The Pequod Review:
There is a quiet sense of menace and apprehension that pervades Joan Samson’s excellent horror novel The Auctioneer. The book is set in the small town of Harlowe, New Hampshire and centers on an extended family of four (John and Mim Moore, their young daughter Hildie, and John’s mother Ma) who have been longtime residents of Harlowe. Like many regions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Harlowe is experiencing an increase in crime and other disruptions to its small-town way of life — much of it caused by an influx of big city vacationers to the area. So when the Moores are approached by a charismatic auctioneer (Perly Dunsmore) who is working with the city to raise funds for the local police department, they happily offer a few household objects to be sold. Unfortunately, that turns out to be only the beginning of Perly’s demands.
Samson’s extraordinary book is full of tight descriptive prose and sustained narrative tension. This is partly achieved by Perly’s distance; we generally learn about him through other characters (rather than from Perly himself) and we see how the town’s residents balance their desire to help with growing questions about Perly’s agenda. And over time, the book becomes an allegory about authoritarianism more generally, and especially the way demagogues promise a better life in the future as long as their subjects continue to make sacrifices today. As Perly puts it in a speech:
Until you’ve taken up an ax and bent your back to marking the wilderness with your own name and labor, you don’t know what it feels like to be a man. And you don’t begin to understand what made America great. We have out here in the country a quality of life, something that money can’t buy, something more important than a new automobile or a new TV or something you’re trying to get for your house. Something we call freedom. We call it opportunity. And it’s a spirit we’ve had from the beginning.
Perly’s manipulative charm leads the Moores and other families to acquiesce, and we start to realize how dictators can come to power. As Perly says in an especially chilling moment, “Just remember this. Whatever I’ve done, you’ve let me do.”