The Auctioneer was a massive hit when it was originally published in 1974. Winning rave reviews from critics and readers, it sold in excess of a million copies, was advertised on television (which was very rare at the time) and was optioned for a movie adaptation. For a debut novel from an unknown writer, it was more than Joan Samson could have wished for. Tragically, it was to be her first and only novel as she died of brain cancer just a few months after the book was published. Her death meant that the film adaptation never materialised and the book fell out of print, fading into relative obscurity.
The Auctioneer is often billed as a forgotten horror classic, but to my mind, it is not stereotypical of the horror genre, being a much more subtle and nuanced read.
Set in the fictional New England town of Harlowe, the book centres on the Moore family, who work their land and live a simple, modest life. The family comprises of John and Mim, their daughter Hilde and John’s mother Miriam. The family work hard, have their difficulties, but love where they live. Harlowe is a quiet place, but what peace is there is shattered by the arrival of Perly Dunsmore, an auctioneer, who has bought a house in town. The moneyed and charming out-of-towner has convinced the town Sherriff, Bob Gore, that what is needed is more police deputies, and he has just the way to fund them.
Perly presides over a weekly auction, where families are called on to donate items they no longer want or need to raise money for the cause. As the weekly auctions continue and new deputies are sworn in at an alarming rate, pressure begins to mount on families to donate items that they don’t want to part with. Rumours begin to circulate that those who do not donate are meeting with accidents and families feel forced to give away family heirlooms and necessary farm equipment. As Perly gathers a small army of deputies around him, and takes over as town preacher and town mayor, his much more sinister agenda starts to become clear.
“You, you are the first,” he said. “The very beginning, the pioneers. The bold ones. The grain of mustard seed form which the kingdom shall arise. And, within a year, I promise you, there will be a kingdom.”
To say any more about the plot would do a disservice to anyone coming to the book cold. Samson using pacing, clever plotting and strong characterisation to create an atmosphere of almost constant dread, where every scene and every interaction is loaded with mistrust and fear. There is no outright violence in the book and the very mundanity of what is happening is plausibly terrifying. Any of the more sinister events are told second hand and despite hearing about the ‘accidents’ that befall the people who stand up to Perly, all the reader has is their own imagination, putting you in the same situation as the Moore’s as they try to decide what to do. Samson’s writing is such that the description of a truck pulling up outside a house is all that is needed to make your skin crawl.
Perly Dunsmore is a wonderful creation. Samson tells us nothing of his past and nothing of his intentions, instead focusing on his charisma and growing control over the town. His infiltration of this close-knit community allows the book to shine a spotlight on small-town life, commercial greed and the fear of standing up to authority, be it real or imagined.
What also struck me was the skill and power of Samson’s descriptive prose. The landscape of Harlowe is described with an evocative eye for detail and her skill in knowing what to tell and what to keep hidden is exceptional. One cannot help but wonder what might have been had she lived and written more, but The Auctioneer is an unforgettably eerie debut with echoes of Shirley Jackson and Flannery O’Connor.
I read The Auctioneer as part of this years RIP Challenge.
Read On: Kindle
Number Read: 386
Number Remaining: 360
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!