Book Review: Michael McDowell’s Blackwater

I’m in the process of expanding my literary horizon, in part thanks to Grady Hendrix’s excellent book Paperbacks from Hell. This history of literary horror of the 1970s and 19870s – a worthwhile read in and of itself – has introduced me to a range of authors I was not before familiar with, mainly because most of them sit firmly in the “pulp” category. And for the docile ex-literature student that I am (ahem) checking out books about murderous slugs or clawhammer-toting serial killers still feels like a bit of a transgression.

Anyway, Hendrix’s book is worth a look for any horror fan, not in the least due to its abundance of lush horror covers – they truly don’t make them like that anymore. I read the book with pen and paper on the side and my to-read-list grew and grew as I went along, like one of John Wyndham’s triffids. But one book sparked my curiosity more than any other: Blackwater by Michael McDowell.

How I had never heard of this author is beyond me but I suspect I am not the only one. His work is hardly unknown, though. Although his novels have been somewhat forgotten, his scripts for Tim Burton’s films Beetlejuice and The Nightmare before Christmas have surely delighted generations of horror lovers. Fortunately for me, a shiny new edition of Blackwater has been released in recent years, compiling all the full saga in over 800 pages (the original version was released in six monthly instalments).

So what is the book actually about? Blackwater is a Southern gothic family saga, tracking the lives of several generations of the Caskey family, as they make their fortune in the fictional town of Perdido, Alabama. Connecting the many subplots is the story of Elinor, a woman who mysteriously appears during a flood, marries one of the Caskeys, and proceeds to rule the clan. Oh, and she’s also a river monster.

Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling the plot here. Elinor’s ambivalent nature is made clear from the beginning and, while somewhat odd, does not seem out of the ordinary within the story world. In fact, while billed as horror the novel feels more like magical realism or the aforementioned Southern gothic. It has its gory moments, for sure, but they’re few and far between, and those reading the novel expecting a high body count will be disappointed. It’s not creepy, or gory, or even that shocking. As it’s also very long, one may wonder: why isn’t it boring?

I’m not normally big on family sagas (which is why, despite Hendrix’s recommendation, I have so far failed to enjoy the work of V.C. Andrews / Andrew Neidermann). But McDowell paints his characters with so much love, humour, and occasional irony that you can’t help but root for them. Many of them are not actually that likeable, and for a thoroughly European reader like me their customs and environment feel positively exotic, but they still felt realistic and three-dimensional. This is one of those rare novels where you wish that the characters were real and could be your friends.

Though the novel made me think of the work of many other authors whose work I love (Poppy Z. Brite, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, to name just a few) McDowell has a unique voice that sets him apart from the rest. Blackwater is accessibly written and the plot is easy to follow, yet it is packed with intrigue and mystery to get your teeth into. Scenes are described so vividly that they still haunt my dreams. I don’t often reread books but I can imagine picking up this one in a few years time, just to dive into its story world again and hang out with Elinor and her adopted family.

McDowell was a productive writer and there are many other novels left to be discovered. I hope the availability of recent editions means his work is about to enjoy the renewed popularity it deserves. Apparently McDowell, who passed away in 1999, once said that he didn’t write for eternity and didn’t mind being forgotten. But I for me am glad that I discovered this book, and that it’s only the beginning.

Photo by Frank Albrecht on Unsplash

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