The Dark Secret of Harvest Home
Telefilm adapted from the novel Harvest Home,
written by Thomas Tryon
First aired January 23, 1978
review by Leta Learn
Bette Davis as The Widow Fortune—a role Ms. Davis coveted from the minute she read the book.
David Ackroyd as Theodore “Ned” Constantine—Ned searches for the truth with a growing sense that something is very wrong in Cornwall Coombe. (For the film, Ned’s name is changed to Nick)
René Auberjonois as Jack Stump—Jack’s tale is an integral part of the story.
A Superb Masterpiece of Horror That Deserves To Be Remembered!
A sampling of fan reviews:
A delicious, fascinating, well-acted and multi-textured “gothic horror” extravaganza.
Like all exceptional movies this one does not have one lame or wasted moment.
If there was ever a movie that deserved and needed to be released on DVD uncut, this is the one.
One of the best made for TV horror films of all time. The impact lasts forever.
Disillusioned with acting, Thomas Tryon retired from the profession in 1969 and began writing successful horror and mystery novels. Harvest Home is the title of his 1973 novel, a New York Times bestseller. The book became an NBC mini-series (telefilm) in 1978 and was nominated for two daytime Emmy’s. The mini-series is quite faithful to the book. Text from the book is used because the delineation of the central characters complex personalities and peculiarities are as important as the creeping, hidden horror that’s embedded in the lifestyle of the community. The intense and unusually convincing character study builds toward a shocking revelation. These secrets are as deep and dark as secrets get. Unfortunately, when the film was preserved on VHS, 200 minutes were omitted, but the five-hour miniseries has sometimes been shown in its entirety late at night on the sci-fi channel.
“Jack’s heart’s in the right place but his tongue’s an affliction.”
—The Widow Fortune
You are most welcome to make a brief visit to Cornwall Coombe, but be quick and be quiet. Above all, don’t become too curious. The villagers don’t take kindly to interference from outsiders. The ancient village of Cornwall Coombe, no more than a hamlet, lies nestled among some low hills in a geographically isolated section of New England. Its roads seem hardly traveled except for an occasional truck or farm wagon. There’s a sense of peace that speaks from every doorway, speaks of solidity and agelessness, of the passersby themselves, simple country people with simple country faces. There is a rigid, disciplined effort to preserve things as they were—even, perhaps, a reluctance to acknowledge things as they are. In a day of modern technology and machinery, the local farmers still continue to use a horse and plow because they don’t believe in tractors.
The villagers celebrate a number of festivals that revolve around the cultivation of corn and you’ve arrived during a late summer festival known as Agnes Fair. Here’s newcomer Ned Constantine, a would-be artist, and his nervous wife, Beth, along with their chronically ill daughter, Kate. They recently took flight from New York City and settled here in the Coombe after falling in love with a three-hundred-year old house that needed renovating. The house seemed to beckon them, saying, “Come.” An uninhabited wreck they bought and spent the summer restoring. A house in the country. The great back-to-the-land movement. City mouse into country mouse.
Ned was struck by the beauty of Cornwall Coombe from the first moment he laid eyes on it in the spring. It was one of those days a happy man records for his mental posterity. It was unlike anything you could imagine would exist in this day and age. Ned loved the feel of the place: the tranquil bucolic look and the sense of veneration for that which had gone before. Perhaps it was the spare, immaculate houses with their lawns just coming green, the plots of winter-tended gardens, the bright becoming window-gleam, the spruce paint on the clapboards and shutters, the lofty trees whose bare branches arched over the road. At that moment, Ned experienced an emotion he could not describe, a vague stirring inside himself, some fugitive longing, a desire to stop the car, get out, and feel his feet upon the earth, to be among these farm people planting seeds that would grow. This is what Ned and his wife were trying to express to each other. This was the reality of the dream.
Ned is counting on this move to put their past marital difficulties behind them and provide a healthier upbringing for Kate’s life-threatening asthma which, in part, is a psychosomatic reaction to those marital troubles. It was, the doctor said, Kate’s unconscious way of getting even with them. Ned and his wife offered themselves the pretense that all was well and hoped they were right.
Ned is fascinated by the eccentricities of life in Cornwall Coombe and the stubborn adherence to what they call “the old way”, though at times he worries, “Were we crazy, burying ourselves in a one-horse town where people still believed what was good enough for their fathers was good enough for them? How could they talk to me of painting, or I to them of corn?”
All the locals are here at Agnes Fair. For example, the Constantine’s kindly neighbor, Maggie, and her blind husband Professor George Dodd, who spends his days sitting by an open window listening to recordings of classical books on his talking book machine. George tried to caution, tried to warn Ned in his own way that first day. He said people often ignored the fact that life a hundred years ago was not easy. Time puts a patina of affection on yesteryear, and we tend to forget how appalling existence could be in those times, how long a man had to labor for his food, how difficult childbearing was, how few medicines and conveniences there were, how stern the realities of life. Ned thinks there is a hint of something in the Professor’s tone, but replies that he and Beth are prepared for anything, prepared to adapt.
Over there is the handsome blonde farmer, Justin Hooke, the Harvest Lord, a male symbol of the community. The whole village pitches in to give his fields special care. At the end of the growing season is the celebration of Harvest Home. The reigning Harvest Lord with his chosen Corn Maiden performs the ancient ritual that assures the fertility of the fields. Harvest Home is when the last of the corn comes in, when the harvesting’s done and folks can relax and count their blessings. A time of joy and celebration. Eat, drink, and be merry. You can’t have folks carousing while there’s corn to be gathered, so it must wait till the work’s done. It means success and thanks and all good things. And this year’s the seventh year.
Walking around is Tamar, the local sex fiend, and her unusual daughter Missy Penrose, regarded by the village as an oracle. Missy has just chosen teenager Worthy Pettinger to be the “Young Lord” who will succeed Justin as Harvest Lord when Justin’s seven-year term ends later this year. Worthy owns a tractor and has his heart set on agriculture school. Worthy keeps this to himself because sedition is not tolerated in the Coombe. Overseeing all the festivities is the Widow Fortune, local midwife, expert in herbal cures, maker of fine traditional quilts and unique scarecrows. The Widow Mary Fortune is the honored elder of the secret Corn Mother ceremonies, attended only by women—“What no man may know nor woman tell.”
“For all the peddler’s scruffiness and talky ways, I liked him — even if he couldn’t write his name.”
Jack Stump is an itinerant door-to-door peddler who regularly comes bouncing his cart up to the kitchen doors trying to soft-soap the ladies into buying the latest cooking gadget or housewife’s convenience. Like the Constantines, Jack’s a newcomer here in the Coombe. He’s become a familiar sight along the thoroughfares and byways of the village. His improbable-looking rig is little more than a pieced-together relic of a cart constructed atop the parts of an ancient bicycle. Astride a shiny, cracked leather seat and flying a small tattered American flag on one of the handlebars, he drives the cart ringing a cowbell or squeezing the rubber bulb of a brass horn to announce his comings and goings; these and the continual rattle and clang of the tin pans, kettles, and skillets strung above him on lines make a mobile pandemonium that alerts the countryside of his continual progress. And where he comes and goes Jack Stump talks. “Jabberwocky,” the Widow calls it.
Jack is a scruffy old fellow, all head and torso, with hardly any underpinnings to speak of. He wants shaving, his teeth seem nonexistent, and his hair sticks out under his ruined fedora like scarecrow’s straw. Jack is scrupulously dirty, as if he works at maintaining the traditional image of the disreputable hobo. Regardless of the temperature he wears layers of tattered clothing. Where a button fails a pin will do as well. Jack wheels his peddler’s rig onto the grass with a cacophony of tinware, springs from the seat, and hops about, dropping the canvas tatters that pass for awnings on his cart and lowering the panels to display his wares. Jack produces a scratched and battered fiddle from one of the compartments and saws away on the instrument to attract attention. Setting up his pop-bottle box and stepping on it, Jack begins banging a kitchen spoon against the row of kettles and offers jovial nods right and left as he doffs his hat. Snatching open a drawer on his rig, he flashes a bright chrome gadget. In his wake comes an excited group of women. “Whatcha say, ladies,” Jack greets them, “lookee here what I got for you, the finest little kitchen helper in the world, garnteed to do twelve—count ‘em, twelve—diff’rent household jobs, and all for the price of sixty-nine cents, a fair price which goes with the day.”
After Jack’s audience thins appreciably, Ned steps over to the corner of Jack’s cart just as old man Soakes comes striding up. The Soakes are tobacco farmers. “Soakeses” the Widow comments in a sour tone, as though identifying the men by name was sufficient to sum up their entire and particular natures. Old man Soakes, an angry, bristly man, and his reprehensible lot of five sons guard Soakes Lonesome, the woods surrounding the Coombe. Soakes Lonesome’s history was full of blood and havoc, for which the Cornish people had long been known. The Soakes clan are generally regarded by the village as a fierce and savage tribe of “tobacco scut” but moonshine’s where they made their money. Soakes grasps Jack by the coat lapels, whisks him around to the back of the cart, and speaks in a rough, angry voice. “I wasn’t doin’ nothin’,” Ned hears Jack protest feebly. “Never mind what you wasn’t doin’,” Soakes replies, “stay out of them woods. You’ve had your warning.” He strides back to his place at the rear of his Oldsmobile while Jack reappears, his fingers shaking as he adjusts his jacket. “Damned grizzly is what he is,” Jack mutters, shooting a look from the corner of his eye. “Them woods ain’t private property, y’ know.” He rubs the stubble on his chin with the back of his hand.
Ned approaches Jack and asks, “What happened to you in the woods this morning, Jack?” Jack looks at Ned closely, as though deciding whether or not to take Ned into his confidence. “As strange a thing as I ever hope to see,” he says after a moment, “And I seen it with these here two eyes, which is as good as they come.” Jack whispers, “I seen a ghost.” Ned steps closer as Jack continues, “A ghost that once was dead, but now’s come alive. A living ghost, as sure as I stand here. And it was screamin’.”
Days later, when Ned again asks Jack what had happened in the woods on the morning of Agnes Fair, Jack launches into a heated jeremiad about the cost of his rabbit traps, the difficulty of setting them. and how it had become a job of warfare finding places to put the traps where the Soakes were not likely to discover them. “I ain’t afraid of no Soakeses, and they ain’t goin’ to keep me out of no woods, neither,” Jack says. He tells Ned, “Lookee, I’m off around my territory circuits for a few weeks. It takes me all through the northern part of the state and even over into New York, but before I go I’m goin’ to have another look.”
Jack sees too much, talks too much, and now his ‘transgressions’ have unknowingly sealed his grisly fate and he will pay dearly next time he sets foot in Soakes Lonesome. Details will not be given of the torture and mutilation that befall Jack for it is not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. Some tragedies are unspeakable and Jack will never speak again.
On a perfect early autumn day, Ned’s only concern was the business of painting that small but particular corner of New England called Cornwall Coombe. It was all bright then, illuminated by the light he saw it with, and the brightness gladdened his painter’s eye. The light in cities was flatter, grayer, less defined. In the country it was quite different, an evocation of all the glowing light he had ever wanted to record, like some rare golden elixir that had been poured over the hills and fields. There were few grays in his tempera palette, but an abundance of yellows and ochres and deep umbers with which he slopped and spattered the gessoed panels he painted on, working in a fury of haste to capture what he was seeing. Ned had thrown aside his job as advertising executive with a large New York firm and was now working as a serious artist, painting in the studio he’d made from the chicken house behind the garage. The studio had turned out fine. The skylight provided good illumination. There were shelves aplenty for Ned’s art books, storage space for paints and brushes, racks for canvases and larger drawing pads. Plaster casts hung on the white walls: a foot, a nose, a giant eye; above these a mask of Danton, guillotined, which Ned had purchased in Paris years ago. Arrangements had been made for a New York gallery to handle his work.
Preparing a gesso board for a new painting and leaving it to dry, he packs his drawing kit and pedals off on his bike. Ten minutes after stopping at the post office he is seated on a box at the corner of the small plot of land where Jack Stump’s bait shack stands. As Ned is sketching, he notices the tattered window shade being drawn to the sill and approaches the shack. He calls out to Jack, “Hey, old timer, it’s me, Ned Constantine.” His only reply is a sort of whimpering sound. Ned enters a small dark room with little more than a dripping faucet over a sink and a disreputable two-burner stove marking it a kitchen. Jack is lying in bed holding the blanket over his head. “Jack—what’s the matter?” As Ned pulls the blanket back, the peddler seems literally to be shaking with fright. His skin feels hot and feverish, and the effort to restrain his tremors brings on greater ones, the shudders racking his frame. Ned draws the covers down farther and kneels. “Are you sick?” Ned asks. Jack closes his eyes and shakes his head. Ned reaches for Jack’s wrist to feel his pulse. Instinctively, Jack snatches his arm away, revealing his face. “Oh, no. Oh, no.” Ned stares in horror. “Jack, what’s happened to you?” Even in the dim light, Ned sees the pitiful wound that passes for a mouth, the scars not fully healed. Jack huddles against the wall in fear and Ned assures Jack that he isn’t going to harm him. Clearly Jack is terrified of something. The Widow arrives and attempts to diffuse the situation a bit by telling Ned all that was being done that could be managed. The village ladies are taking turns nursing Jack. There is a continual passage of village women coming at all hours with their baskets of food, and almost without fail every day at five the Widow Fortune arrives in her buggy to tend to the results of the Soakes’s violence. The ladies make him broths, wash Jack’s clothes and linens, keep him clean and shaven, and otherwise do whatever is required to revive him. It is the Widow’s object to put him back on his cart by spring, a purpose she goes about with diligence and dispatch. She brews him tea, the One-B Weber and administers salve to his mouth and the half-inch apart top and bottom scabbed-over scars on his lips. Funds have been solicited from the church parishioners to keep him in necessaries through the fall and winter.
“Oh, I like Jack Stump. He’s independent. Folks have to be independent
— gives ‘em character.”
I like Jack too. I grew up in a town that had a traveling vender and was delighted to see Jack Stump’s ostentatious character and garrulous dialogue brought to life against such a unique backstory. René’s performance as the benighted Jack Stump is a seamless blend of art and entertainment as he captures the real essence of a flim-flam man. It is never made clear whether or not Jack survives the winter except for this reference, from the very last time Ned visits Jack and finds him seated beside the cold fireplace.
“It’s cold in here Jack. Why don’t I poke up a fire and make some tea?” Ned brews tea and fills the cup. Jack sips and, finding it unpalatable, pushes the cup away. Leaning back against the chair, Jack immediately falls asleep. Ned carries Jack, blanket and all, to the cot. Jack’s body seemed to weigh scarcely anything, and when he laid Jack down, Ned had the sudden premonition that spring would never see him back on his rig again.
Ned has his own problems. He cannot let go of his curiosity and may not survive the attempt to uncover the truth. What is the truth about Grace Everdeen’s death? How was Robert Dodd blinded? Did the Soakes really do such an unconscionable thing to Jack Stump? Ned’s fascination and affection for Cornwall Coombe and its people gradually deteriorates as the truth unfolds and he will ultimately come to hate the villagers—these hayseeds with their stupid dance, their stupid singing, their stupid beliefs. “The old ways”—how he would despise the phrase.
If you find yourself in Cornwell Coombe, you must be quick and you must be quiet. Don’t become too curious about village rituals, especially Harvest Home, “What no man may know nor woman tell.” If you’re discovered, you may find yourself sitting beside an open window, unable to speak, passing your days listening to recordings of classical books on a talking book machine.