Invisible Ink: No 71 - One-hit wonders

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The Independent Culture

Beware the book that bears the legend "Soon to Be a Major Film", for the film won't be made and the book is bound to vanish. Such was the fate of The Auctioneer by Joan Samson, a novel that took America by storm and became a best-seller. Hollywood came calling, and then – nothing. Samson completed only this one novel in her lifetime, although she was working on a second at the time of her death.

The Auctioneer uses a popular trope in US literature: the dark stranger who arrives in town and causes havoc. Perly Dunsmore is a charismatic auctioneer who arrives with a request for donations to support the police, and, as his power grows, the townspeople soon find themselves surrendering a lot more than their rusty tools and furniture. The tale is a fable about the spiralling effect of power, and has recently been published in a new edition.

Charles Maclean writes one novel every decade, and his astonishing metaphysical page-turner The Watcher was optioned in the early 1980s by, if memory serves, none other than Paul Newman, who planned to film it. It seems likely that he never managed to crack the on-screen presentation of the first scene, in which the nice, ordinary hero, Martin Gregory, takes an electric carving knife to his dogs. Gregory has no idea why he should commit this bizarre atrocity, and psychiatric scrutiny reveals his action to be the outward result of a much greater ongoing war involving past lives. Stephen King was influenced by the book enough to write a homage, Needful Things.

A happier fate befell another one-off, Burnt Offerings by Robert Marasco, a classic haunted-house thriller in which the supernatural is used to explore the pressures of modern life. A seemingly perfect family comes apart at the seams after moving to a beautiful white clapboard house. Father attacks son, wife grows distrustful, mother ages from feistiness to senility, and, as their misery compounds, the house flourishes. This one made it to the screen with the unlikely acting combination of Bette Davis and Oliver Reed.

One-hit wonders are more trouble to publishers than they're worth; create a readership for the book and the readers may have nowhere else to go. The twisting psychological thriller Blood Secrets by Craig Jones played like a non-supernatural Rosemary's Baby and was championed by John Irving. Hollywood came calling. By now you know the rest.