This is one paperback horror novel in which the creepy cover art actually recreates the imagery contained within the story itself. O huzzah! The second of Michael McDowell
's many paperback originals published by Avon Books, Cold Moon Over Babylon
(Feb 1980) takes its title very seriously: throughout the novel, the moon and its "light" reveal guilt and terror, hiding only temporarily the ghosts - and worse - of innocents slaughtered. This cold moon grows immeasurably large in the eyes and nightmare visions of Babylon's worst denizen, the result of his actions now seen all too clearly in that bleaching, blue-silver, not-quite-blinding light. There is no place to hide from the consequence of misdeed.
ahead) Cold Moon
is a novel I've been waiting to read for a few years now, and read
it excitedly over the holidays. Back in my used bookstore days of the late '80s I
remember countless copies of it crossing my hands, yet the
eye-catching silver-blue of the cover art never quite captivated me
enough. Shame, because this is a work that, like most of McDowell's (all
out of print) output, I can now recommend without hesitation. Would I have
liked Cold Moon
back then? Perhaps not; this is horror solidly in
the mainstream. Characters, quickly sketched, have believable dialogue and motivation; solid structure keeps you reading. Indeed, McDowell had stated in interviews how he preferred being
a writer of paperback originals, books sold monthly on drugstore racks.
His style however is not cheap, cloying or sentimental, and McDowell
strikes a welcome tone of moodiness and doom in his prose. His death
scenes are some of the most surprising and affecting of the era; there is a prosaic, shocking realism to them that one finds less in horror than
one would think. The very first ones appear on the second page and wow,
was I not expecting them. McDowell just reels out the words without
bothering to create suspense. It works; you know no one is safe in the
book, you know any old horrible thing could happen at any time.
UK paperback, 1985 - also with accurate cover art!
Babylon is a tiny town in Florida's panhandle, just scant miles from the Alabama border. Nearby is the River Styx, a slow-moving, rattler-infested river in a sparsely populated part of the town. The crumbling old bridge that spans it is maintained by Jerry Larkin, 20-something son of deceased Jim and JoAnn Larkin. The remaining family - Jerry's sister, 14-year-old Margaret, and their elderly grandmother Evelyn, Jim's mother - try to maintain the blueberry farm that is their only source of income, but that's a losing proposition. Then Margaret goes missing walking home from school one afternoon. Her grandmother is
terrified of the worst, suspecting immediately foul play, while Jerry takes a more practical approach by explaining Margaret is
visiting a friend, and is hesitant at first to call Sheriff Ted Hale.
But a storm, a bad one, is coming, and Evelyn can't bear the idea of her
beloved caught in the deluge, but as the rains come the news will be dire: the next
morning, Margaret is still missing.
But the reader knows just what's happened to Margaret. Without hope or mercy she is dispatched just within sight of her home, her grandmother's window, tossed carelessly from that bridge her brother tends into the shallow muddy waters of the Styx. This is not a mystery novel, and the reader soon learns the murderer's identity as well. It's precisely who Evelyn suspects: a man named Nathan Redfield, the estranged son of Babylon's widowed, wealthy bank owner, a man with a lust for money and high school girls. But there's no evidence, just Evelyn's fear of Nathan because the Larkins owe the bank money, and could lose their farm. Sheriff Hale, however, suspects poor Warren Perry, the school's vice principal; he was the last to have seen Margaret alive. Then Margaret's body is pulled from the Styx by a fisherman's errant hook - a sad and pathetic moment of human tragedy - and Nathan easily supplies Hale with bloody evidence for Perry's guilt when more
dead bodies turn up.
Ashen and faintly luminous, the head and the neck rose from the Styx waters, still turning softly in that same unvarying rhythm...
Nathan's nightmarish visions, hallucinatory and unreal, provide the book's best moments. Margaret Larkin will not rest easily, and in cinema-ready scenes featuring the watery black-haired girl ghosts of classic Japanese horror, Nathan begins to see her form beneath the streetlamps along deserted Babylon roads, at cemetery gates, in the bank he works in, in the restaurant where he makes his crooked deals. She leaks grainy Styx muck and mud from her mouth and her eyes are empty and the moonlight is everywhere, the moon is all wrong, so bright he dare not look directly at it... Damn if McDowell doesn't revel in some classic horror imagery: in corpses crawling out from graves, in the grue of corrupted flesh, and in revenants floating above the Styx and slithering through the forest. These parts are fucking brilliant.
...all without color, a liquid, a phosphorescent grayish-white...
If there's any flaw in CM
it's that ultimately it's only a simple revenge story, and that the
final quarter or so of the novel is taken up only with the ghostly
pursuit of Nathan and his attempts to elude it. A more expansive and
elaborately-plotted story could have included more detective work by
Sheriff Hale, or efforts by wrongly-accused Warren Perry to find the killer
himself. Something other than the one-dimensional route to the
(gruesome, yes) climax, which reveals nothing new about past events. This
is not a major failing, but the thinness made it seem like a missed
opportunity for McDowell to turn CM
into an even more potent, satisfying work of horror.
The eyes opened,
but behind the gray lids was a flat infinite blackness, blacker far than
the muddy Styx in that shadow of the rotting bridge...
Still, why quibble? Cold Moon Over Babylon
is a must-read, (and, I'd forgotten, recommended in King
's Danse Macabre
), filled with bone-cracking moments of haunting dread, despair, and death. Michael McDowell is gone
, but let us not forget what horrors he so humbly brought us.
Those terrible eyes were without surface; the lids opened directly onto noisome void and nonentity, and the black holes were fixed on the darkened window...