Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Blackwater V: The Fortune by Michael McDowell (1983): A Newborn Baby with Wild Wolves All Around It

The Caskey family saga may be coming to a close but you wouldn't know it by the activity seen in this fifth volume of the Blackwater series, The Fortune (Avon, May 1983). Miriam Caskey is indeed amassing her family's fortune by hiring a Texas oil company to drill into the Perdido swampland on their property, after her estranged mother, the ever-mysterious Elinor, reveals that beneath its inky roiling depths there are pools of crude worth countless riches. How does she know? She just does. Meanwhile Queenie Strickland receives her erstwhile son Malcolm back into the family's bosom after being assumed missing in action, or even dead, after running away four years earlier.  Miriam's sister Frances gives birth to a daughter, and Frances's husband Billy Bronze oversees the accounting books of the Caskey mill, astonishing each family member by declaring just how much money they have during these post-WWII years.

However not everything is going so swimmingly for every Caskey: Elvennia Caskey, known as Sister, is distressed to learn that her husband Early Haskew - who married Sister in The Levee - will soon be home from Germany, after helping the Allies building bridges. She has no interest in seeing him again: "Why in the world did so many people die in the war, and Early's coming back alive!" Sister enlists the help of their longtime black servant, Ivey Sapp, but this results in a humiliating accident (see the broken bottle at the bottom of the steps on the Avon cover, illustrated by Wayne D. Barlowe). Poor Billy Bronze fears Frances is growing apart from him and their newborn baby Lilah, and even though he accompanies his sister-in-law Miriam on the profitable business trips to Texas, he grows insecure about his position in the Caskey brood. Once, he was the golden boy: 

When he set his mind to something, he walked right in at the door and did it. When he had got it into his head to become part of the Caskey family, he had picked out a marriageable daughter, wooed her, won her, married her, and got her pregnant in order to produce more Caskeys. The Family 's admiration for him was unbounded.

1985 Corgi UK edition, cover art by Terry Oakes

But now Frances disappears each afternoon to swim deeply and luxuriously in the Perdido waters, leaving her daughter to the care of Elinor... much as Elinor had given up her first daughter, Miriam, to her own mother-in-law Mary-Love in the first volume. What happens to Frances as she visits those watery depths (illustrated nicely above, for the 1985 Corgi UK paperback cover)? She becomes almost a different person, something different altogether, which Billy notices. Sadly he is to have no part of her rejuvenation, and knows he will soon lose her. The day was chilly, but she was barefooted, bareheaded, and naked beneath her loosely gathered robe, having just come in from her swim. When he first saw her, she was smiling and radiant. But the smile faded the moment she glimpsed him the dimness of the corridor.

Reading The Fortune over several months, putting it down for a couple weeks then picking it up again, I found it middling in the series. As is his wont, Michael McDowell takes his time telling this story, focusing on details that some readers might find irrelevant or overly slight; even in this slim volume - not even 200 pages - the narrative is leisurely, with only a few spikes of real melodrama and mild horror. Tension is lacking in spots but that makes it kind of a cozy, informal historical read. As ever he's good at interpersonal relationships, drawing out the peculiarities of his characters and their insecurities, and he's best at evoking darkness and dread. Which I wish there had been more of... especially this:

Throughout the series, McDowell has whispered hints of a non-human origin for Elinor, a nature which has been passed on to Frances - witness Frances's strange supernatural revenge upon a rapist in The War. Their mythic kinship to one another and to the Perdido River speaks of Jungian shapeshifters, of ancient legends about the dark powers of women and water... and the children they bear. Lilah is not the only offspring Frances bears one night in The Fortune; there is another child too, one that Zaddie, Ivey Sapp's daughter, catches the merest glimpse of when assisting in the childbirth:

Zaddie turned to turn out the light, but as she was turning she glimpsed a second head emerging smoothly from Frances's quietly heaving body. It was greenish-gray, and it seemed to wobble. Zaddie saw two wide-open, perfectly round filmy eyes, and two round black holes where a nose ought to have been...

Two-volume hardcover
Science Fiction Book Club, 1983

Can there be any doubt where this strange creature will find its home, that it shares its mother's and grandmother's inhuman heritage, and that its mother will leave behind all the Caskeys and join it? We know when Elinor places this mewling newborn into Frances's arms for the first time:

"What's wrong with her?" Frances asked. "Why is she crying like this?"
"She's drowning," said Elinor.
"In the air. She needs to be in water..." 


Jack Tripper said...

I just recently started this series, thanks to your reviews, and I'm really digging it so far (just finished the second book). So far it's not quite on the same level as 'Cold Moon' or 'The Elementals, but pretty darn close, so it's disappointing to hear about the dip in quality later on.

Oh well. Thanks, though, for introducing me to this series, and this sorely underrated author.

Will Errickson said...

Glad to hear it Jack! Be sure to read THE AMULET too, his first horror novel. Fortunately Valancourt Books is beginning to reprint McDowell's novels.