Avon Books, 1983, 895 pages
Blackwater is the saga of a small town, Perdido, Alabama, and Elinor Dammert, the stranger who arrives there under mysterious circumstances on Easter Sunday, 1919. On the surface, Elinor is gracious, charming, anxious to belong in Perdido, and eager to marry Oscar Caskey, the eldest son of Perdido's first family. But her beautiful exterior hides a shocking secret. Beneath the waters of the Perdido River, she turns into something terrifying, a creature whispered about in stories that have chilled the residents of Perdido for generations. Some of those who observe her rituals in the river will never be seen again....
This is a Southern Gothic to drown all other Southern Gothics in a muddy river, y'all.
I believe the late Michael McDowell, a screenwriter and horror writer, was seriously underrated. This juicy, horrific small town melodrama spanning five decades is by turns operatic, epic, and scary. It's the bastard love child of Faulkner and Poe; it's Margaret Mitchell influenced by Lovecraft, or Stephen King staking out territory in Alabama instead of Maine.
The Caskey family saga was originally published as a six-novel serial back in the early 80s, during the heyday of the cheap horror paperbacks, but now it's collected into a single huge volume.
The first book, The Flood, begins on Easter Sunday, 1919, with a great flood that nearly wipes out the small town of Perdido, Alabama. This is when Elinor Dammert appears — a mysterious young woman who just happens to be sitting in the upper floor of the flooded Osceola Hotel in downtown Perdido when Oscar Caskey and his loyal Negro employee Bray row by. As if she were just sitting there waiting for them, even though the town had been evacuated days ago.
Without a history and only the flimsiest of explanations, Elinor soon worms her way into the Caskey family, marrying James's son Oscar and setting herself against the family matriarch, Mary-Love Caskey, against whom Elinor will wage war for the next few decades.
"I knew she would do it, worm her way in. Dig right down in the mud of Perdido until she couldn't be dragged out by seventeen men pulling on a rope that was tied around her neck—and I just wish it were!"
The Caskeys are rich, owning several wood mills on the river, but right from the beginning Elinor makes clear that her intention is to make them more rich — richer than any of them could ever imagine.
On the surface this is just a great big sprawling Southern family drama. Stretching from Elinor's first appearance, in 1919, to her death in 1970, the Caskey Family Saga would be entertaining and immersive for its characters and family drama alone. There are many, many characters who come and go over the course of this intergenerational saga, as the original characters have children who grow up and have children of their own, all of whom are dragged into decades-long family squabbles and secrets, take on the psychological characteristics and burdens of their parents, while developing new ambitions and traits of their own, and making this a rich, deeply Southern soap opera full of powerful, domineering women and the men who more or less play supporting roles in their struggles.
Oscar knew that Elinor was very much like his mother: strong-willed and dominant, wielding power in a fashion he could never hope to emulate. That was the great misconception about men... there were blinds to disguise the fact of men's real powerlessness in life. Men controlled the legislatures, but when it came down to it, they didn't control themselves. Oscar knew that Mary-Love and Elinor could think and scheme rings around him. They got what they wanted. In fact, every female on the census rolls of Perdido, Alabama got what she wanted. Of course no man admitted this; in fact, didn't even know it. But Oscar did.
But there is something beneath the surface of this family drama that makes it special and horrific. Michael McDowell manages to weave it into the story so organically that you can go for many chapters forgetting that this is a supernatural horror story, because the horror only emerges now and then, at dramatic moments. But always in such a way to remind you that the horror at the heart of the Caskey family has been there all along, and is never far from the surface.
It's not much of a spoiler to say that Elinor Dammert is not quite what she seems.
I'm not spoiling things (much) — we learn this early in book one. But the fact that throughout the entire series, Elinor spends 99% of her time as an iron-willed Southern matriarch, waging a war of wills against her mother-in-law for the first few volumes, scheming to enrich her husband and her family and to get her way against the wishes of the domineering, spiteful Mary-Love Caskey is what makes that other 1% so much more horrific, when she periodically assumes her true form, usually to perform some act of gruesome violence.
Elinor is the protagonist of the saga, but other characters move in and out of the story, sometimes taking center stage for a while and then fading, only for a previously minor character to suddenly reappear, marry into the family, and become significant. Elinor's daughters Miriam and Frances shape the next generation of Caskey family dramas. Miriam is given up to Elinor's mother-in-law Mary-Love in a kind of devil's bargain to free Elinor and her husband from Mary-Love's interference. Miriam grows up estranged from her real mother, the spoiled instrument of her grandmother's manipulations to control all her offspring, while Miriam's younger sister Frances is the sweeter, more innocent child, raised by her real mother and in awe of her haughty big sister.
Being Elinor's daughters, of course, has other implications.
Elinor loves her family, she does very well by them, and you really want to like her, except that the some of the acts she commits are less justifiable than others. Going into detail would be spoilery, but let's just say that while some of her victims deserve it, others very much do not... and the consequences of those acts will haunt her family (literally) for generations, until Elinor herself is reclaimed by the waters of the Perdido.
This was an absolutely fantastic experience, the sort of long book that introduces a large cast of characters over time so you're able to remember (almost) all of them and their stories, and become interested in their lives, their children, their fortunes, and their deaths. And every once in a while there's a scene of gruesome supernatural horror to remind you that this ain't Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor.
Sink into this one, you won't regret it.
Also by Michael McDowell: My review of The Elementals.
My complete list of book reviews.