Here we have a novel originally published in 1975 that, I believe, went out of print until Grady Hendrix discussed it in his book Paperbacks from Hell. Republished with a new introduction by Hendrix, Joan Samson’s only novel, The Auctioneer, is now available to modern readers. In his introduction, Hendrix explains where some of the reader’s fear comes from in The Auctioneer:
The Seventies were the first decade since the colonists arrived when the rural population grew faster than the urban population. Horror novelists were eager to warn readers that their vision of peaceful country living was an illusion.
Interestingly, the horror movie podcast I’ve been listening to is currently focusing on the subgenre “folk horror.” Typically British, you may instantly think The Wicker Man or Blood on Satan’s Claw. In America we can point to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Deliverance for that “country” terror, where we assume everyone is backwoods, backwards, and isolated in their beliefs. The Auctioneer, though set in the 1970’s (I think — there’s mention of the daughter watching Sesame Street) in New Hampshire, has a truly old feel to the community. The family we read about still lacks modern comforts, so we feel like we’re in a different era.
Who is this family? John and Mim are married and were together many years before their only child, Hildie, age four, was born. They had dreamed of a large family, so Hildie’s a treasure. John’s mother, called Ma, lives with them as well because she has mobility issues and attachment to their land, where her family lived for generations. While they don’t have much in wealth and live off the land, plus some side jobs snow plowing and selling butter to make ends meet, they aren’t immune to what happens next. John knows, “. . . that he was still living like his grandfather had, while people in the towns and cities were filling their lives with expensive gadgets.”
A new businessman named Perly moves to town. He’s summed up as an outsider: “Except for the gentle golden dog at his heels, he looked like the chairman of some important board of directors, or possibly a middle-of-the-road evangelist.” So, we get a direct contrast between John’s and Perly’s way of living. Perly begins hosting a weekly auction attended by some locals, but mainly by people driving in from the nearby cities in search of “quaint” and antique goods. Thus, we get that folk horror dichotomy: city vs. country, the new vs. the old.
The lone police officer shows up to John and Mim’s house and asks for a donation — any items they can part with — for Perly’s local auction, to raise money to hire deputies. John is skeptical; there’s barely enough work for the gossipy cop, let alone deputies. And quietly, as the reader, I was wondering why Perly had the authority to hire police officers. Oh, but there’s been crimes in nearby communities, surely perpetrated by city criminals. Beware, the officer warns. John and Mim figure their farm has accumulated lots of stuff over decades that was simply stashed away in the barn or the attic, and happily donate while essentially cleaning out their buildings.
The review on the cover of The Auctioneer makes this sound like it’s so scary it will blow your pants off. But I wouldn’t call it scary in a violent, supernatural, or man-with-a-chainsaw/butcher’s knife/machete sort of way. It’s that everything in this New Hampshire town feels so normal . . . until it builds up. Weekly, Perly sends various deputies that are well known as lowlifes from the community (drunks, troublemakers, etc.) to certain homes in town and “ask” for donations. Eventually, everything is cleared out that John and Mim are willing to spare. And then it’s their guns. And then it’s their cows. And then it’s the well pump. Each visit feels more subtly threatening than the next.
Why stand aside while their possessions are taken? Stories of injuries abound. Suddenly, this is an accident-prone little country town, and Mim considers the financial safety of their family if John were to have a hunting accident or an arm go through a thresher. John and Mim go to the auction to see what it’s all about, but it looks rather normal. It is author Joan Samson’s keen ability to make you feel slight dread, then more, then a lack of control that you’re aren’t comfortable with, and then a tremor as you wait to see what’s left to take when all the things are gone.
In The Auctioneer, characters lack control over their situation, and they can’t wrap their heads around why certain events keep happening without someone else in the community speaking up. It’s a book about groupthink and authority, and about city dwellers patronizing (both in the financial and condescending sense) rural areas. I could recommend this book to anyone, even if you aren’t a fan of horror. It’s got a lot you could discuss in book clubs and is a page-turner.