Voice of Glory: The Life and Work of Davis Grubb – by Thomas E. Douglass (University of Tennessee Press)
It’s likely that those who most remember West Virginia writer Davis Grubb (1919-1980) do so because of the cult film “The Night of the Hunter” (1955), with its groundbreaking dreamlike aesthetic—which filmmakers like David Lynch and Martin Scorsese have cited as an influence—and Robert Mitchum’s mesmerizing performance as the killer Reverend Harry Powell. The Moundsville-born Grubb occupied a distinctive place in American letters primarily during the ‘50s and ‘60s, and in a career that comprised ten novels and numerous short stories, he garnered acclaim only to be forgotten in recent years.
Thomas E. Douglass brings Grubb back from literary oblivion in his comprehensive biography Voice of Glory: The Life and Work of Davis Grubb. Douglass, who passed away shortly after the publication of this work, also wrote an excellent book on the life of West Virginian author Breece D’J Pancake.
Grubb is vividly depicted in this highly readable yet heavily documented investigation, as Douglass traces the writer’s formative years in Moundsville and Clarksburg. Having weathered the Great Depression and waning fortunes in his architectural business, Grubb’s father, a lifelong smoker, passed away in 1937—when Davis was 17 and his younger brother Louis was only six. That same year, Grubb’s mother, Eleanor, secured work with the U.S. Children’s Bureau administering care for orphaned and indigent children.
Orphanhood and poverty are two anchor themes in Grubb’s writing, perhaps most famously highlighted in his powerful Gothic thriller The Night of the Hunter (1953), which inspired the aforementioned film. In Grubb’s tale, two orphaned boys face the wrath of a murderer who travels as an itinerant preacher across Depression-torn West Virginia. Until then an obscure short story writer, publication of The Night… —his first novel—brought fame and lucrative contracts to Grubb, but also the start of a life of excess. Traipsing between New York and Philadelphia, Grubb became a staple of the cities’ nightlife, developing a long friendship with Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Thelonius Monk, among others who would frequent his home “for nights of jazz, drink, and drugs.”
Grubb’s lifelong drug addiction—which put him through several years-long writing droughts—would conspire against greater critical recognition as much as his own desire to constantly explore new literary venues. Claiming that “no one book should be like the others,” Grubb didn’t stick to thrillers and instead wrote broadly about subjects like the Civil War (A Dream of Kings, 1955), racism (Shadow of My Brother, 1966), and small-town life in his ambitious novel The Voices of Glory (1962)—composed of 28 chapters told by 28 different characters in the fictional WV town of Glory.
Grubb’s final novel, Ancient Lights (1982), a prescient science fiction romp in which the world is ruled by corporations and financial solvency, is enshrined as the supreme virtue, but did not enjoy the critical acclaim of his earlier books. Its zany originality, however, constitutes a good argument for how his fiction deserves a second look. Grubb’s colorful life does the rest, as it makes Douglass’ well-researched book an entertaining work in its own right, and a great introduction to the work of an unfairly neglected author.
Fast Falls the Night – by Julia Keller (Press – Minotaur)
A little over a year ago, Huntington (WV) became the focus of nationwide media attention when local authorities responded to 26 heroin overdose cases in one five-hour span. Novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Julia Keller, a Huntington native, happened to be visiting the city when this “bad batch” of heroin mixed with powerful painkillers fentanyl and carfentanyl triggered the crisis. The events inspired her latest novel, Fast Falls the Night, which follows 24 hours of chaos in the fictional town of Acker’s Gap in Raythune County, WV, as a tainted batch of heroin makes its way through the community.
Fast Falls… is the sixth installment in Keller’s mystery series featuring county prosecutor Bell Elkins. The series is premised on Elkins’ decision to drop a big-money career in Washington, D.C., and return to her native Acker’s Gap in the hope of helping her economically depressed hometown. Her latest novel is told through the eyes of a broad cast of characters, including police officers, paramedics, a pastor, and addicts exposed to the lethal heroin. As county authorities are stretched thin confronting the emergency, some like Deputy Jake Oakes struggle with conflicting feelings of compassion for its victims and jadedness in the face of an epidemic that often overwhelms him. Others, like EMT Molly Drucker, juggle family problems with the immediate task of saving lives as more overdoses are reported all over town.
The novel’s short chapters and shifting points of view help give the story the urgency it warrants as well as a panoramic depiction of how such a crisis affects a community. Its strength, however, may contain a weakness in that some of its many characters and secondary plots—a possible romance between Oakes and Druker, or the plight of a veteran who’s estranged from his young daughter—deter attention from the catastrophic health emergency that’s unfolding. While Keller’s novel is not an in-depth report on the opioid crisis, delving more on the causes of the problem and not just focusing on the foreign drug dealers who bring their poison to Acker´s Gap would have given the story more depth. Still, Keller’s vivid sense of place and pace help maintain suspense while skillfully wrapping up a twisty plot—and setting up events for future Bell Elkins novels.
— Gonzalo is a writer born in Texas, raised in Chile, and currently living in Shepherdstown. His books have been published in Spain and Chile, and his fiction has appeared in The Texas Review and Boulevard.Review by Gonzalo Baeza