Ned Constantine, his wife Beth, and their teenaged daughter Kate have just moved from New York to the sleepy little New England hamlet of Cornwall Coombe. It's a place so traditional in its outlook that the villagers look askance on the use of something as basic as a tractor for getting their farming done. And make no mistake, farming and their (only) crop, corn, is something they take VERY seriously in Cornwall Coombe. Their entire year revolves around the planting and harvesting of the corn, with their major festivals which including Planting, Days of Seasoning, Tithing Day, the Corn Play, and the last and most mysterious, Harvest Home.
Even though this novel has what might now be regarded as something of a hackneyed plot (it might have been much more original when the book first came out in 1973, I don't know), Tryon successfully avoids making the characters too stereotypical, I think. One of the major characters of the book is the Widow Fortune, who seems to be a creepy old lady when she first appears in the story, riding around in her horse and buggy, and wearing a little white cap (think Amish style). Then, due to several important and plot-turning events, the reader gradually comes to trust her as a stern but ultimately kind-hearted and beneficent matriarch who watches over the welfare of everyone in the village. Then.... the tables turn again. OK, she IS a creepy old lady who is capable of pretty much anything. She doesn't see herself this way, of course, but she's basically evil.
Bette Davis as the Widow Fortune in the made-for-TV movie version of the book (see below)
Other creepy events and pieces of information find their way into the narrative, gradually adding to the unease the reader keeps trying to push away. The Constantines' next door neighbors are the Dodds -- Maggie and Robert. Robert is blind, and the sound of his "books on tape" (although back in the 1970's it was more like "books on vinyl") floating in from the house next door is an ever-present background to the Constantines' lives. One day Ned helps Robert put in his eyedrops and discovers that Robert is blind because his eyeballs are completely gone. Hmmmm.......
Then there's the mystery of Gracie Everdeen, a villager who is now dead but whose grave is the only one outside the confines of the cemetery, as if she were being shunned even in death. And no one really wants to talk about what happened to her, except that whatever she did brought on the last poor harvest, what the villagers call the "Great Waste." Hmmmmm.........
And how about Missy Penrose, a creepy little girl who serves as the village's oracle, not only doing relatively innocent things like choosing baby names for expectant mothers, but also choosing the young man who will be the "Lord of the Harvest" for the coming seven years? Oh, and she chooses the Lord of the Harvest by dipping her hands in the blood and entrails of a freshly-slaughtered sheep before walking around a circle of the young men and placing her bloody hands on the face of the one she chooses. (Now you just can't tell me that's normal, I don't care who ya are.) Hmmmmm.......
I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. This novel is CREEPY. And an excellent read!
The progression of events in this novel, a kind of slippery slope to the inevitable, is one of the main things that makes it so effective. The reader watches as Ned goes from being enchanted with his new home of Cornwall Coombe, to being irritated at the old-fashioned ways and attitudes of the villagers, to being suspicious of what is actually going on behind the scenes, to the final stage of understanding the lengths to which the villagers will go to preserve their way of life. It's like watching pretty much every horror film ever made, where you are yelling at the characters NOT to look behind that door, NOT to go down into the dark cellar, NOT to go find out what made that weird noise outside -- and secretly hoping that they WILL.
The book was adapted into a TV miniseries movie, "The Dark Secret of Harvest Home," in 1978. The cast included Bette Davis as the Widow Fortune. It's available in parts on YouTube, and I did watch a little bit of it after reading the novel. It's supposed to be relatively faithful to the plot of the book (an increasing rarity these days) but the book has to be much more entertaining. Plus, 1970's TV miniseries -- need I say more?
In short, if you are looking for a scary-ish, spooky, creepy autumnal read, you could do far worse than this book. I highly recommend it!