During the ‘20s, Dutch immigrant Herman Drenth, who used the aliases Cornelius O. Pierson and A. R. Weaver, placed ads in lonelyhearts magazines. With carefully penned letters, he promised an unknown number of middle-aged women financial security and marital happiness. He then emptied their bank accounts and murdered them.
In 1931 he murdered Asta Eicher of Park Ridge, Illinois, and her three children, Hart, Grethe, and Annabel. When the police searched his Quiet Dell, Virginia property, he found the Eicher family in a shallow grave. The body of Dorothy Pressler Lemke, another woman Drenth had corresponded with, lay nearby.
Drenth was arrested, tried, and hanged in March 1932. Six-year-old Jane Thornhill, walking with her mother, passed the garage in Oak Grove where Drenth tortured and hanged the Eicher family. Decades later, she recounted this story to her daughter, novelist Jayne Anne Phillips, who was moved to recreate the Eicher family’s story in Quiet Dell. The results are mixed.
Quiet Dell melds fact with fiction. Doing so requires bravery and a willingness to muddle the truth for narrative purpose. Here, the truth is darkly sickening. If one accepts the idea that the devil walks among us, it’s true here in the personage of Herman Drenth. And Phillips sets herself the task of lighting a world where such a thing walks.
Phillips begins by showing us the Eicher family in their final days. Heinrich Eicher’s unexpected death in a streetcar accident has left Asta Eicher scrambling for funds. She has taken in boarders, but that isn’t enough; a correspondence with civil engineer Cornelius Pierson results in a marriage proposal. Though Asta must sell the family’s fine home, their financial worries will be over.
Of all the Eicher family, the fictionalized Asta is perhaps the least sympathetic. Victorian and rigid in her attitudes, she frets over her daughter, the high-spirited Annabel, while doing her best to domestically train Grethe, left brain-damaged after a childhood fever. Asta appears more than a bit foolish. Nevertheless, her loneliness leads her to a horrible death.
Feisty, imaginative Annabel and her precociously mature brother Hart seem designed to win our sympathy. As the story opens, Annabel is caught up in penning a Christmas play and tending her ailing grandmother Lavinia. Hart, already working as a bag boy in the grocery story, watches over Grethe and worries over family finances.
Phillips embroiders several other actual actors in this drama. Charles O’ Boyle was a boarder with the Eicher family who tipped off police to Herman Drenth. In the novel, O’Boyle is a closeted man, tortured by his sexuality during a repressive era. His genuine affection for Asta Eicher and her children leads him to propose. He is rebuffed, for Asta has already promised herself to Cornelius Pierson.
Another embellished character is Park Ridge banker William Malone. In the novel, Malone’s wife, Catherine, suffers from an undisclosed illness (dementia? insanity?) leaving her unable to speak or care for herself. Malone, a pillar of the community, is the portrait of repressed, virile rectitude. Saddled with his sick wife, he quietly abides. Until…
Phillips is careful to note she adds only four invented characters to Quiet Dell. There is Lavinia, Heinrich’s mother, who has only a brief role. Chicago Tribune press photographer Eric Lindstrom, like Charles O’Boyle, must hide his homosexuality but is at peace with himself. Later in the novel there will emerge a street urchin named Mason Phillips. More important is Emily Thornhill.
Named after Phillips’s mother, Jane Thornhill, Emily is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Intended as a bringer of the light, she is so perfect as to verge on the saccharine. Emily is Game Girl Reporter, with flowing locks, “finished” at Miss Porter’s School, father dead, mother (conveniently) indisposed, loving (also dead) grandparents, summers on rural Iowa (handy later, when tracking Drenth’s early life), money, but not too much, “happily unmarried, but not a maiden.”
Emily’s appearance forks the narrative. On one side is an actual account, the graphic, ugly story of a serial murderer and his victims, all woman carefully chosen from lonelyhearts magazine advertisements. On the other is Emily, her seemingly endless fount of goodness, the trail of enamored men she leaves in her wake, many drawn from actual people.
To wit: Emily Thornhill visit William Malone in his office for an interview, and, in a narrative interruption courtesy of Harlequin, the two fall steamily, lustily in love. Their affair parallels Drenth’s perverse multiple “relationships” with women—and his bizarre marriage to Luella Strothers. Also troubling is the appearance of Mason Phillips, an adolescent street urchin, orphan, and thief, whom Emily adopts. He can be seen as Hart Eicher’s doppelgänger But why does Hart need one? And does Emily, portrayed as the independent career woman, need to be saddled with an adolescent boy? Only Eric, in one brief sentence, warns her to expect trouble down the line.
There is the what we can call the Dagny Taggart issue: men can’t stop falling in love in with Emily. Even Eric, despite his avowed homosexuality says: “Miss Thornhill.. .I’m reconsidering not sleeping with you.”
So, too, Sheriff Grimm, who cannot resist passing evidence, admiring looks, and pained glances.
Dismissing Quiet Dell as a bad book would be a disservice. What now amounts to lifetime of work proves Phillips a serious novelist. Her evocation of the United States of 80 years past is marvelous—the trains, the telegraphs, the food, the wrecked economy, the formalities of hats, suits, and carefully pinned hair. Her research makes this particular serial murderer and his prey pierce readers at a time when mass violence and constant, graphic reportage leave us in danger of compassion fatigue.
Especially poignant are the passages devoted to Annabel, now an evanescent spirit, rushing through Quiet Dell, through the courtroom where her killer is being tried, trying to recover her doll, Mrs. Pomeroy, from the backseat of Drenth’s car.
Stephen King, the master of evil, positively blurbed Quiet Dell. And well he would: arguably his finest books pivot on a group of characters fighting the Dark Man or His Forces (Yes, The Stand, Laws, yes!). And if Herman Drenth, aka Cornelius Pierson, aka A. R. Weaver, wasn’t Randall Flagg ,aka the Walkin’ Dude, aka The Dark Man personified, I don’t know who was.
Quiet Dell, then, is worth the reader’s time. It’s flawed, yes, but it’s doing the novel’s work of illuminating humanity’s darkest corners. And the darkest corners sob ever louder for light.
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