CW: Incest, rape, sexual assault, violence against women, suicide
I found Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home after digging around Reddit for books similar to Ari Aster’s artful horror movie Midsommar and bought a used copy online. The jacket artwork is cool. I’ll venture back for rereads, absolutely. It’s a folk horror novel written during the production of The Wicker Man in 1972, although neither the author nor director were aware of one another at the time. Neopaganism was having a moment in the 1960s. Times and gender roles were changing. Harvest Home explores these points using theme, symbolism, and antiquated tropes.
A family of three relocates to rural Connecticut from NYC in 1972. Theoddeous “Ned” Constantine is our unreliable narrator. He’s an emotionally unavailable 37 year old ad exec/artist looking to get back to basics, personally and professionally. He describes Beth, his despondent wife, as being compliant and “…accessible, submissive, yielding in a mild, utterly feminine way.” His misogyny isn’t very subtle. Beth suffered a miscarriage some time before the story begins and her subsequent depression is used as an excuse for Ned’s cheating. The stress and tension between them negatively impacts their teenage daughter, Kate, who experiences frequent asthma attacks. They agree to escape city life and buy an old house they found on the way home from settling Beth’s late father’s estate. Ned recounts how they found the town of Cornwall Coombe within the first few pages. The scene climaxes with a rainbow stretched over the bucolic, New England countryside. This part reminded me of the scene in Midsommar where they’re driving into Hälsingland and the camera flips upside down as they pass the banner that you think has the appeal of a welcome sign when it’s really a warning about mass immigration.
Cornwall Coombe is extensively detailed throughout the story as Tryon builds his world at a languid pace. Its inhabitants practice the “old ways.” Their whole deal is corn and pagan fertility rites. Conveniently, Mrs. Ned Constantine would like to have another baby yesterday. The cult embraces the agnostic newcomers after Beth and Ned concur it would be best to adopt a When in Rome attitude and attend Sunday church services and local events. Widow Fortune, the town matriarch and homeopathic healer, deftly walks the line between friend and foe during her time spent with Ned. Hallucinogenic drinks are passed around freely during festivals and rituals to lower inhibitions. Ned is perpetually repulsed by and curious about the inbred child prophet, Missy Penrose, who foresees doom in his future. Equally intriguing to him is Missy’s mother, Tamar. He abhors every fiber of her being yet he always finds himself in her way. Their charged interactions leave him woefully self righteous and sexually barbaric. Only Ned and Beth view Tamar negatively whereas the townspeople generally like and respect her. Ned is eventually unable to control himself and he violently rapes Tamar during his psychosis. After all the horrifying revelations and impulsive reactions, he could have just stayed home and minded his own business during the Harvest Home ritual, but Ned was never destined for a happy ending.
Beth and Kate are indoctrinated into the cult while Ned preoccupies himself with the years ago death of a mysterious young woman who absolutely did not commit suicide. Opinions vary on the misfortune. Our tragic hero likes to live up to his namesake, Constantine the Great, and sincerely believes he’s acting out in righteous indignation. Widow Fortune grows tired of him after offering multiple chances to back off. Much like the cult did with Dani in Midsommar, the Coombe fully embraces the Constantine women. Beth and Kate are thriving here and, yet… Beth is missing something. She wants a second opportunity at motherhood and she grows increasingly resentful it’s not happening. There is a wild scene between Beth and Ned where she slaps her abdomen and demands to have a baby grow inside her. Another unintentionally funny scene is when Ned finds out he’s impotent within what is maybe 15 minutes. Is this real? I haven’t resorted to Google to find out. Anyway, this poor guy, with all the privilege in the world, can’t catch a break. We don’t feel sorry for him for too long because this is when he takes it all out on Eva Green Tamar Penrose. There is no grey area for what he did to her within the woods and even Beth knows it.
I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys pagan folk horror. I’m glad I found it. While it drags in spots, there were more times I had difficulty putting it down. The affected way the locals speak and how Ned and his family converse felt hokey at times. Quite a few things have not aged well in this. I cast Ned as a self involved Nice Guy who got what he deserved. I had difficulty feeling empathy for him because he had every opportunity to not be the worst to his family and the townspeople. He felt entitled to the women in his life and was aloof to his own toxic behavior. The ending was similar to Midsommar in that what Beth does performs a sort of catharsis for me. She and her daughter more or less serve as accessories in Ned’s narrative until they’re no longer on his team. Why try counseling when you can uproot your entire life after traumatic experiences you never healed from? I’ll leave you with Stephen King’s thoughtful observation from 1976.
“Harvest Home, by Thomas Tryon. It isn’t a great book, nor a great horror novel, not even a great suspense novel. My own editor at Doubleday once told me that his fingers itched to get at it and cut out the deadwood; my guess is that Tryon’s editor at Knopf experienced a similar itch in his own extremities and was rebuffed by Tryon. Rightly so, maybe. Never mind the best seller list. Mind this, instead: Sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, it is a true book; it is an honest book in the sense that it says exactly what Tryon wanted to say. And if what he wanted to say wasn’t exactly Miltonian, it does have this going for it: in forty years, when most of us are underground, there will still be a routine rebinding once a year for the library copies of “Harvest Home,” and, I hope, for “’Salem’s Lot.”