Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga

October 26, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

waterBlackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga by Michael McDowell

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Blackwater is a series written by Michael McDowell in 1983, long before Stephen King wrote his own novel-in-serial-form with The Green Mile. It’s an ambitious piece of work, covering fifty years of the Caskey family, who have owned one of the mills in Perdido, a small, river-bound Alabama town, following a catastrophic flood in 1919. From that flood appears Elinor, a mysterious woman with a hidden past who isn’t completely human, and begins to worm her way into the family.

McDowell was raised in Alabama, and if The Elements didn’t prove that he understood the South and its culture, Blackwater certainly does. This is a piece firmly embedded in the South, in its language, manners, humor, and atmosphere. Even the names of the characters — Sister, Mary-Love, Early, and Danjo (Daniel Joseph), to name just a few — reflect a culture that’s purely Southern.

Additionally, the story itself is told in a Southern way, in that the aberrations of the culture are never explicitly stated, but instead hints at them to allow the readers to draw their own conclusion. One character is introduced as having “the stamp of femininity”, seemingly in a whispered voice with raised eyebrows. The meaning is clear, even if the words aren’t spoken aloud, and this style is used when referring to Elinor. It’s not just that the characters speak around what makes Elinor different; the narrative itself dances around it. Characters in the story gossip, as does the narrative itself.

The story covers a long time, over multiple generations, and as such, sympathies shift from character to character as time progresses. McDowell creates a subtle air of menace and otherworldliness with Elinor, suggesting she’ll be the antagonist here, when in truth the matriarch of the family is the one to watch. This is another Southern characteristic, of the women, despite being considered to be less than the men, being the ones in control.

The way McDowell creates the family is brilliant. They span the emotional gamut with pettiness, honor, deceit, manipulation, and love despite the antagonism. It’s all there, and it feels real and genuine. It certainly helps that McDowell has 900 pages to spend developing them, but what makes the story shine is that despite there being at least a dozen main characters, none of them are dismissable or forgettable.

The story does have a supernatural element, enough for it to be considered horror, but its Southern-ness is its true charm. When you examine all the pieces of the story that make it Southern, though, it’s no surprise this is a horror novel. At the end of book four, I felt my heart beating faster, and rubbed down the chills on my arms. It wasn’t just that McDowell had created a genuinely creepy moment; it was a palpable reaction to the dread, fear, loss, and relief that went along with the scene. It’s a perfect, perfect moment that’s possible thanks to McDowell creating his characters with such care.

The atmosphere of both the horror and Southern genres complement each other perfectly, and since McDowell eschews violence and viscera for moments that elicit shivers, I can see this being a book as much for lovers of Southern fiction as for fans of horror. Either way, this is a brilliant, effective story that deserves a much wider audience. I can see this being a great story for creating a television series.

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