I recently started thinking about the structure of horror stories in a new way: relating them to the behavior of natural disasters. Some stories are unpredictable, with sudden bursts of terror, like lightning strikes or tornadoes. Others build up a sense of dread gradually, like a coming thunderstorm, or a hurricane. Much more rare are stories that grind away at the reader bit by bit, like the inexorable erosion of a coastline.
I was inspired of this natural disaster framing of horror when I read a recent reprint by Valancourt Books, Joan Samson’s The Auctioneer (1975).
This brilliantly tense novel is of the third type I mentioned: it applies unending, and increasing, pressure from very much the first page until the last. I don’t know that I’ve been as uncomfortable reading a novel in a long time, and I mean that in a good way.
The Auctioneer is set in the rural farming community of Harlowe, New Hampshire. The residents of Harlowe aren’t used to much different happening in their town, and they are used to a quiet seasonal routine. Then one day there is a new arrival in town: Perly Dunsmore, a smooth charismatic man from the city who offers to run charity auctions for local causes. First he solicits donations for the local police force, then for the fire department. Dunsmore has a talent for making even the most mundane country objects seem like rustic treasures for visiting city folk, and Harlowe’s residents are more than happy to make a bit of extra money getting rid of stuff from their barns and attics that they never use. But soon those old relics are gone, and the auctions continue. The people of Harlowe find that they must give up more and more of themselves: not just their possessions, but their very freedom, and worse. The auctioneer has a plan, and the people of Harlowe are tools to be used and discarded in that plan. In the end, how much will they part with?
The dread in The Auctioneer is intense. It begins with the very first page, as Harlowe’s only police officer visits a family home to solicit the donations for the very first auction. Then, page by page, it ratchets up. It is hard to imagine how bad things can get in Harlowe, solely due to auctions, but you will be stunned to see the depths of depravity that the auctioneer descends into.
The novel is kept on a very personal level by focusing on the experiences of a single family: John Moore, his wife Mim, daughter Hildie and grandmother Ma. We are kept in the dark, just as much as they are, and only learn of each new horrifying development as much as they are. We can almost viscerally feel their fear, impotent rage and horror as Perly Dunsmore’s plan progresses.
There is a payoff to all this misery in the climax of the novel, and a final ironic twist that highlights the point of the entire story. It is worth reading to get there; in fact, I couldn’t put the book down because I needed to know what had happened.
While reading, I found it almost impossible to not make a connection between this story and the today’s politics. The story of people, beguiled by a sophisticated con-man into giving away literally everything they hold dear, really resonated with me, perhaps a little too closely. It is such an obvious connection that Warren Carberg, the widower of Joan Samson, mentions it explicitly in his afterword. But, he notes, the story had a much more personal connection to the married couple. I feel that one could also see it as a metaphor for the vanishing of a rural way of life, as modernity encroaches upon it.
I mentioned that Warren Carberg is a widower. Tragically, Joan Samson died of cancer quite soon after the publication of The Auctioneer, which was her first and last novel. It’s a genuine shame that we will never get to see what she might have come up with next. At least we have the brilliant The Auctioneer to haunt us.