dustwrapper on the 1964 first edition

The Weird Tales of Davis Grubb

Jessica Amanda Salmonson

   

West Virginian Davis Alexander Grubb (1919-1980) was a master of Southern gothicism comparable in excellence to Fred Chappell or, dare I suggest it, even William Faulkner. His acknowledged masterpiece Night of the Hunter (Harper & Row, 1953) was adapted to the screen in the only film Charles Laughton ever directed -- & in the words of Roger Ebert "what a compelling, frightening & beautiful film it is!" It is a sheer work of art starring Robert Mitchum as one of the great movie monsters, a serial killer preacher who makes an innocuous Christian hymn into the sound of evil. A made-for-television remake of the first half of the 1955 classic was so bad somebody better go to hell for it.

His other novels tend toward the gothic though not all would be regarded horror. One that is a chiller, however, is his prison tale of Good vs Evil, The Watchman (Scribner, 1965). Pathetical & mystic but not horrific is the small-town tale of A Tree Full of Stars (Mountain State Press, 1965; Scribner, 1966) about a family who loved Christmas so awfully much they were run out of town -- a fable of intolerance that wasn't entirely fiction, being based on an actual occurrence. The terror & pathos was not so fabular in Shadow of My Brother (Holt Rinehart & Winston, 1966) wherein the unadulterated evil is pure white racism.

Grubb's weirdest short stories are collected in Twelve Tales of Suspense & the Supernatural (Scribners, 1964). A library of weird shorts, if it had only one book representative of Grubb, should have this. As Neil Barron said in Horror Literature, this collection combines "the gruesome, the wistful, & the darkly humorous." Included is "Where the Woodbine Twineth" which was nicely adapted to television's Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It regards an ill-fated relationship between a child & her doll. "One Foot in the Grave" does for a severed foot what "The Beast with Five Fingers" did for the severed hand. It first appeared in a 1946 issue of the legended Weird Tales Magazine. Southern folklore is transformed into a veritable prose-poem in "The Man Who Stole the Moon." Animal transformation is the theme of "The Rabbit Prince." As a rat fan, I particularly love "Busby's Rat," in which his lovely pets avenge Busby's murder. And as a fan of Victorian ghosts, the vampiric period piece "The Horsehair Trunk" likewise has special appeal. Plus others, even the least of which have merits.

The collection is sadly rare & if you spot it for a "mere" $100 in dustwrapper (let alone mistakenly priced cheaply) you should grab it. Fortunately there were paperback editions (New York: Fawcett, 1965; UK title One Foot in the Grave, London: Arrow, 1966) & the Fawcett is comparatively common. Also, some of the stories are accessible in You Never Believe Me & Other Stories (St Martins Press, 1989), a posthumous "best of" selection together with previously uncollected tales & a short memoir by his brother. "Where the Woodbine Twineth" is included under Grubb's original title for it, "You Never Believe Me." The Siege of 318: Thirteen Mystical Stories (Back Fork Books, 1978) is also a stunning collection of weirds. It was issued by a West Virginia small press & had poor distribution, so can be hard to find. The title story was adapted to an episode of ABC television's Dark Room. Karl Edward Wagner selected "The Baby-Sitter" for Years Best Horror VIII (DAW, 1980).

Of the fifty short stories Grubb penned, however, his last weird ones such as "The Crest of Thirty-Six" written for Kirby Macauley's Dark Forces (Viking, 1980) & a couple others remain ungathered -- so a definitive collection just of his horror tales is still required.

Ancient Lights (Viking, 1982) was his last novel; the gods know why it sold badly, but it was too soon a rare book (except in paperback). It is Grubb's emotional, whimsical, bitter & intellectual masterpiece of Weird Gnosticism; he must have known he was dying when he wrote it. Set in the near future, a rural West Virginia messiah does battle with the powers of darkness. Had he not already written Night of the Hunter, this last book should've been famous enough to place him among the Immortals, & I'm bewildered that it passed with so little notice.

Grubb was one of modern horror literature's brightest darkstars. Note that many of the great "modern" masters of the macabre (like Robert Westall, Davis Grubb, Robert Aickman & Russell Kirk) are already dead from old age. What does that say about our new generation of horror bums?

   

copyright 2000 by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, all rights reserved

   

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