliefs and rather than overcoming them, he is overwhelmed, very nearly killed by the same kind of believers his namesake persecuted: a bit of literary comeuppance, perhaps? Perhaps.

As I said, Tryon takes his time setting up scares but boy does it pay off. This leisurely approach makes Harvest Home that kind of read that's perfect for fall—for summer too if you need to take the heat off—providing hours of cozy chills as the season of the dead approaches, as it does every year, as it will continue, forever, the Eternal Return, for thus it was since the Olden Times.


Craig J said...

I tried the book a couple years ago but just couldn't hang on. The movie, though, ranks somewhere in my top 10 of the greatest horror films ever. It really does build to an ending of exhausting horror after spending so much time playing things just mildly sinister.

Will Errickson said...

Halfway thru' it on YouTube as we speak. Bette Davis is divine.

Pik-Cor said...

Yes, the tv movie totally freaked me out. Sometime after watching it I found a copy of The Other somewhere in our house but was too scared to read it!

Anonymous said...

It's definitely got that understated pre-King mood - Harvest Home is no Marsten House - but it's an atmospheric character-rich story. Good to read this time of year!

Ron Clinton said...

I think THE OTHER is probably the better, smarter, more polished book of the two (I haven't read any of Tryon's other novels, save for NIGHT OF THE MOONBOW, of which I remember nothing about) from an objective point-of-view, but there's something particularly compelling about HARVEST HOME, even more than THE OTHER...I don't know, maybe it's that King'ian vibe that adds an element of familiarity to it.

highwayknees said...

This is completely OT but I was thinking that you should do a compendium of covers for that classic of horror by R. Chambers: The King In Yellow.That is, if you haven't already. Ever since the resurgence of interest in it due to the excellently creepy first season of True Detective I've noticed that there are a lot of different editions with different cool covers on the market , and that's not even including whatever antiquarian editions there are out there! So I haven't bought and read one yet because I'm torn by all the interesting artwork! They range from the minimally abstract to the phantasmagoric. Would be cool to see an overview like only you can do.

Just a thought!


highwayknees said...

Oh and about Harvest Home, don't know why i never read it because I loved The Other to pieces back in the day. Maybe it was the size of the thing that put me off? Anyway the tv vers is great with Bette!

Will Errickson said...

I posted a few KING covers several years ago; you should be able to use Search This Blog to find 'em!

JanG. said...

The movie is similar to The Wicker Man

Pik-Cor said...

With overtones of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery.