A version of this biographical essay appears in 100 American Crime Writers (Palgrave, 2013), edited by Steven Powell. This piece contains spoilers for Grubb’s best-known thriller The Night of the Hunter. Visit The Venetian Vase for more information.
Grubb, Davis (July 23, 1919-July 24, 1980). Short story writer and novelist, whose bestselling depression era Southern Gothic novel The Night of the Hunter (1953) became one of the most celebrated movies of the film noir period. Grubb wrote ten novels, and many crime and horror stories; his stories appeared in magazines as diverse as Colliers and Good Housekeeping. But it is his first published novel, The Night of the Hunter for which he is best known, and for which he received most praise.
Davis Grubb was born and grew up in Moundsville, West Virginia, where his father was an architect and his mother worked for the Department of Public Assistance. He went to school in Moundsville and Clarksburg, and then spent some time working for a local radio station. Grubb was colour blind, but nevertheless attended the Carnegie Institute of Technology, in Pittsburgh, PA, where he studied painting and drawing. He left in 1939 after only one year.
According to the West Virginia Wesleyan College author guide, Grubb began his writing career in 1940, in New York, where at first he worked for NBC, and later became a copywriter in radio. Grubb wrote short stories in his spare time, and made his first sale in 1944, to Good Housekeeping. It was another six years before Grubb began writing novels, and a further three before the publication of The Night of the Hunter, his debut.
The Night of the Hunter is based on the real-life story of Harry Powers, known as the the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell, a serial killer who was executed In Grubb’s home town, on 18th March 1932. Powers lured women by taking out lonely hearts ads in newspapers and charming them with letters and promising them happiness; he was convicted of the murders of two women and three children.
Grubb’s take on the story recasts Powers as Harry Powell, who pursues the wife of his executed cellmate in an effort to recover the proceeds of her former husband’s last robbery. Calling himself Reverend Powell, he befriends and eventually marries the widow, before killing her. The children, who do not trust him, run away. Realising that the children know where the money is, “Preacher” Harry Powell, who is one of the most compelling villains in the genre, goes after them.
The Night of the Hunter is in the tradition of nineteenth-century Southern Gothic, but its themes, of broken families, and itinerant criminals, are more contemporary. The story is set in the Depression era, but in the widow’s vulnerability, the novel also reflects post-war concerns about family life, the absence of men, and the promise of the next generation.
The grotesque amorality of Harry Powell, contrasted with the trustworthiness of his assumed role, has parallels in the paranoia of 1950s culture, and made the novel ideal for adaptation in the film noir style. Charles Laughton’s direction of Robert Mitchum in the male lead, and Shelley Winters as the widow, with a script by Laughton and James Agee, makes a for a strange, sinister, and otherworldly film. The film is generally regarded as being among the best to have come out of the film noir period in Hollywood, but it was not well received by audiences.
Grubb’s other novels and stories have not attracted so much attention as Night of the Hunter, which was a bestseller, and was widely praised by critics. It was a National Book Award finalist in 1955. Grubb went on to write in a number of different genres, including horror, and in his last novel, Ancient Lights (1982), science fiction; in 1955, he published A Dream of Kings, a Civil War era romance marred by its tendency to melodrama. More successful was The Watchman (1961), a murder plot set in West Virginia, while Fool’s Parade (1969) became a successful movie thriller, starring James Stewart. Grubb never repeated the success of his first novel, either in literary quality, or sales. In a review of Shadow of My Brother in 1966, Time Magazine summed up the problem with much of Grubb’s later work: “uncontrolled bombast, near-hysterical characters, and [a] determination to leave no grit unhominized …”.
As a short story writer, Grubb was a favourite of Alfred Hitchcock, who adapted several of his stories for television. Grubb wrote many short stories, and published several collections, including Twelve Tales of Suspense the Supernatural (One Foot in the Grave in the UK) (1964) and The Siege of 318: Thirteen Mystical Stories (1978). In 1989 a collection of stories was published entitled You Never Believe Me, while in 2005 a further attempt was made to rehabilitate Grubb with the release of 12 Tales of Suspense and the Supernatural. Grubb died in New York City in July, 1980, the day after his 61st birthday.
“Books: Short Notices: April 29, 1966”. In Time Magazine, April 29, 1966. Online: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,835472,00.html Accessed 11 September 2014.
“Davis Grubb” West Virginia Wesleyan College, Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library. Online: http://www.wvwc.edu/library/wv_authors/authors/a_grubb.htm Accessed 11 September 2014.
Welch, Jack. Davis Grubb: A vision of Appalachia (PhD Dissertation). Carnegie-Mellon University, 1980.
By Chris Routledge