Power wills death itself in the final chapter of Blackwater, the six-volume saga of Southern life in a small Alabama town called Perdido. Rain (Avon Books, June 1983) has Michael McDowell concluding with a drenching torrent that seems to drown the whole world, or at least Perdido itself, and for its inhabitants that's enough. I'll tell you I was a bit bummed to come to final chapter of this weird, Southern Gothic-lite saga of the wealthy Caskey clan and their family entanglements, both natural and not, as I've been reading Blackwater slowly over a year and a half. Honestly, I think I did it wrong: the whole series comes to a total of around 1,100 pages so I spaced my reading out, but now I really wish I'd read them closer together so I could've gotten fully immersed in them. Oh well. (Some spoilers in this review).
Michael McDowell (1950 - 1999)
Now set in the 1960s, we begin with the conflict between spinsterly invalid Sister Caskey and her niece Miriam (daughter of Elinor, the inhuman--or more than human--woman who married into the Caskeys), who runs the family sawmills and has enriched their bank accounts immeasurably, and continues to do so. Sister had taken to bed on account of a supposed weakness in her legs. And in order to avoid her husband, she had kept to that bed, willing her legs to wither... More and more demanding and dismissive and dramatic, it is noted Sister is becoming more and more like the last Caskey matriarch Mary-Love, whom nobody much misses save Sister. In a moment of rational decision-making she's known for, Miriam decides she will marry milquetoasty Malcom Strickland, the family closest to the Caskeys.
This upsets Sister and she insists they hold off the wedding, but Miriam will hear none of it. The wedding goes on, an enormous affair to which all Perdido and many important folks known through Miriam's successful business dealings are invited. Sister stays in her room, and while Oscar--Miriam's father, Elinor's husband--sits at her bedside comforting her, Sister passes. Out of spite, it seems!
The odd family tradition of giving up children to other family members continues: in this last volume, Billy Bronze and (the late--or, more accurately, the "late") Frances's daughter Lilah, first living with her grandmother Elinor, comes to live with Miriam and Malcolm, as they cannot bear their own children. With Miriam's guidance and to Elinor's dismay, Lilah begins exhibiting the willful imperiousness of Mary-Love and Sister; she toys with the affections of young Tommy Lee. He lived with his mother Lucille and her "partner" Grace Caskey on an enormous farm, but now lives with his grandmother Queenie Strickland (Malcom's mother--got all that?). Elinor wishes Lilah and Tommy Lee would marry and produce offspring to keep Miriam and Malcolm company as they age, and ensure the Caskey clan continues. This is not to be; Lilah will not be a pawn in the Caskey game.
It gradually became known in Babylon and Perdido that Tommy Lee had been disappointed in love. He had hoped, and all his family had hoped, that he would marry Lilah Bronze; Lilah, herself trained by Miriam, had done a sort of Miriam-like thing and married herself to a man with name that was two inches long and who declared on a stack of Bibles that he would never set foot in Alabama again.
Lilah even gets Tommy Lee to go to college so she, still a high schooler, can be invited to the awesome and socially important frat parties. With Tommy Lee gone, Queenie Strickland cannot bear to be in her house alone; strange noises assault her while she tries to sleep. One night she hears bootsteps outside and when she peeks out and sees it was Carl Strickland, her husband, who had been dead these thirty years, drowned in the black waters of the Perdido. *shiver* Queenie is found cold and dead the next morning, two quarters, each bearing the date 1929, were pressed over her eyes, and the key to the house was stuck in her mouth.
McDowell engages in more of his patented quiet, weird, Southern Gothic scenes of horror and the macabre: Queenie's torment and death, and Tommy Lee returns and while boating through the swamp has the fright of his life when he's attacked by a creature unlike any swamp denizen he's ever known. The voices that blind, aging Oscar hears, of his mother Mary-Love and a little boy who died in the Perdido decades before, draw him into a dark embrace.The ugly death of this good, caring man by monstrous hands that stink of that river is heartbreaking. In his home Billy Bronze hears voices too, of his late wife Frances and Nerita, the daughter he never knew who lives and hungers in dark waters, singing and talking with Elinor in her room. In the morning the stairs' carpet is damp with river water. He is not afraid however:
Hardcover omnibus editions from SF Book Club
The three voices--female but not human, Billy thought--went on for more than an hour, lasting as long as the rain. But as the rain slackened, so did the three voices. When the water was no more than an irregular dripping from the eaves, the singing stopped altogether. Billy had long ago lost the habit of prayer, but now he prayed for the clouds to return, and to open up above the house in hope that voices might again unite in song.Then the rains come, long and incessant, and the government arrives and sees the levees will not hold and insists on evacuating Perdido. Most leave, but not Billy Bronze, not long-time family help Zaddie Sapp, not Elinor Caskey, who now lays dying in her bed. She has sent everyone but those two away, and the waters rise and rise on the Caskey house as Billy and Zaddie keep a death watch on this mysterious matriarch whose connection to those waters is the stuff of myth and legend... and the end comes for our family saga in the manner we knew from the start: Without further heralding, the water set about to wipe Perdido from the face of the earth.
1985 Corgi UK edition, lovely cover art by Terry Oakes
Yeah, I was bummed when it was over. For all its pluses, however, I don't quite rate Blackwater as highly as I do McDowell's standalone novels The Amulet, Cold Moon over Babylon, and The Elementals; I could've used even more horror or supernatural strangeness in these 1,100 pages, but that's just me. Sometimes the narrative drive is listless; the writing underdone; the family drama too drawn out. But there's plenty to enjoy too, in this unique family saga unlike anything else published in 1980s horror fiction. For modern readers Blackwater exists for Kindle; I believe Valancourt Books is trying to publish the series in trade paperback as they have two of McDowell's other novels; and Centipede Press is set to put out a schmancy illustrated hardcover as well next year. In whatever form you choose to read of the Caskey family's strange and sodden journey through the 20th century, in vintage paperback or as ebook, I think you will agree it is one worth taking, and that Michael McDowell is the perfect guide.
My review of the entire Blackwater series is on Tor.com; go here to read it.