"West Virginia gave my books their edge and their humanity." - Davis Grubb
A glimpse of Davis Grubb
A Time magazine writer once wrote of Davis Grubb, "So few have the same power to conjure up the forces of darkness." To this Grubb answered, "I believe in dark because it shows off light." He saw the world, as one of his
characters said, as a place filled with "Hate and Love, warring one against the other, from the womb to the grave." That character, an evil, crazy con-man pretending to be a preacher, had LOVE and HATE tattooed on his knuckles.
Almost everything Grubb wrote was set in West Virginia. He grew up in Moundsville and hated school as a child. "I'd come home with my report card just bristling with Ds and Fs," he said. He dropped out of college and never received formal writing training, he but he had a rare, natural gift with words, and he made a successful living in New York City for 20 years as a writer. He and his little dog, Rowdy Charlie, were familiar sights in New York's literary scene.
The Night of the Hunter was Grubb's first and most famous book. He wrote nine other books and dozens of
short stories. He wrote for radio, television and magazines. The Night of the Hunter and Fools Parade were even made into movies. "The critics reviewed Mr. Grubb's books with respect and often with great admiration," the New York Times wrote at Grubb's passing.
During the Depression, his mother died, and the bank evicted his family from their house, which left him with a lifelong hostility toward the powerful. He grew up to be a flamboyant, well-known, outspoken man who created books set in the Civil War, prisons, small mountain towns, riverboats, and almost always tied to West Virginia.
He happily spent the last two years of his life in his home state, sponsored by the WV Library Commission, traveling around meeting people of all ages, giving talks, and generally enjoying being back in West Virginia.
He died of cancer in 1980 at the age of 61.
Writing sample, from The Night of the Hunter
Click on the triangle to hear WV writer Ann Pancake read this passage
The murderous Preacher is chasing two small children through the dark night with a knife, on the steep banks of the Ohio River. He aims to kill them, so he can steal the money her daddy hid inside little Pearl's doll. Desperate to get away, Little John, the hero of the book, is onto Preacher. He is pulling Pearl down to the riverbank to escape in their father's rowboat, which he calls a "skiff."
"John is scrambling down the bank, pulling Pearl behind him, knowing Preacher is right behind them with his knife, His feet slipped and sucked in the mud, and the weeds tore at his legs as he led her, stumbling, on toward the boat, but Preacher had heard them, and now his sweet tenor voice called after them.
John said, "Hurry, Pearl! Oh Godamighty, please hurry, Pearl!"
"You said a cuss word, John. That's a sin!" He thought desperately, staring into a great patch of mist. Maybe the skiff is gone. Maybe one of them shantryboat trash borrowed it tonight.
"John, where - "
"Hush! Hush! Hurry, Pearl!" Then he spied it, the bow jutting sharply in the blanketing white. And Pearl, yawning now, in a perfect picture of a child bored with a stupid game, hugged the doll, Jenny, and fought her way wearily through the ooze to the skiff.
"Children! Children!" They could hear him above them, thrashing down through the high brush filth, fighting his way toward them.
"Get in the skiff, Pearl! Oh Godamighty, hurry!"
"John," she cried out, pausing. "That's Daddy, calling us!"
He uttered a sob of despair and thrust her brutally over the skiff side and down among the bait cans and fish heads in the bottom. Now they heard Preacher hacking at a vine that had entangled him. John knew well what it was he hacked with, and in an instant he was free again, thrashing down through the brush, not ten feet away.
But they were in the boat now, and John's hand grappled for the oar, the way poor Uncle Bertie had shown him that day and the way he had watched men do it since the first time he had seen the river. But they moved not an inch in the muck, so tightly was the skiff grounded.
"Ah, my lambs! So there you are!"
John thrusted and strained against the oar until the flesh of his hands tore under the wood's ragged grain, and the boat moved. And he bore down again, straining with every ounce of flesh and bone, and it moved again.
But now Preacher had cleared the brush filth and was stepping swiftly through the mud toward them. John gave a final thrust that nigh-burst his heart, and the skiff swung suddenly into the gentle current.
"Wait! Wait! Wait you little bastards Wait! Wait! Wait! Damn you to hell!"
Even in that faint show of midnight, even with the mist whisping and curling against the land, they could see the livid twisted, raging oval of his face, the mouth gaping and sick with hatred. Now he wallowed rapidly toward them through the shallows. the bright, open blade sinking in his fist. And then he staggered and slipped and fell, floundering in the water for a moment, then rising again, he splashed after them.
John bore back on the oak in the lock, and the blade skimmed the water ineffectually. And he thought, "Why can't I do it when I know how to do it? Please let me do it, please!" And he bore back again, and the blade bit hard into the stream, and the boat swung erratically like a leaf.
"Wait! Wait! Wait! Damn you to hell!" And now some errant current in the vast, dark river caught them up on its own wing, and the boat began moving, blessedly moving, spinning at first, like a mad October leaf, and then heading into the channel, while still they could hear Preacher, every sound drifting flat and sharp across the dark water.
He was back on shore now, where he could follow better, clawing his way down through the brush filth, through sumac and pokeberry, cursing and shouting amid that wiry jungle of the river's shore. But now they were moving beyond him. They were free."
Writing activities to go with this passage: Critics have said this is one of the great suspense passages of American literature. You can learn a lot from it by studying it. Listen to it again, with an analytical ear. This time you're trying to see how Grubb does it. How does he build suspense? What kind of words does he choose? Go through the passage sentence by sentence. Look at the way Grubb varies sentence length, rhythm of the language, the pacing, his use of sounds. How does he use Pearl to build suspense? How does he use verbs? What else?
Skilled writers are like skilled movie directors, but the screen is in the readers' minds. Notice the way Grubb's expands the visual focus after the boat starts moving. He no longer has us tightly focused on the children and Preacher. Instead, he gives us a "wide shot" of the Ohio River, with the small boat and two children floating on it and the Preacher rampaging along on the bank. The contrast is emotional and effective. How did he, as a writer, do that? Look at his writing analytically.
~ Go to the Activities page for other ways you can learn from these writers. ~
Five ways to get the most from this web site:
1. Listen to the whole program.
Hear Davis Grubb's voice, stories, readings, and advice.
2. Read/download the program script.
Read it as you listen. Mark the passages you want to come back to.
3. Read/download the table of contents
These are outlines of the programs. They will help you find the passages you want to return to.
4. Find short tracks you can drop into classroom sessions, presentations, or papers about Davis Grubb.
It's easy! Click here to find out how.
Research Davis Grubb and his writing:
* Voice of Glory: The Life and Work of Davis Grubb, by Thomas Douglass, University of Tennessee Press
* The WV Library Commission made several videos of Davis Grubb talking about his life and reading from his work. Here is the first one.
Click on the
triangle to hear Davis Grubb's voice, thanks to the WV Library Commission