Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Blackwater III: The House by Michael McDowell (1983): Power and Greed and Corruptible Seed

The story of the Caskeys, a grand and wealthy yet conflicted Southern family, is far from over: In The House, the third book (of six) in the Blackwater series, author Michael McDowell happily returns to the quietly Gothic style, creeping unease, deft characterization, and shocking violence that made me such a fan of the first book, The Flood. The lack of most of these aspects, or their under-use, made the second in the series, The Levee, rather lackluster. Fortunately I trusted McDowell, continued on, and was rewarded with a fantastic little work of horror fiction.

It is now 1929, ten years after the events of The Flood: the Caskeys still preside over Perdido, Alabama in wealth, mystery, and prestige. Mary-Love Caskey reigns over her family with imperious passive-aggressiveness; her son Oscar and his wife Elinor (who arrived from nowhere, it seems, with the flood) raise their timid daughter Frances next door; her brother-in-law, the widowed James, raises his lovely daughter Grace alone; and Queenie Strickland, another relative, raises two unruly children and fears the return of her abusive husband Carl. They hardly notice the Great Depression. That strange crisis of faith and paper so many miles away is nothing compared to the violence Perdido experiences on that very day...

Despite a few "telling-not-showing" mis-steps in the first couple chapters that read more like back-cover copy or McDowell's own notes before fleshing them out, the novel deepens, if not broadens. The crisscrossing currents of emotional manipulation between Mary-Love and her daughter-in-law Elinor are believable as the latter subtly begins her ascent to the Caskey throne in order to control the family fortune:

There was no rancor in Elinor's voice. She spoke as if she stated obvious truths. The very baldness of Elinor's assertions wounded Mary-Love, who never looked at a thing directly, and now had no idea how to confront her daughter-in-law's unexpected forthrightness.

When Mary-Love suddenly falls ill, who is it that cares for her? It is Elinor who puts her to bed in the front room of her and Oscar's home, the room which so frightened their daughter at the end of The Levee, a closet from which emanates an unearthly light (see the cover)... and perhaps something more. Other strange things surface, sometimes literally: Caskey daughters Frances and Grace go for a boat ride to the source of the Perdido River, where all civilization seemed separated from this strange spot by space and time, and when the waters roil, a familiar visage appears from its red-tinged depths.

Rot and corruption arise and destroy weak men while vanity and self-delusion destroy weak women. Then there is the fate that befalls one character: mercilessly beyond all human endurance, an incident of monstrous woe and bodily destruction; truly one of the worst deaths I've ever read in horror fiction. Nearly Barkerian in its unexpected explicitness, I was pretty horrified. A real butt-clencher to be sure!

1985 Corgi UK edition

But all is not misery: I was charmed by the lives of widowed James Caskey and his young teenage daughter, Grace, and found the chapters about them a pleasure to read. The sweet and unaffected child Danjo Strickland, the result of Carl's rape of Queenie, goes to live with James after Grace reluctantly leaves for college (all the Caskeys live within yards of one another and have traded off children before). And it's always satisfying when someone like Mary-Love, a perfect example of imagined victimization, gets her comeuppance: when Oscar finally refuses to speak to her any longer after she turns down his request for money owed him to save the Caskey mill, it is particularly painful because it wasn't public; she therefore couldn't represent herself as a martyr.

I really had a blast reading The House this past weekend during a mini-vacation, swept up into its story and its people, McDowell's sure, even style, and the note of uber-creepiness upon which this book ended. I can only hope - and trust - that the rest of the Blackwater series is as horrifically satisfying.

9 comments:

Tim Mayer said...

Why do I hear the music to "Born on a Bayou" every time I see this book cover?

Will Errickson said...

Nothing wrong with that!

Mac Campbell said...

Damn, I've only ever read the amulet. Guess I have to dig though amazon and find myself a copy.

Zwolf said...

All of McDowell's stuff is genius... I wish somebody would bring his stuff back into print. I'd go so far as to say he deserved to be put out in Library of America volumes - he's that good! I got lucky and snagged hardbacks of the Blackwater series in a used bookstore years ago, two volumes for like $2 each... one of the best deals I ever made. They were book club editions, but, what the heck. Incredible series (or really one big giant book, since they don't work too well independently of one another). I am certain you won't be disappointed in the rest of them, or anything else McDowell ever wrote. He's one of those rare, reliable sure-bets.

Rob said...

I so agree with this review. I'll go further and state that this third book is the peak of the Blackwater series, the very best of them. That eerie haunted closet haunts me still. I hope you'll read the rest soon and tell us what you think.

Will Errickson said...

McDowell is one of the best finds I've made since starting this blog - which was half my motivation in the first place. Still have to get around to reading/reviewing KATIE, GILDED NEEDLES, COLD MOON OVER BABYLON...

Phantom of Pulp said...

KATIE, GILDED NEEDLES, and COLD MOON are all terrific. I remember going down to the bookshop each month to pick up a new installment of BLACKWATER. Seems like a hundred years ago.

Oh, by the way, Will, I recently tracked down that beautiful hardcover with illustrations of TOPLIN.

Great review. The second book did flag, but the 3rd restored the virtues of the first.

I'd like to see a hardcover of the entire series. A complete novel.

gef the talking mongoose said...

Like Zwolf, I have the series in the two-HC book club edition. Fpund the two book for maybe $1, tops, at the Central Arkansas Library System used sale in Little Rock about 12 years ago, & if memory serves laid down & read right through all 6 novels in one weekend -- maybe even in one day. That's probably the best approach to take to these; at any rate, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I believe I knew McDowell only from COLD MOON OVER BABYLON & I *think* THE AMULET before that.

Now that I'm enscouned in Alabama, where McDowell was from & the Blackwater story is set, I suppose I should reread these ...

Dan

AndyDecker said...

It is a great novel - just cut up in parts. I particulary like the historical aspects, how things and relationships develop over a lifetime. And the wonderful characters who are so messed up, like Elinor´s other daughter.
But the supernatural aspects are also exceptionally effective. And everything has its consequences. Normally writers just tell the aftermath of something, but here you see the whole tale develop firsthand.