Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Blackwater IV: The War by Michael McDowell (1983): But Nothing Really Matters Much, It's Doom Alone That Counts

Using his considerable storytelling skills in The War, the fourth book (April 1983) in Blackwater, his pop-lit Southern-Gothic-lite paperback-original miniseries, author Michael McDowell tantalizes us with stronger, stranger glimpses of what goes on down there in Perdido, Alabama with that whole Caskey family. McDowell tells much of his grand tale at a far remove, describing the impact of WWII on the townspeople, particularly how this business of war fills the Caskey family coffers; Oscar Caskey signs a lucrative contract with the US government to produce much-needed items such as utility poles, and lord, as Stephen King might put it, how the money do roll in. His daughters, formerly estranged sisters Miriam and Frances, now in their late and young teen years respectively, form a speechless bond over car trips to the beach every morning. There, Frances - truly her mother Elinor's daughter - finds an exhilarating and illuminating connection to the sea. Other Caskey kids beget trouble, or look to the faraway war for a new frontier.

In general the Caskey children are growing up and moving on, falling in love and starting careers and seeking wartime assignments, all which bear hard on the previous generation, who are now facing growing gracelessly, hopelessly old, a losing proposition no matter how much money the family has. Some, like imperturbable Elinor (whose sudden appearance in Perdido during a flood began the tale entire), welcome these changes, and foresee a future of success and happiness never experienced during the reign of late-but-not-lamented matriarch Mary-Love Caskey. But aging Uncle James sees his beloved young nephew Danjo eventually shipped off to Germany, and worries and frets and foresees nothing but his own death...

1985 Corgi UK edition, cover art by Terry Oakes

But then McDowell zooms in close for those intimate revelations so essential to the Blackwater saga. Miriam seems to be turning out like Mary-Love, full of secret plans withheld from the family, impatient, imperious. Servicemen hang around Perdido at a dancehall on the lake, much to Lucille Caskey's delight. James's daughter Grace, once a phys-ed instructor at a girls' school (yes, make of that exactly what you will) returns to Perdido and ends up discovering she loves the country life, using Caskey money to begin a small farm outside of town. A new character is introduced: Billy Bronze, a handsome and intelligent (but of course) North Carolina corporal stationed nearby. His strong character impresses Elinor, who every Sunday invites soldiers to the Caskey home for a hearty after-church meal. Billy, raised by an abusive albeit wealthy father, realizes the unique quality of the Caskeys, and guilelessly plans to marry into them.

But not only were there a great many Caskey women, the women were in control of the family. Billy had never seen anything like it, and the whole notion fascinated him. He loved being around the Caskeys, and had grown very quickly to love them all... Oscar seemed rather put upon, and might have been utterly powerless had he not enjoyed at least superficial control fo the mill. James Caskey had abdicated his rights entirely, and had become a kind of woman himself. Danjo was a strong, masculine boy, but one trained nevertheless to believe that real power and real prestige lay with women and not with men.

I saw lots of these in used bookstores in the early '90s... and never bought 'em.

"But wait!" I hear you saying; "I thought this was a novel of bloodcurdling horror - gimme the goods!" Well, there isn't a lot of horror at all, bloodcurdling or otherwise, in The War; nope, just a scant few moments that bode (un)well for the final forthcoming tomes: an old lunatic man confronts Frances about her mother's origins and the Blackwater river; two teens go missing when they are to report for army duty; a woman is raped and inhuman vengeance doled out. McDowell knows when to underplay and when to lay it all out on the table, sure, but I must report that The War isn't quite up to The Flood or The House in intensity, but neither is it as lackluster as The Levee. It's an easy, entertaining read, comfortable and satisfying. Not everything can be splatterpunk you know.

One last thing, and tell me if I'm crazy: early one morning I was lying in bed, thinking about The War and Blackwater in general, when it hit me: women, water, and the Y-shaped intersection of the rivers, evidenced by this map included in each book. Do you see it? Grove of live oaks? I mean... yeah. I'm not crazy!


James Robert Smith said...

THE BLACKWATER books are more modern fantasy than horror. You do have the shape-changing stuff and supernatural goings-on, but it's more like a southern, chicken-fried fantasy than horror.

Good stuff, though.

Barrymore Tebbs said...

McDowell was just in a league of his own here. Thanks for pointing out the "map"...but not surprising since a major theme of saga is female power.