Michael McDowell is probably the greatest horror writer you’ve never heard of. He is the author of the novels, The Elementals, Cool Moon Over Babylon, The Amulet, Gilded Needles, and the Blackwater series, which is what I want to talk about today.
BLACKWATER was my first McDowell book, and I began it with no preconceived idea of what to expect. I had no expectations, nor was I privy to the fact McDowell had been dead for nearly twenty years, and that he had, in the late 1980s, penned the first draft of the Beetlejuice screenplay, which, through subsequent research, was a lot darker than the movie we know today. To me, McDowell had always been dead, and like the many ghosts born from the Perdido over the course of his book, he had wandered into my life, made bright the lights around me, and chilled my skin. And for that, I’m grateful.
The story is best described as a supernatural soap opera. I’m not saying that to dumb it down. This isn’t a book that can be dumbed down. But it is a story about family, beginning in the year 1919 and rounding off in 1970. At the start, the Caskey family had garnered a reasonable wealth through their sawmills, and things seemed to be going well until a great flood submerged most of the small town, including its homes, business and even people. And it’s here where the story begins. Oscar Caskey and his black servant, Bray, take a small boat into the town; there they find Elinor Dammert waiting to be rescued, though I use the term very loosely, in the upper floor room of the Osceola hotel. Elinor is not like other women. She is different, mysterious, and instantly wins the heart of the guileless Oscar. The only person who doesn’t take to Elinor is the matriarch Mary-Love, the head of the Caskey clan, and certainly a force to be reckoned with, as are most of the Caskey women. The truth is, women rule the roost in Perdido. They are the strongest characters, and by far, the most interesting. McDowell’s gift in shaping these woman, from Mary-Love, to her daughter Sister, to the servants, Ivey Sapp and her daughter Zaddie, and more importantly, Oscar and Elinor’s estranged daughter, Miriam, is beguiling to observe. It’s fair to say the women of BLACKWATER are violets unwilling to shrink for anyone, least of all the men.
“Oscar knew that Elinor was very much like his mother: strong-willed and dominant, wielding power in a fashion he could never hope to emulate. That was the great misconception about men… there were blinds to disguise the fact of men’s real powerlessness in life. Men controlled the legislatures, but when it came down to it, they didn’t control themselves… Oscar knew that Mary-Love and Elinor could think and scheme rings around him. They got what they wanted. In fact, every female on the census rolls of Perdido, Alabama got what she wanted. Of course no man admitted this; in fact, didn’t even know it. But Oscar did…”
It’s worth noting, the Caskey men are not anvils to bear every harsh word or mighty strike of each women’s doings. They are not victims of domestic violence, nor do they whimper or cower. But they do serve a purpose, and that is to make sure they do the things asked of them by the women, or at least agree to what the women are asking of them. The Caskey men’s strength is their understanding they will never be as shrewd, calculating, all-knowing and persistent enough to undertake such tasks as counter arguing. They know when best to remain quiet, and know that no matter what happens, be it handing over their children to curry favour with a senior member of the family, or amassing wealth beyond their comprehension, all of these things were conceived, implemented and executed by a woman, and done for the greater good.
The supernatural aspect, that at times gives most horror stories a run for their money, is delivered with enough bite you feel it’s teeth sink into you, and long after the moment passes, stare incredulously at the impression in your skin that refuses to fade. These moments are few, but when they come along, they shake the very pages. I’ve read a lot of ghost stories and I can say that what McDowell does in a couple of pages takes most authors fifty. Elinor’s character, in particular, has a past that stretches beyond the norm, and while not exactly chilling, there are moments you spend with her that renders your jaw slack and skin goosed. Each bloody end to a life, each resurrected spirit, they’re all crafted beautifully and interspersed appropriately so the reader does not feel gorged on gore, but instead, thirsty for more. I cannot praise McDowell enough. I cannot find fault in his prose, nor thumb my nose towards any character he gave flesh to. It’s a beautifully sad, haunting and awe-inspiring piece of fiction that will stay with me for such a long time.
The Caskey family opened their door to me. They allowed me to walk their halls, console myself in their chairs, eat at their tables, sleep in their beds and attend their many funerals. They looked after me like I was one of their own, and for that, I’m indebted and humbled. Now it’s time for you to knock upon their door, pull up a chair, and savour their hospitality while listening to the song of their ghosts.