Friday 3 June 2011

The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb: the British First Edition (Hamish Hamilton, 1954) and the Film (Charles Laughton, 1955)

Final post in this short series on books which begat famous films. And today's book is the other title I picked up in that odd little secondhand bookshop in Newhaven I mentioned yesterday:

This is the UK first edition of The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb, published by Hamish Hamilton in 1954 – originally published in the US by Harper & Brothers in 1953. Anyone who knows their film history should be aware of the movie this one inspired: the 1955 Charles Laughton adaptation, starring Robert Mitchum. Although a box office failure on its original release – a consequence of which being that Laughton never got the chance to direct another movie – it's since been recognised as one of the most important motion pictures of the twentieth century, and has become something of a cult – which is why we included it in 500 Essential Cult Movies, the excellent film title I oversaw in my Ilex Press managing editor role last year. Indeed, in a frankly alarming example of inter-blog synergism, I'm blogging about that very tome and Night of the Hunter over on the Ilex blog today. It's almost like I planned this, isn't it...?

You can read about Night of the Hunter from a movie perspective – including some of the other films it inspired – in that Ilex post, so let's confine ourselves here to the novel. Set during the Depression – not, as Wikipedia once claimed (it's since been corrected), in the aftermath of the American Civil War – it concerns ex-con Harry Powell's efforts to determine where his cell-mate, Ben Harper, has hidden the loot from a bank robbery. Misrepresenting himself as the prison chaplain, Powell inveigles himself into the poverty-stricken lives of Powell's wife, Willa, and her children, John and Pearl, who sense that there's something terrible about this "Preacher" with "L-O-V-E" tattooed on the fingers of his right hand and "H-A-T-E" on the fingers of his left. That memorable image is just one of many in a story that is unrelentingly sinister and oppressive, a Southern Gothic nightmare based on the true story of Harry F. Powers, who murdered two women and three children and was hanged in 1932.

There's a first rate recent review of both the novel and Laughton's adaptation on the James River Film Journal blog – and quite by chance, one of the images illustrating that post is the cover of the British first edition, captioned with the question, "Don't ask me where to find this creepy copy". The answer to which is, right here in the UK. Because while the American first edition sports a dustjacket designed by Susan Foster (which you can see on the right there), the jacket of the UK first was illustrated by Roy Sanford, about whom I've been able to discover little other than he also illustrated covers for the 1952 Hamilton first edition of Nancy Mitford's Pigeon Pie and, especially notably from my point of view, the 1951 Hart-Davis first of Ray Bradbury's The Silver Locusts, a.k.a. The Martian Chronicles, a collection of stories that remain among the best things I've ever read.

There are currently only sixteen copies of the Hamilton edition of The Night of the Hunter for sale on AbeBooks worldwide, ranging from £20 to £80 (there are a couple of signed copies going for more than that). At least half of those are later printings, however, whereas my one's a first impression. It's got heavy foxing on the page edges, but considering I paid a fiver for it, I can't really complain; plus that wonderfully ghoulish and apposite dustjacket is in excellent condition.

There was a curious piece of paraphernalia hiding in my copy as well:

A couple of letters, from a "Mon" to an unnamed lover, describing how much she misses him and how she's looking forward to his return from... wherever he is. They're rather sweet – if a little incongruous considering the dark, disturbing nature of the novel. Funny the things you find in books sometimes...

And that's it for the movie/novel posts, although do please pop along to the Ilex blog to read my Night of the Hunter piece over there as well, if you'd be so kind. (Apart from anything else it'll look good if I'm generating traffic from Existential Ennui.) Next up here though, I've got two weeks of themed posts planned. The second of those weeks will be on a longtime favourite of mine, suspense novelist Patricia Highsmith, but the first will be on a rather newer discovery: spy fiction author Anthony Price and his series of brilliant, brainy espionage novels. Coming right up...


  1. Wow, dude, you really scored! Did finding those two books take some scouring through shelves or did they jump out at you?

    I'll keep my eyes open for the book version of Night of the Hunter. I've seen the movie, but I'd love to read the book.

    I have a beautiful hardback of The Desperate Hours from 1954 that I found some years ago, a book the inspired a movie from the same period as Hunter.

  2. It took some scouring; it's quite a small shop, but as is usually the way with these places it's not organised at all: books in piles everywhere. I was in there for a good half an hour I reckon. Compulsion was stuffed in a spinner rack, but Night of the Hunter was way up on a shelf almost behind the counter. The guy who owned the place looked as surprised as me when he saw what I'd found! I think he had me down as a dealer after that.

    I just looked up the Random House edition of The Desperate Hours, which I assume is the one you have. Lovely typographical jacket on that one. Does it have a design credit on the flap?

  3. So you truly earned the find. Nice!

    I'll check my copy of the Desperate Hours when I get home from work. Mine has the couple on the cover, not the angled title with the car (which is awesome, now I feel that mine is lacking! :().

  4. Mine is the Random House Edition, but it is a "Book Club Edition" (red stamp on the lower right hand corner of the front cover inside flap. The frontispiece says "Designed by Jerome Kuhl".

    The front cover is an illustration of a worried 50s husband and wife with The Desperate Hours in a semi-script typeface on top and "by JOSEPH HAYES" in a sans-serif on the bottom. It's quite handsome but not as creative as the one you reference, I believe (maybe the non-book club edition?). The back cover is a cool full page with bleed photo of the author looking a lot like Humphrey Bogart and lighting up a filterless with a book of matches.

  5. I trust that you are putting the love letter back in there to puzzle the book's (eventual) next owner...

  6. Ooh, nice idea. Although what I might do is pen a whole new one and insert that instead. Perhaps I'll address it to you...

  7. This is one of those rare books that was, for me, quite literally impossible to put down! It's a book that men and women can enjoy.

  8. Glad you think so, kamagra. Thank you for the comment!