The Auctioneer by Joan Samson ๐ŸŽƒ

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.

28 comments

  1. Oh, this sounds good! Interestingly, I struggle with British folk horror but I think I would be more likely to get on with American folk horror – I think the setting would appeal to me more.

    Like

    • It cracks me up that the three famous British folk horrors were filmed in the 1970’s, meaning there was loads of full-frontal nudity. What were they all thinking in the 70’s? However, this one is a ratchet-up-the-tension book without any of the characteristic horror stuff most folks like to avoid.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m afraid I didn’t think The Wicker Man or Blood on Satanโ€™s Claw when you said ‘folk horror’, though I have at least heard of deliverance. I think the only British horror I have ever read is Dennis Wheatley which I read for the sex, as a teenager. But you’re right, the Auctioneer does sound well done.

    Like

    • What Bill said – I didn’t either, but I too have heard of Deliverance!

      And, what Laila said. I found that bit about the rural population outgrowing the urban one interesting too.

      I’m sorry I didn’t reply to this before. When I came here just now, I realise that I started reading this post when it was published but something distracted me before I finished it. A book about groupthink and authority does sound worth reading.

      I’m not sure I’ve read any horror, though I’ve read some sort of ghost stories. I’ve seen a couple of horror movies but nope – not for me (as you know).

      Like

      • My definition of horror is really broad: it’s anything that horrifies me. Thus, I actually don’t watch war movies because I find them too horrifying. I also don’t engage with much science fiction because a lot of the ideas, abuses of power, and concern for things like Earth being uninhabitable are seriously horrifying to me. Maybe I should write a post asking folks what horrifies them. Horror fans bring up M.R. James and Edgar Allen Poe as horror, they talk about Picnic at Hanging Rock, they talk about Guillermo del Toro’s WWII movies. There’s lots that is horrifying that isn’t “horror” genre in the narrower terms.

        Like

    • The “royal three” of British horror films are Blood on Satan’s Claw, The Wicker Man, and Witch Finder General. Everything is compared to those, though in America we have what is called hicksploitation (the rural people who seem “inbred” who take a bite out of city people who wander into the wrong area).

      Like

      • You mention Picnic at Hanging Rock which has a lot of tension, possible supernatural, but no actual horror. But have you checked out Wake in Fright, the real Australian outback community goes feral movie.

        Like

        • I have not, but I keep hearing about Wolf Creek being a must-watch. I’ve seen Cargo, The Babadook, Black Water, Black Water Abyss, The Reef, Boar, Rogue… I’m definitely sensing an animal theme in Australian horror… I’ve been told Lake Mungo is a must-see.

          Like

          • Lake Mungo is one of the oldest and most important archeological sites in Australia and the world. I’m not sure why some (presumably Australian) ignoramus has used it as the name for a movie and for a lake in Western Victoria, which is not where it is.

            On the other hand, Wake in Fright is a classic. And Wolf Creek scared the shit out of me, the movie, I drove past the site earlier this week, felt nothing, well nothing except excessive heat.

            Like

            • Bill, I don’t know why, but you swearing had me giggling like a middle school girl. And then I read it to Nick, and he giggled, too. Now I’m going to have to watch it! And I’ll make Nick watch it with me, too.

              Like

  3. This sounds unsettling more than outright horror. Which can sometimes be harder to read, I think, because it feels more like something that might happen in real life. That distinction of “country horror” is interesting too. I could see how it plays on people’s already engrained prejudices. Also, I’ve actually seen one of the movies you mention! My dad was really mad that my uncle let me watch Deliverance when I was a kid!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve always heard Deliverance was the “really bad upsetting movie,” but then I learned that people feel that way because a man is raped. However, they seem to have few qualms about the hundreds of movies in which women are raped–as if it’s just natural that it happens, but for a man, he would be broken or lose his dignity. Ugh.

      You’re right that this doesn’t read like “horror” except that I was horrified by their seeming lack of agency, something that is a true fear of mine.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thatโ€™s a really good point. Iโ€™m not sure I had ever seen rape on screen (or at least such an obvious one) before that movie. What has stuck with me though is how horrible one group of people is to another. There are no monsters or possessions or anything. Itโ€™s just a group of people in a different place who are absolutely terrorized by strangers for no discernible reason. Which it sounds like is kind of the horror of this book too – normal people being horrific to each other.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. The content does sound interesting, especially about city dwellers patronising rural people (though here I think the patronising tends to be of those in towns vs large cities, rather than urban v rural). Interesting to hear that this has been a problem since at least 1975!

    Like

    • I wasn’t aware that in the 70’s people started longing for the “simple country life” and were leaving cities. At some point it went back to everyone in the city, but now I’m wondering with work from home if folks are going to move out of cities again. It’s expensive to live in a city, but if you live in the country and commute, it can be several hours in a car per day.

      Like

  5. OOhhhh this sounds good! You wrote an extensive review of this one, so I can tell its meaty!

    I grew up in the country, but definitely prefer urban centres, and my husband and I will NEVER live out in a rural area again. My main reason: no one can hear you scream!!!

    Like

Insert 2 Cents Here:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s