‘It’s a hard world for little things’ – ‘Night of the Hunter’ (Dir: Charles Laughton 1956)
A teenage girl, brought up in the confines of a religious orphanage and apparently mute, is turned out to look after the baby of a local couple. Afraid of the brutish behaviour metered out to the innocent, the girl snatches the child and makes for the cold Cumbrian hills. To retrieve their child, the parents call upon the local priest who, with the help of a poacher and his hound Persus (Greek god of destruction, father of Hectate – god of wilderness, magic, childbirth and witchcraft) set off in hot pursuit. And so begins a riveting tale of cat and mouse, of a young girl coming to terms with her changing body and a shifting landscape, and of a priest wrestling to keep his demons hidden.
Myer’s book is a bluff northern creation, its language hard and harsh, its punctuation spare. Characters are rarely named – the priest is ‘The Priest’, the girl is ‘The Girl’ – and with this comes a cold, cruel almost biblical poetry:
‘I will leave your flesh on the mountains and fill the valleys with your carcass he said. Yeah said the poacher. I will water the land with what flows from you and the river beds shall be filled with your blood. The poacher nodded. He will and all. When I snuff you out I will cover the heavens and all the stars will darken said the priest. And that’ll learn you.’
This spare language has another effect: a lack of period detail left this reader a little disorientated. It could be late 19th century (one brief conversation mentions Darwin) but it would easily be later, effectively giving the novel a real timeless quality.
We soon learn that the Priest is a religious zealot consumed – or ‘unnaturally driven’ according to the poacher – with the need to track down the girl. What are these ‘niche flavours’ which the Priest harbours and the church condones? Does the girl hold such secrets which must never be spoken…and if so, why is the Priest so concerned? After all, the girl is mute, isn’t she?
‘Beastings’ comes wrapped in the trappings of the ‘southern gothic’ and shares much with Charles Laughton’s 1955 film ‘Night of the Hunter’. In that film Robert Mitchum plays the Reverend Harry Powell who preaches the word of the Lord and leaves a string of murdered women in his wake. With his sight set on $10,000 and only two young children able to take him to it, a chase begins as the crazed preacher pursues the children across a nightmarish landscape. It is interesting to note how Myers also offers us inversions of Laughton’s film: Myer’s mute girl protects the innocent while Laughton’s are protected by a woman played by Lillian Gish – a silent movie star in a rare speaking part. Laughton shows water as a grave for Shelley Winters (prefiguring her death in ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ by 20 years) while Myers has it as a force for change, an energiser…
‘Shivering she felt her way around her body with numb fingers. As she did something changed. Her skin began to tingle’
‘Night of the Hunter’ may also share ‘Beastings’ view of nature’s brutal pragmatism – we see a cute owl watching a cuddly bunny; then, out of shot, we hear the squeak and squeal as the hunter strikes – but ultimately, Laughton’s film offers hope:
‘My soul is humble when I see little ones accept their lot. Lord save little children. The wind blows and the rains are cold…yet they abide.’
‘Beastings’ offers us no such obvious comforts.
The girl and child stagger across the hills and valleys but there is no maternal nature to comfort and protect. Instead we find a hard, barren bitch of a country, unyielding in its secrets and cruel in its’ withholding of sustenance. The tiny pair, cold, wet and starving battle against a world in which the raw Darwinism of nature and the petty cruelties of humankind lead them towards the terrible, shocking conclusion – a conclusion made all the more provoking for its whiff of Dennis Potter’s ‘Brimstone and Treacle’.
‘Beastings’ is a powerful, bleak and brutal book. It is intriguing and unafraid to make the reader feel uncomfortable by challenging the perceptions of right and wrong.