OcTerror · Reviews

“You Give In or You Run”: The Auctioneer by Joan Samson

            In Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell, he recommended The Auctioneer as one of the must read books of vintage horror. I’m always a bit wary of books with a lot of hype, but found this one actually delivered on what was promised. I added it to the comps list for my MFA degree; in the lazy heat of the summer of 2019 (an innocent time), I dove into the pages of Samson’s singular masterwork.  

            Harlowe, New Hampshire is a small farming community. One day, a charismatic auctioneer named Perly Dunsmore arrives in town and spins promises of a safer county through donations. Eventually, the town is gradually stripped of their possessions. Among the community are John and Mim Moore, owners of an enviable property that’s been in the family for generations. While they willingly go along with the auctions at first, it isn’t long before they’re running out of items and options when the auctioneer comes a-calling.

            In many ways, The Auctioneer is a book that blends and defies many genres. It is a portrait of its mid-70s rural community and the worries that plague their daily lives. It is a family drama as conflicts between John and Mim, two characters with unaligned wants, come to a head several times. It is a horror story about what an isolated community is willing to sacrifice to maintain their way of life, and how far that exploitation can be taken. The tone is as quiet as an early morning breeze through the crops before burning season comes.

            Some of the strongest aspects here are the characters. The novel switches perspectives between a general point of view and Mim and John’s closer POVs. This is an incredible asset in terms of the storytelling because it allows us to understand both of the characters’ motivations, backgrounds, and thoughts on a deeper level. Then, when these come into conflict, we—as readers—feel more conflicted because we can actually understand both sides. There’s a particular scene about a hundred pages into the book that is such a culmination of suspense, character, and plot. It made me want to throw the book against the wall because I was so frustrated by both of the characters—maybe one a little more than the other—and I was horrified by what had happened. The amazing thing about that scene was it was devoid of any gore, viscera, or death. It was a scene completely built off of two characters interacting and conflicting at a maximum level with consequences.

            Samson builds most of the characters this way, making them seem as real as the neighbors and people you’d drive by in any small town. And, in many aspects, this turns some of the suspense and horror up a notch. How can the people you’ve lived near for years suddenly become your enemies? Basically strangers? Then, how can those same people turn against each other when that mob mentality is pointed in a certain direction? We can see that some aspects of this story have become rather timely within our current political climate.

            The setting is probably one of my favorites because it does have the distinct feel of that upper New England farmland. The kind of place Ray Bradbury might capture in his books, or you might find in the occasional King novel, or that exists in the ye olde imagination of the Puritan. There’s an ongoing commentary about the kind of urbanites who drive from the city just to visit the idyllic pastures and trees and, later, gentrification and suburbs which also feels accurate to our current time period with the cost of living in some cities nowadays. The initial reason for the auctions is to raise money for the police department since crime in Harlowe is on the rise—due to the “city folks”—but with each auction and an increased volunteer police force, crime seems to rise in kind. I mean, Samson really was on it with all of this.

            As for reading this book during the spooky season, I think this fits wonderfully. The setting feels distinctly autumn-y and only grows colder. The isolated community is a bit reminiscent of the way things can feel right now, especially with the lack of the trust, communication, and fear. As far as horror characters go, these are some of the most realistic and rational—including the antagonist—and their decisions feel particularly heartbreaking because of the difficulty they have in making them. The plot and subplots build dread and interest, and keep things going at a good pace.

            It’s too bad Samson wasn’t around beyond The Auctioneer’s publication to deliver more taut and thrilling tales. Not only does her novel invite us to question what we would donate/sacrifice to the auctions (if anything), but how far we would be willing to go to protect what is ours.

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