The Hunting Season by John Coyne. Originally published by Macmillan Books, January 1987. Approx. 245 pages.
Originally released in 1987, The Hunting Season is a horror novel by blog favorite John Coyne which focuses on what I believe to be one of the more fertile horror sub-genres - inbred backwoods maniacs (see Deliverance, The Hills Have Eyes, Jack Ketchum's Offseason, its sequels, and more). It centers on a young woman named April Benard; widowed at the opening of the novel, now remarried and looking to turn a house in the Catskills into a base of operations for a career-defining anthropological study.
After losing her husband in a horrific car accident, and with a newborn son depending on her, April needs to find a way to take charge of her life. Four years later, it looks like all of her ducks are finally in a row: she is newly married to a powerful lawyer, her career as an anthropology teacher is thriving, and best of all, she has her sights set on a career-advancing opportunity.
In her anthropological studies, April has learned of an insular society located in Upstate New York's Catskills Mountains; a community of inbreds that have been, for lack of a better term, "recycling" their genetic stock via consanguineous breeding for a term dating back to the late 1700's, when Dutch settlers first began mixing with the indigenous Indians of the area. Little to no extensive research has been done on this group, colloquially referred to as "Pumpkinheads" due to their bizarre appearances; deformities spurred by debilitating cacogenic reproductive practices. Her desire is to research, interview, and study these people; and eventually get her findings published.
As luck would have it, near this pocket of freakish folk is a region popular with NYC residents for buying summer homes, antiquing, and enjoying the country life outside of the concrete jungle. When an attractive property appears on the market, April persuades her husband Marshall to buy it, and she prepares a summer of intensive research.
Of course, soon after they move in, things do not go as smoothly as possible. Part of the plan included family bonding time, but Marshall finds himself pulled away and tied up in court cases, leaving April alone in an unfamiliar area, and contending not only with her own son, but with Marshall's teen daughter, who has thus far been resistant to accepting her new stepmother.
Then there is also the issue of the on-premises caretaker, Luke Grange. A by-product of the local incestuous stock who has evaded the myriad deformities of his peers, he possesses model looks, an insightful mind, and a moral obligation to his "people". His intentions seem good, but straightforward, honest answers are not always forthcoming from him. He is also filling April's son Timmy's head with frightening legends and local lore, making him believe that he is seeing monsters scampering around on the property at night.
Or, are those actually really there?
Worst of all, Luke's presence is cultivating some considerable sexual tension; not only with April, but pointedly with Marshall's daughter Greta. 14 is old enough to get married among Luke's people. What are his actual intentions in regards to her? Luke already enjoys infamy among the NYC vacationers, who casually indulge in some hedonism while in their summer retreats.
And, there are the pumpkin-heads. They turn out to be more horrifying in appearance than even April had imagined, and there is a palpable sense of danger regarding some of them.
As the summer progresses, the relationship between Marshall and April becomes increasingly strained, exacerbated by his frequent absences. Unable to connect fully with her fellow City vacationers, and growing more and more frightened of the pumpkin-heads, April begins to feel trapped in what was supposed to be her dream home.
But, just when you think that things can't get any worse, they do. Just as it seems April cannot feel more unsafe in her new home, a spate of brutal killings begins. Will April even be able to escape with her children?
I will mention now that there may be some SPOILERS coming. Nothing more than is mentioned on the blurbs and praises on the edition I read, but I just want to be forthcoming. That being said, let's talk about what works in The Hunting Season.
In an era when many a spinner rack was filled to bursting with horror paperbacks, Coyne earned his acclaim due to being, simply put, a good author. This is one reason why he has been so adept at writing across many different genres. And, he brings these skills to bear in The Hunting Season. While part of the climax seems somewhat incongruous to the rest of the narrative (more on that later), the rest of the novel works due to the strengths of people, place, and themes.
People: John Coyne's characters are memorable and enjoyable not for being strong, or "good", but for being well-rounded, actual human beings. His lead, April, is a good person, but like all real people, she is flawed. She makes mistakes, she is presumptuous at times, she compromises her morality, she is petulant and spiteful at times, in addition to being a strong, loving, career-minded woman/wife/mother.
The entire supporting cast is populated with an solid mix of well-rounded characters as well.
Place: All the times that I read Hobgoblin growing up, it always struck me how rich the Upstate locales seemed. It wasn't until I actually moved to Upstate New York that I realized how authentic the descriptions were. This is in play here, as well. The scenes in NYC ring with such an authenticity it is like I was seeing the City of my youth over the span of a few pages. It is not just about name-dropping a few street and store names. It is about capturing the legitimate, tentative trepidation that a young woman in the City in the 80's would feel before going on the subway. It is not just about knowing to stop at Zabar's on the weekend, but that to get the best bike, you needed to head up to the East Side.
The scenes in the Catskills are richly and beautifully rendered as well, with strong attention paid to the local flora and fauna. Coyne writes with an observer's eye put to fluid prose.
Themes: There are some interesting themes abound in The Hunting Season, and Coyne does his fans a great service by not ramming them down our throats. But they are always lurking uncomfortably, just out of sight. One central theme that runs throughout is the difference in class structure. There is a certain, mutually parasitic arrangement between vacationers and the locals in vacation areas. This is normal, and universal. But it is a little more glaring in this New York community. As Coyne mentions in the book, these areas were already declining, with the industries that defined them leaving them. I live in one of these areas now, and it is not a pretty sight. So, perhaps it is a bit egotistical for out-of-area benefactors to come in and expect to be regarded as "better" simply because they have the advantage of disposable income. To be fair, however, the locals can be equally haughty in believing that they have should be respected simply for having the birthright in the area. This comes to the fore in one scene that takes place at an estate auction; while the city folk look down their noses at the "local yokels", the area people turn up their noses at flighty city folk treating their local treasures as novelties. The smartest man in the whole place finally observes that he can use their (the city vacationers) money to get a new pickup truck, and better his life. Again, the themes aren't hammered home; they play out at their own speed, because they are necessary, and because they occur. The moral of the story is that just because two kinds of people can find themselves in the same vicinity, exchanging goods and moneys, it doesn't mean that they like each other.
Finally, we need to mention the fear factor aspect of this horror novel. I'll admit, it is hard to cobble together a visual representation of the pumpkin-heads from the cues that Coyne gives us; they truly are a frightening amalgamation of stunted odds and ends. To be honest, I took some inspiration from the locals around me; I swear that there is some hint of the same kind of inbreeding going on in these parts. A common local trait is a big, round head (like a pumpkin), with very close-set, circular eyes, and a pointy, beak nose. I just reverse engineered this, made them darker (for the Indian admixture), wrinklier, and more stunted in the limbs department, and, voila! Good old fashioned nightmare fuel.
And it is the best, and most frightening, scenes in the story that see these people skulking around. That's the allure of this niche genre, right? Monsters among us.
I can see some people having an issue with the climax of the book, however. Coyne kicks the happenings into overdrive with the initiation of the killing spree (again, not really a spoiler, it's mentioned on the jacket). Perhaps it's because "slasher" isn't really my thing. Don't get me wrong; the violence, as always, is beautifully written. Coyne does not simply paint the walls red arbitrarily. He stages horrific acts of violence with a poetic grace. And when those horrid pumpkin-heads are involved in the killing, the book really feels like a horror tome again.
So there you have it. The Hunting Season is a solid horror title, filled with fully fleshed-out characters, realistic scenery, tense, scary moments, and some jarring violence. The finale might have fit better in a story that was a dedicated stalker/slasher title from start to finish, but it still makes for a blood-soaked climax.
Pretty standard fare. A glimpse of the Benard farmhouse as seen from the woods. There is an odd, ghostly head floating above the residence, and two pudgy looking figures ambling towards it. It doesn't really convey terror. A glimpse of a sinister pumpkin-head skulking in the trees would have helped immensely. And I can't really figure out the point of the stylizing on the "S" in Season. It's more distracting than enriching.
Cover Final Score: