”Again I heard the cry, and I approached, circling the tree until I was looking at it from the opposite side. From gnarled roots to blasted top, the large trunk was split open, a dark wound where a bolt of lightning had rent it apart and fire had burned its center out, leaving it hollow. A mesh of thick vines grew upward from the base, crawling along the withered trunk, sutures trying to close the gaping wound where the sides lay back like flaps of charred flesh. The wind streamed through the gap, tugging the cuffs of my wet pants, brushing at the grass, tearing at the leaves of the new growth around the tree. Then I heard the cry again, and once more I froze, for I discovered the thing that voiced it, almost hidden behind the moving greenery.
I was looking at a human skull, and it was from behind the parted jaws that the screams came.”
Ned and Beth Constantine decide that they want to leave the bustle of New York City for the idyllic life in the country. They find this majestic fixer upper in the town of Cornwall Coombe for considerably less than they had expected to pay. The people of this quaint little town are eccentric, but friendly. Their daughter Kate can have a horse, Beth can learn new crafts, and Ned has plenty of beautiful landscapes and interesting faces to sketch for his burgeoning career in the galleries back in the city. The economy of Cornwall Coombe is driven by agriculture and the crops especially the corn has been yielding bumper returns.
Corn is what sustains them
Ned’s relationship with Beth went from being great to being amazing.
”I listened to her easy, rhythmic breathing, watched the rise and fall of her breast, my eye lingering on the rounded fullness of the pale flesh, the darker, almost carmine-colored tips under pleated translucent cotton. Though pillow-creased and sleepy, a trifle wan and strained, her face to me, sixteen years her husband was infinitely pleasing. I was not only her spouse, her lover, but her admirer as well, and I speculated as to how many married couples were as good friends as we were.”
Bette Davis as the Widow Fortune
So I wonder as the town begins to drive a wedge between them, as the Widow Fortune makes herself indispensable, as Ned begins to discover the pagan secrets of the town, and finds himself locked in a struggle with forces as old as the Earth will he look back on this moment of contentment with nostalgia or will it just make the losses he is about to experience all the more painful?
The Widow Fortune wants control of Beth for reasons beyond anything a sane person could ever believe. Ned is starting to be a problem not only in her efforts with Beth, but also with his amateur detective work. The Widow Fortune asks Tamar Penrose to show an interest in Ned.
Tamar Penrose is a nuclear bomb of sexual attraction.
”I could smell her scent, not just the perfume but the whole womanly, feminine scent of her. I looked up, felt her hair brush across my eyes. I started to turn away; she leaned insistently and the red mouth came closer, the lips moist, parted. She kissed me. I slid an arm around her neck and held her mouth to mine. I released her in confusion, and she shuddered, burying her lips in my shirt collar, then stepping away. ‘I knew,’ she murmured, and her head nodded as though in private conversation. ‘I knew’”
Now there are some mitigating circumstances involving Ned’s fall from Grace. There was home made corn liquor served to excess and there are certainly mystical aspects to Tamar with her Medusa eyes and her red curls and her luscious curves.
”There was something about her that seemed not merely predatory but demanding. Hers were not just the requirements of the town doxy form the local turnip-heads behind a haystack. There was something else in her, a deeply ingrained sense of something primitive, of the Woman Eternal, who demanded to be served--not just between her legs but to make man utterly subservient. Tamar the castrator.”
Your only hope as a man is that she doesn’t want you that she has her sights set on someone else. Although the relief you may feel at being passed over will be tinged with disappointment. There are few men who would find her undesirable. She is a Marilyn Monroe times ten. She is a very dangerous woman to any small town because she can destabilize any marriage, any relationship. Beth is, of course, being kept apprised of all of Ned’s errrrhhhh activities.
”She stared back, saw, failed to recognize me. The stranger-husband. Each of us now was imprisoned behind the bars of mistrust, of doubt, of disappointment. What could heal the breach?”
Corn is god in Cornwall Coombe and as Ned learns more about their pagan rituals, the worshiping the earth and the Harvest Lord and the “plowing of the Corn Maiden’s field”, he becomes desperate to find out what exactly is going on. He needs evidence to bring the whole unsavory history of this town to light. There are missing bodies and there are found skeletons he just needs to tie them to the murderer.
And he wants his wife and child back.
”I vowed war on Her. I vowed death and destruction. New blood--for Her? It it came to that, I would set a torch to every barn in the village, to every field that grew a stalk of corn. I would pollute the earth with some poisonous substance that would kill Her. I would rust the blade of the plowshare, I would break the handles. I would make a wilderness of briars and weeds.”
In 1978 NBC aired a mini-series called The Dark Secret of Harvest Home starring Bette Davis. Just the thought of Davis playing the Widow Fortune gave me a chill. There is so much more in the book than what I’ve related here. I didn’t even mention Tamar’s clairvoyant daughter Missy or the man who stumbles into town with his tongue cut out and his mouth sewn shut. This was a much more dense book with a more elaborate plot than I was expecting. Just like he did with The Other Thomas Tryon surprised me again with what an adept writer he is. I need to quit thinking of him as an actor dabbling in fiction, but more as a writer dabbling in acting. Truly there is horror in watching the life of Ned Constantine unravel like a frayed rug. The ended has a great twist that made my skin crawl as if someone had just walked across my future grave. Highly recommended for the Halloween season.