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, cover art by Terry Oakes
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.