Will Errickson Dissects The Quiet Horror Found Within Joan Samson’s “The Auctioneer”
About the Interviewee: Will Errickson has been an avid fan of horror since his 1970s childhood in southern New Jersey. He discovered King, Barker, Lovecraft, Campbell, et. al., during the heyday of the 1980s horror paperback boom. Working in a used bookstore after high school exposed him to more writers and novels, and his love of collecting vintage paperbacks was born. He studied film at North Carolina State University and currently lives in Portland, Oregon, with his girlfriend and of course hundreds upon hundreds of horror fiction paperbacks, a scant few of which you can see at the end of our interview. His reviews of vintage horror paperbacks can be found at Too Much Horror Fiction, a Bookshelf Beats favorite.
Gino: Which Auctioneer cover resonates with you the most? I am partial to the hardcover version, but also enjoy the paperback cover with the title in distinct red letters.
Will: My favorite is easily the Avon paperback from 1977; it has a sturdiness that reminded me of the paperbacks of the same era such as The Other and Watership Down, implying to me that it would be a good story well-told. The page edges are dyed red — I still don’t know why publishers used to do that — and my copy has that wonderful old used-book smell. I don’t think there was ever another paperback edition besides the ’77 edition. It uses the same cover art as the hardcover, which I always liked, but the snowy lonesome road to the Moore farm is extended and the cold grey sky hovers over everything. I find it very somber, dramatic, and foreboding: a perfect fit for the story within.
Gino: How many different editions of the book do you own?
Will: I only own this one paperback edition, which I found only a week or so after I first heard of the book. Years ago I used to collect various editions of books I liked, but I only do that today with authors I like whose old paperbacks are becoming more and more rare, like Kathe Koja and Michael McDowell. It cost me 50 cents at a library book sale. Speaking of the first time I heard of The Auctioneer, it was during an online discussion about Thomas Tryon’s The Other and someone mentioned it as a kind of forgotten “quiet horror” from the ‘70s. So immediately I thought, “I must have this book!”
Gino: What is it about quiet horror that sometimes frightens us more than visceral, violent books?
Will: Subtle, quiet horror insinuates, and implies no end in sight for the emotions it engenders. It’s like a state of being. That feeling of anxiety and unease lingers long after the wounds of violence have healed.
Gino: When I read the book, it almost felt like the villainous auctioneer Dunsmore had some kind of special evil powers that were beyond human. Bob Gore, the sheriff of the fictional town of Harlowe, says of him, “Perly ain’t ordinary. Fact, there’s a man could do any damn thing he set his mind to.” Do you think JoanSamson’s decision to keep Dunsmore off-stage for much of the book, something you talk about in your review, adds to the reader’s sense that there is something unusual or superhuman about him?
Will: The fact that Dunsmore is kept “off-stage,” as it were, for much of the novel is maybe its greatest success. Samson does it masterfully, building suspense about this unseen character everyone is talking about. Now, I don’t think Dunsmore is a supernatural agent. He doesn’t need to be. He need only be a quick study of human foibles to exploit it. It really is a shame Samson died after this one book of hers was published. It’s so confident and so well-paced, who knows how many more terrific books she would have written. Her conviction in her tale carries the reader along.
Gino: The blog Mika Reads Horror Fiction proposes that Dunsmore could be the devil. What do you think of this interpretation?
Will: Mika’s review is really perceptive, but it seems to me that’s an offhand remark he’s making about the devil. What’s more important is that he notes how Samson wisely tells her story in a way that readers can perhaps put their own meaning into. Is Dunsmore literally the devil? Who knows? If so, I think the story loses power. So I’d say no. It works as an allegory but it also works as a tale you take at face value. Mika describes it as having shades of Kafka and Shirley Jackson, which is apt. I also like Grady Hendrix’s take from his review: “If Cormac McCarthy had written Needful Things, you’d get The Auctioneer.”
Gino: How many times have you read the book and how have your feelings about the story changed since your initial reading in 2010?
Will: I’ve read The Auctioneer exactly once, but just reread some passages for this interview. I can’t believe it’s been five years! I recall really, really being into the novel in a way I usually am not invested in paperback horror because so much of it lacks that ability to sweep you up into a powerful drama. To this day I’d put it in the top rank of the best novels I’ve read for Too Much Horror Fiction. But I don’t have time anymore to reread novels since I started my blog, unless it was a novel I read back in the day, like over 20 years ago, to see how it holds up and how I’ve changed as a reader. I’m constantly moving forward and reading, well, too much horror fiction!
Gino: Michael Berry of the blog Cheaper Ironies said of the book, “I originally read The Auctioneer as a high school junior and didn’t see anything scary in it at all. Then I re-read it near the end of George W. Bush’s seemingly never-ending second term and thought, ‘Oh, yeah. Now I get it.’” Do you think The Auctioneer needs to be compared to a real world parallel, such as George W. Bush, in order for it to have maximum effect. Or is it effective enough on its own?
Will: I took The Auctioneer as being somewhat about how people’s reluctance to stand up for themselves, to fear not being polite or being thought of as rude or difficult, to refuse someone, and their desire to go along with the status quo even when it’s harmful, can be their downfall. That’s scary. We let society’s norms dictate life to us, and we suffer for it. But we don’t want to be rude and be the person who doesn’t go along to get along, so we keep our mouths shut. Dunsmore perfectly exploits this tendency in people. People will give to his auctions because it’s rude not to, even when they’re giving away pieces of themselves. You’ll be punished for asserting yourself, as the people in Harlowe are who stop giving things to the auction. Are you now not partaking in your own doom? Damned if you do, etc., you know. It’s an ugly, uncomfortable notion, but that’s what’s frightening about the novel to me.
Gino: You mention a comparison to Thomas Tyron’s The Other. For fans of The Auctioneer, do you have a list of other titles that evoke the same emotions from the reader? I’ve seen people compare the book to King’s Needful Things, which you mentioned when talking about Grady Hendrix’s review.
Will: I haven’t read Needful Things, but but I’m sure King is aware of Samson’s book. If a reader is looking for a novel with a similar vibe to it, that might be tricky. Some of Shirley Jackson’s work has that quietly creeping sense of growing menace and dis-ease, such as The Sundial or We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Another title from the same era with that element of people getting themselves in over their heads because of a reluctance to seem rude or unseemly or ungracious is Herbert Lieberman’s Crawlspace. It also has a rural setting. Of course there’s Tryon’s Harvest Home too, which was a slow burn and had a rural setting.
Gino: At the risk of having a possible spoiler, do you have a favorite scene from the book?
Will: I don’t have a favorite scene per se because what resonated most with me was the careful unfolding of events, a clockwork of fate, inevitable and sure, sensed in Samson’s tone in even the first few pages.
Gino: What character in the book did you most relate to?
Will: When I read fiction I don’t necessarily look to relate to characters, but I suppose the reader feels the same dismay, frustration, and bewilderment as the mother and father of the Moore family.
Gino: Mika’s review also spoke to the helplessness of the Moore family. He saw it as a weakness of the novel. I found myself relating to John Moore’s reactions to Dunsmore’s ever-increasing demands so much it terrified me. Do you think the helplessness of the Moore family was a strength or weakness of the book?
Will: I think a strength of the novel is that everything follows so logically you can’t see a way out of the danger. It all makes a rational kind of sense, so no one is able to escape, nor is one aware of any. It’s not as simple as the “Don’t go down to the basement!” or “Don’t go in the woods at night!” thing you usually see in horror. Dunsmore flatters the townspeople, so of course they do what he wants. Why, it’s only neighborly!
Gino: There was talk of turning the book into a movie and apparently the idea fell through when Samson passed away. Do you think it could work as a modern horror film or is it best left as a book?
Will: In my head I can see The Auctioneer as a late ‘70s TV-movie in two parts! I don’t know if it’d work as a “modern” horror film, but who knows. Its down-home vibe and cast of familiar characters, ideally played by familiar character actors, would have been a perfect fit for network TV of that era.
Gino: I know you are partial to paperback books, but would you like to see an e-book and audiobook version of The Auctioneer released so that it would have a chance of being rediscovered by a wider audience?
Will: I would love to see and hear about more people reading and enjoying The Auctioneer by whatever means!