About three years ago, I started on a re-read kick, revisiting a lot of the horror novels I had enjoyed when I was younger. It was a fun project, as I saw a lot more in the stories than I had seen when I had read them before, either in high school or college. In some cases, the more that I saw made the stories better (Ghost Story); in some cases, they didn't (It). And in at least one case -- Thomas Tryon's The Other -- I was reminded of what good horror really was.
The thing is, The Other wasn't my first experience with Tryon; I had read Harvest Home years before, and loved it. I don't know why I didn't make it a part of my re-read project, but when I was finished with the Charles Grant ebooks, I told myself I would keep reading horror ebooks, and downloaded a copy. And man-oh-man, was it as good as I remember it.
The book is set in 1972, which gives the book an anachronistic feel, but the story could easily be set in 2015 and not have to change too much. Cornwall Coombe is a town rooted in tradition, similar to the Amish and the Mennonites, so anything modern is shunned. There's no mention of the Internet or cell phones, but there wouldn't be today, either, since the presence of a tractor is enough to get them riled up; these are people who still make their own soap, after all. Touches of modernity are peppered throughout the book, as cars, sewing machines, and telephones all make appearances, but these appear to exist just as a way to remind you you're reading a story that's supposed to be in the modern day. It serves to reflect the horror that a modern person -- Ned Constantine, the main character who moved his family to Cornwall Coombe from New York City -- would have toward ritual and custom.
Like The Other, Harvest Home isn't a horror novel with ghosts and ghoulies; instead, it's a story of human horror, of seeing how far people will go to maintain their lives. It flips back and forth from normalcy to oddity as Ned and his family try to settle into the quaint culture of their village, leaving them and the reader feeling unsettled through most of the events in the novel.
Tryon uses some wonderful imagery and symbolism throughout the novel. The biggest one, the harvest being a symbol for life and procreation, is obvious, but he also has smaller touches, like the use of a small yellow bird that nests near the Constantines' bedroom window. It lives there throughout their time there, through the spring and summer as the family adjusts to their new home, but as soon as the family finally divides, with Ned on one side and his wife and daughter on the other, fall has begun, and the bird flies off.
Tryon also creates his characters in such a way to help determine how they will adapt to Cornwall Coombe, instead of just having them become the parts they need to be for the story. Ned is a modern man looking to escape the big city for a simpler life, though he's not willing to give up his conveniences; Beth, his wife, was raised by a strict, religious father, and is looking for self-reliance and assertiveness; Kate, their daughter, is thirteen, precocious, and suffers from psychosomatic asthma that developed due to her parents fighting, so is easily impressionable. Each of them react to life in Cornwall Coombe as one would expect for people with their personalities. In the end, Ned becomes isolated from the village, and Tryon doesn't shy away from showing us what that means.
I'm a little unsure whether the book portrays women in a positive light. In the story, women have power, but they also appear to be the villains in the story. The Widow Fortune is the matron of the village, and she uses her position to maintain the tradition and its secrets among the women who live there. Ned, our protagonist, isn't a stereotypical male, but it's hard to tell if he's pursuing answers because he's in the midst of things that are out his control, or because he feels like he's being emasculated. He winds up being responsible for his own fate, in a way, because he's driven to discover the secrets of the village, even at the cost of his own family, but the reasons for why he's driven to do that is a little unclear.
In reading other reviews of this novel, I found folks comparing it to stories like The Wicker Man or "Children of the Corn," but this story actually came before (or at the same time as) either of those other ones. Like The Other, this is a fine example of atmospheric horror, where the events and the situations command the emotion, instead of graphic depictions of horrible events. But horrible things do happen. They're just presented in a less graphic way.