by Thomas Tryon
It was almost as if time had not touched the village of Cornwall Coombe. The quiet, peaceful place was straight out of a bygone era, with well-cared-for Colonial houses and a white-steepled church fronting a broad Common. Ned and Beth Constantine chanced upon the hamlet and immediately fell in love with it. This was exactly the haven they had dreamed of-- or so they thought.
For Ned and his family, Cornwall Coombe was to become a place of ultimate horror.
While not without its faults (slow-moving until the last third of the book, somewhat predictable to modern readers), Harvest Home kept me curious and interested until the very last page. Some of the descriptive prose is lovely (though that's also part of what slows the pace), in stark contrast to... certain other aspects of the novel (which I'll get into in the spoiler section). I never really cared for the main character, but that didn't keep me from enjoying the book.
Note: This is definitely an adult horror novel that I would not recommend to either younger fans of the genre or those offended by sexual content.
Specifics (with SPOILERS):
--For a book written in the early 70's, this has held up pretty well. (Possibly the biggest age-related distraction for me was the protagonist's own name-- Ned. It's such an old-sounding name for a youngish man! It was startling, every time his name was mentioned.) Because the setting is so rural, antiquated, and unusual-- a throwback even when the book was written-- there weren't that many references to "current events", pop culture, or outdated technology, aside from the oft-mentioned "books-on-record". Even the whole "back to the earth" movement that Ned refers to has had a little of a modern revival. Today's version isn't exactly the same, but it's close enough to remind the reader that there's nothing new under the sun.
--On the other hand, there were major plot elements that seemed very predictable to me, as a modern reader, and I wonder if they might not have been quite so obvious to a reader in the 1970's. Were these plot points less expected back then, perhaps? It was immediately clear to me that the residents of Cornwall Coombe were involved in some strange beliefs related to the corn. Fertility rites? Blood sacrifice? Oh, how shocking. Who could ever have foreseen these mind-shattering developments? I'm not sure how different the reading experience would've been, as an average reader of 40+ years ago.
--However, while certain things were predictable, there were others that kept me uncertain and guessing. Even though I knew she might turn out "bad", I still liked the Widow Fortune at times and wasn't positive how the character would develop. (Thinking back, of course, she had to know; she knew everything that happened in the community. Still, for a while, I was hopeful that it wasn't a whole-town lunacy.) Though it was clear that Gracie Everdeen hadn't committed suicide, I never guessed precisely why she was murdered. The red herring of the odious Soakes family did its job effectively, too. While I knew something involving sacrifice was coming up, I wasn't sure exactly how it would all play out-- who would take which role-- and I have to admit that I'm surprised the author chose as dark an ending as he did.
--I had a hard time placing Kate's age. If it's ever precisely mentioned, I've forgotten it. I suppose she's meant to be an odd character, with her psychosomatic illness and all, but even so... On the one hand, she's old enough to be flirting mildly with Worthy and hoping he'll ask her on a date. Yet she sulks like a toddler, dances around on the lawn shouting something about "moon madness", and calls her parents "daddy" and "mummy". (It seems fairly common for a girl to call her father "daddy" even as an adult, but I don't believe I've seen anyone call her mother "mummy/mommy" past the single digits.)
--Though I never cared particularly much for Ned, his bizarre behavior around Tamar is especially off-putting. He puts himself into odd situations with her-- and just about every time he sees her, he ends up repeatedly referring (in his internal monologue) to certain aspects of her body. Her red fingernails, red lips-- and especially her breasts. It's blatant enough to become distracting and outright annoying. (I mean, good grief, dude! We get it-- as a woman, she has boobs. Try to focus on something else!)
So, having drunk too much, Ned puts him into an awkward position inside Tamar's house, where he proceeds to drink some more (like the idiot that he is). He's practically ogling her, she puts the moves on him, and of course, because he's a jerk, he responds. He manages to pull himself away before anything too serious has happened, but come on! He went into her house, drank when he should've known better, and let her kiss him/kissed her back. And then, when his wife realizes what he's been up to and confronts him? "Even in my innocence, I felt a flood of guilt." Ha! In his innocence?! You're not that innocent, Ned.
Then there's the scene between Ned and Tamar at the river. What was that all about? Completely bizarre and unpleasantly creepy. First of all, he ends up skinny-dipping through the most contrived of circumstances-- and when Tamar comes along, instead of leaving, he stays, even though he suspects that she murdered a woman several years ago. The entire scene is by turns disgusting and unintentionally hilarious. As hateful as Tamar is, there's no possible excuse for Ned's unhinged behavior. At best, he's cheating on his wife after he specifically promised not to have anything more to do with Tamar. At worst, he's kinda-sorta raping Tamar. Except she "wants it" (of course *eyeroll*), so it's not so much rape as it is violent "hate sex". The whole thing is incredibly disturbing and misogynistic.
--After the (ob)scene at the river, Ned goes home and tries to pretend that all is normal. He notices that Beth, his wife, is staring at him. "Something was terribly wrong, I could tell. Her face was pale; she needed lipstick." ...What the...? Seriously, I'm not one of those women who looks to find misogyny everywhere, but this? You come home from cheating on your wife and when you notice she's pale, your first thought is that she needs lipstick? Heaven forbid that she not be optimally pleasing to the eye at all times. (This kind of crap makes me not care what happens to him later on, to be honest...)
--"I stood up and looked around the room. It suddenly seemed different-- not a room we had made, part of our house, but-- simply a room. I glanced at Beth; she seemed different too, somehow. A stranger-wife." ...Yes, it must be she who has changed. Couldn't possibly be a reflection of a change in yourself. Because "kind-of raping" a woman/cheating on your spouse surely wouldn't change you in any way or affect the way you see the world around you. (I mean, yes, he's right that Beth has changed, but Ned needs to acknowledge that he himself has undergone a few changes, too.)
--Poor Worthy. He might be the only character I really liked in this whole darn book-- and even he was a let-down. Why couldn't he just have sneaked out of town without all the unnecessary displays/outbursts? Why did he confide in anyone, knowing the risks? It wasn't smart.
--Ned is amazingly dim-witted. It became almost a joke in the last quarter of the book. He was always so shocked! so dismayed! so surprised! by things that, at some point, should cease to be quite so unexpected, given what he knows has already happened.
Yeah, sure, he knows that Tamar killed Gracie. He knows that the women were responsible for cutting out the peddler's tongue and sewing his mouth shut. --But surely they wouldn't hurt Worthy...
Oh no, the townspeople killed Worthy!
Ok, so they've killed Worthy, but for sure they won't hurt Justin...
Egads! They're going to kill Justin!! Ok, so they're going to kill Justin ("they would poison him, undoubtedly", because these people have shown such reluctance to cause physical pain to their previous victims, right?)-- but first he has to "make the corn" (nudge nudge, wink wink) with the Corn Maiden. "Then the Corn Maiden was brought to him and I realized what must follow. Together, in front of the others, they were to make the corn!" But, but-- that's abhorrent! What, right there in front of all the other women?! ~shudder~ I mean, it's one thing to engage in ritual human sacrifice, but exhibitionism? You hold it right there, missy. That's going too far. (In case it's not clear, exhibitionism isn't okay with me, but at that point, once you know they're going to kill the man, how can that be so shocking?)
--The phallus-worship of these Cornwall Coombe women... If there were ever any doubt, that alone would make it clear that the author was a man. (And evidently he was gay, whatever implications that might have...) Tamar goes bananas (*smirk*) over Ned's "reaction", by the river. I thought that was ridiculous enough-- but then at Harvest Home all the women are completely ecstatic over the "display" of that stud, Justin Hooke. On the one hand, I laugh at how silly it all sounds. On the other hand, I try not to barf. I'm too embarrassed to share the worst offenders, but enjoy these milder excerpts: "object of their adoration"... "cries of torment, their frenzy now insupportable"... "a wild pantomime of devotion, an obscene reverence to the maleness of the Harvest Lord"... Yeah, dream on, guys.
--The weird chanting of the women gradually disintegrating/working its way back through time to some strange, forgotten tongue must have been inspired by Lovecraft.
--There was one real shocker... I thought the person hanging back out of sight would turn out to be his daughter and that he'd be horrified to find her a witness to this ceremony. It never occurred to me that the woman in the veil-- the Corn Maiden-- would actually be Beth. I guess seeing his kinda-sorta beloved wife makin' the ol' corn with handsome Justin finally sends Ned over the edge, based on his crazy pagan/religious experience in which he awakens to the presence of Mother Earth.
--I had to laugh at Ned's painful obliviousness when it came to the Dodds (the next-door neighbors). Robert drops some heavy hints about the terrible consequences of attempting to witness Harvest Home, but Ned still doesn't get it-- still thinks Maggie will be sympathetic to his cause. When she tells Ned he's a fool, I can't help but agree!
--As I mentioned earlier, the ending is darker than I would've expected. I figured Ned would get away, but that maybe his wife and daughter would refuse to come with him. Speaking of Beth and Kate, they "converted" awfully quickly! I guess some people do fall in with cults in a short space of time. Neither of them had any other strong religious beliefs to supplant... Beth had a gaping hole in her life where her mother should have been and which the townswomen filled. They also saved her daughter's life and promised to help her have another child, which she desperately wanted. In Kate's case, she's young and impressionable, she sees her mother going along with it all, and the Widow Fortune saves her life and seems to (somehow) make it possible for her to do things she wants, like horse-riding.
--And in closing, there's a character named Corny Penrose. ...I know this community revolves around corn, but really? Corny?