Avon Books, 1980, 292 pages
Welcome to Babylon, a typical sleepy Alabama small town, where years earlier the Larkin family suffered a terrible tragedy. Now they are about to endure another: 14-year-old Margaret Larkin will be robbed of her innocence and her life by a killer who is beyond the reach of the law.
But something strange is happening in Babylon: traffic lights flash an eerie blue, a ghostly hand slithers from the drain of a kitchen sink, graves erupt from the local cemetery in an implacable march of terror. And beneath the murky surface of the river, a shifting, almost human shape slowly takes form. Night after night it will pursue the murderer. And when the full moon rises over Babylon, it will seek a terrible vengeance.
Cold Moon Over Babylon, the second novel by Michael McDowell (1950-1999), author of Blackwater and The Elementals and screenwriter of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, is a chilling Southern Gothic tale of revenge from beyond the grave that ranks among his most terrifying books.
Michael McDowell's novels harken back to the golden age of pulp horror paperbacks. All of them are full of nasty men, petty matriarchs and queen bees, shady business deals, and eventually, supernatural creepies coming out of the muddy water and woodwork to inflict horrible retribution. The Southern oozes out of his Southern Gothics. Cold Moon Over Babylon is about murder and mayhem wreaked by the sociopathic scion of a small-town banker, and the vengeful ghosts that rise to exact justice.
The story loses no time in hitting its awful stride: we're introduced to the Larkins, an unfortunate family of blueberry farmers. Mr. and Mrs. Larkin die while rowing across the muddy (and appropriately named) Styx River, when they encounter a bag full of rattlesnakes, panic, and drown. A few years later, their 14-year-old daughter Margaret, now raised along with her older brother by their grandmother Evelyn, is jumped on the way home by a mysterious man in a leather mask, who ties her to her bicycle, carves her up, and then throws her into the river to drown.
Believe it or not, things get even worse for the Larkins after that.
Nathan Redfield, the villain of the story, is as sleazy and smarmy a villain as ever creeped through the pages of a novel. We know pretty early that he was responsible somehow; we just don't know all the whys and hows. This is unveiled to us gradually, along with his strained relationship with his father, his domination of his dull-witted younger brother, and the fact that he's banging the teenaged daughter of the town sheriff. Nathan Redfield is not a nice man.
When the hauntings start, they're ghastly, but become a bit repetitive. They're still enjoyable because we know Nathan is eventually going to get his, it's just a question of when and how.
I've read several books by McDowell now, and enjoyed all of them, but this was one of his earlier novels and I didn't like it quite as much as The Elementals, and it's just a tiny, muddy appetizer compared to the epic Southern Gothic family drama with a side of Thing from the Black Lagoon that is the Caskey saga. But still a great October porch read.
Apparently there was a 2016 movie, which unfortunately isn't available on Netflix. Trailer looks pretty good, though.
Also by Michael McDowell: My reviews of The Elementals and The Caskey Family Saga.
My complete list of book reviews.