Sheila Merritt’s Retro Reads reviews books from years past that continue to deserve attention and are still readily available to readers in some format. This time around, in conjunction with Diabolique’s collaborative project examining the American Gothic, here’s a look back at Harvest Home by Thomas Tryon.
1971 was quite a year for horror novels. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was published, and another book also created a stir: Thomas Tryon’s The Other. With The Other, the author tested the waters of the American Gothic. In his next novel, Harvest Home, he totally submerged himself in them. This highly influential narrative sparked the modern American agrarian horror trend. It was released in 1973, four years before “Children of the Corn” by Stephen King made its debut in Penthouse Magazine.
In Harvest Home, first person narrator Ned Constantine retrospectively reflects on how his life has changed since moving from New York City with his wife Beth and their daughter Kate to the bucolic charms of rural New England. The village of Cornwall Coombe exemplifies being spiritually at one with the earth. Its provincial ways fascinate Ned: “There was a sense of veneration for that which had gone before, a rigid, disciplined effort to preserve things as they were—even, perhaps, a reluctance to acknowledge things as they are.”
The town’s activities revolve around the corn crop. There are festivals and ceremonies demarcating seasonal planting and harvesting cycles which, while a bit odd, don’t initially rattle Ned. He dismisses prognostications made from the reading of animal entrails as superstition, and feels that the positives of living in a sequestered environment outweigh the negatives. This notion gets reinforced when the respected community leader, Widow Fortune, proves to be a literal life safer for the Constantine family.
Appreciation and admiration give way to repugnance as Ned, with his painter’s eye for detail, observes that there’s a malign undercurrent in some of the rites. Pulled into the revelry of a burning of scarecrows ritual, he recalls these impressions: “The line swept out again and, like a giant amoeba, divided itself from the larger circle to form a smaller one. Someone shoved me and I was propelled into the center; wheeling, I saw fire-washed faces, peripheral and with the sheen of exertion on their brows, now bright, now dim in the leaping light, all somehow sinister.” Among the scarecrows he subsequently sees a visage too horrible to sanely abide.
Although today’s readers, inundated with similar plots that proliferated the genre for years after Harvest Home’s publication, may find the story a tad too predictable, they can still derive much pleasure from Mr. Tryon’s writing. He brilliantly nuances the clash of cultures, incorporating the willingness to embrace what is perceived as quaint; to love thy quirky neighborhood. Going against the grain, however, leads to draconian punishment. This seductive pull and ultimate repulsion are rendered tangible. The neo-paganism of the 1960s proved to be fertile soil for this horror tale.
Tryon’s artistic career began as an actor in films such as The Cardinal, I Married a Monster from Outer Space, Moon Pilot, The Longest Day, and In Harm’s Way. He left acting to become a writer. With Harvest Home, Tryon proved that his literary talent wasn’t a fluke. He not only wrote a book on a par with The Other, but one that in many respects surpasses it. Ironically, Harvest Home which was originally published by Knopf, is now only available in e-book format, in contrast to The Other which can be purchased as a physical book as well as e-book. Perhaps that is due to The Other having been made into a major motion picture in 1972, while Harvest Home was relegated to a 1978 two-part television miniseries that, while well received, doesn’t have the same cachet.
The term “American Gothic” conjures up many images: Hawthorne, Poe and, of course, the portrait by Grant Wood. The painting depicts a stiff country couple. Tryon took rural religious rigidity to the extreme in Harvest Home. Scenes of sanctified violence and sexuality punctuate the narrative and build to a beautifully calculated fever pitch. Also superbly executed is the arc that culminates with the discovery that unraveling a mystery can unravel a life. Thomas Tryon firmly embraced the legacy of Hawthorne and Poe, and helped usher in American Gothic fiction into modern times.