Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Blackwater I: The Flood by Michael McDowell (1983): When You're Lost in the Rain and It's Eastertime Too

What Easter but that first in Jerusalem had dawned so bleakly, or stirred less hope in the breasts of those who had witnessed the rising of that morning's sun?

It is the early morning of Easter Sunday, 1919, and the Perdido and Blackwater rivers of Perdido, Alabama have flooded the small town - leaving only the spires and roofs and chimneys of the town's buildings to be seen above the foul and debris-choked waters. But a small boat containing Oscar Caskey and his black servant Bray Sugarwhite, two men rowing through the wreckage looking for anyone who may not have fled to higher ground days before when the rains began. Suddenly, in an upper-story room of the Osceola Hotel, Oscar catches sight of a redheaded woman - whom he had not seen when he first glanced inside the room. She seems to appear instantaneously, out of nowhere. Upon pulling her into the boat, she says she has survived in this room since the flood began, having apparently slept through the warnings several days before. Bray is suspicious of this survivor, Elinor Dammert, while Oscar is awkwardly intrigued. And Elinor will bring suspicion and intrigue to Perdido; especially indeed to all the ladies of Perdido.

And so begins The Flood (Avon, Jan 1983), the first book of Blackwater, a serialized Southern gothic/horror saga from cult paperback horror writer Michael McDowell. The second chapter is simply titled "The Ladies of Perdido," and we meet them all, from every age and class and color, but at the top is not, as one might expect, Annie Bell Driver, the Baptist Hard-Shell minister, but Mary-Love Caskey, Oscar's mother and part owner of the Caskey sawmill fortune. There's also Sister Caskey, Mary-Love's young spinster daughter, and other women whose husbands run the two other sawmills in town. Gossip flies about Elinor and her burgeoning relationship with Oscar, Perdido's "first gentleman," a kind and courtly man employed by his uncle James, Mary-Love's brother-in-law, at the family lumber mill. Unsurprisingly he is perplexed by Elinor's mysterious arrival: 

"Why did you come to Perdido? Perdido is at the end of the earth. Who comes to Perdido but to write me a check for lumber?"
"I guess the flood brought me," Elinor laughed.
"Have you experienced a flood before this?"
"Lots," she replied. "Lots and lots..."

At 189 pages, The Flood is a solid read with McDowell's sure hand settling us into this genteel sawmill town now besieged by natural, and perhaps unnatural, tragedy. The machinations and manipulations of the Caskeys are fascinating as McDowell develops them economically, without getting bogged down in psych 101 or a backstory of neuroses. Mary-Love has a house built for the not-so-surprising marriage of Oscar and now-schoolteacher Elinor, but will not sign the deed over to them; Mary-Love keeps Sister always under her thumb in a contradictory position; Mary-Love attempts to sully James's erstwhile wife Genevieve's reputation as that of a selfish drunk. McDowell well understands Southern life: how the land and the rain and the flood stain lives, and how family power predominates, especially matriarchal power (which features strongly also in his The Amulet (1979) and The Elementals (1981)):

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...

If this makes Blackwater sound more like a soap opera than a horror novel, I can see why you'd think so. But fear not: the creeps come, oh do they. Quietly McDowell stacks mystery upon mystery in a precisely calculated manner that keeps the reader turning pages, without straining credibility. Mary Bell Driver discovers Elinor naked submerged in the muddy red waters of the Perdido, undergoing some transformation. A young boy is swept up into the powerful junction between the Blackwater and Perdido and drowns, perhaps by something that lives at the bottom of the whirlpool, where it grabbed you so tight your arms got broken and then it licked the eyeballs right out of your head. There are those things and more. The foreboding black, gray, and red menace of gloom and doom on the cover are no cheat; you get what's promised there. 

Michael McDowell (1950 - 1999)

So far, McDowell's got me hooked. In cheaper paperback originals - and some hardcover bestsellers - chapters end with ridiculous cliffhangers, but McDowell ends his on some oblique note of unease or flat statement of uncomfortable fact, whether it be death, dismemberment, or a stand of water oak trees planted by Elinor that seem to grow overnight. Unassumingly soap operatic in its human conflicts, it does not hammer home horror; it insinuates and alludes and caresses. I know I can trust him as an author. The situations and the characters drive the narrative, not the other way around, which makes The Flood so readable.

Don't know why I was never interested in the books when I used to see countless copies of them in my old used bookstore; besides those unique covers I guess I thought they were cheap. Without the guilt or cheapness, without falsity or contrivance, this first volume in the uniquely serialized Blackwater saga bodes very, very well for the rest of the series... and bodes very, very grimly for all of Perdido's drowning souls.


Tim Mayer said...

I remember seeing these on the book racks and wondering if they were any good. Since part of my family comes from "The South", I groan every time I see a "Southern Gothic" novel. Never could understand what was so fascinating about a place where cotton was king and electricity came later.

jeremy said...

Hmm. Looks pretty intriguing. It is interesting that his last novel was "completed" by Tabitha King (quote not mine)...as well as his penchant for collecting corpse photographs. A small bit more here: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/m/michael-mcdowell/

Tressa Fancher said...

I had forgotten about the wonderful illustrations inside the books.

Barrymore Tebbs said...

I first read this series just as they began to go out of print. I bought five retail and picked the other one up second hand. I have read it about four times over the years, along with Cold Moon Over Babylon and The Elementals. McDowell had a unique voice among horror fiction at the time. I also read Candles Burning, the novel completed by Tabitha King. It is quite clear where his work ended and hers begins. The woman was clueless how to finish this work, the style and the direction of the plot completely changed.

Phantom of Pulp said...

I won't be redundant; you know I love McDowell. And I love your critique here of his fine work. He truly was an excellent writer with a gift for characterization.

AndyDecker said...

This is a great series. Both the soap opera and the supernatural elements are interesting. It also works so well as a generational saga from the 20s to 80s. It still fun to read. McDowell was such a good writer. It is a shame that they are all out of print.

Blaine213 said...

When I had just graduated high school,I was working in a small foodstore in 1984 when these came out in January of that year. We had a small bookshelf of paperbacks and I picked up the first book, "The Flood". I was hooked and could hardly wait to read the next one, because they came out one per month for six months. I loved the series and loved the storyline. I found myself envisioning where all these events took place , and really found myself absorbed in them. Over the years I lost them in moves, ex's and the like. Recently I walked into a used bookstore and found all six, and picked them all up for less than $10. Reading them again after all these years is like reading them again for the first time. I highly recommend reading them if you never have.

Juan Bauty said...

Who is the illustrator of those inner red pages? The style reminds me Mark English... maybe Glenn Harrington or even Stephen Marchesi.
Anyone knows the name?

Will Errickson said...

Juan, I cannot find any credit anywhere for that interior art but it looks most like Mark English's work!