Blackwater: The Complete Saga by Michael McDowell
Michael McDowell originally published the BLACKWATER horror series in six volumes (The Flood, The Levee, The House, The War, The Fortune, and Rain) in 1983. Some of the installments go for a pretty penny on the Internet these days, so it’s great that Valancourt Press released an omnibus edition, Blackwater: The Complete Saga (2017). This edition is the most cost-effective way to get your hands on this sprawling tale.
Blackwater is set in the town of Perdido, Alabama and tells the story of a lumber dynasty, the Caskeys, between 1919 and 1970. It begins when the scion of the family, Oscar, finds a young woman, Elinor, stranded in the town’s hotel during a catastrophic flood. Oscar rescues and later marries Elinor, despite the disapproval of his mother, Mary-Love, and Elinor’s own caginess about her background. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law wage a cold war of passive-aggressive manipulation, the effects of which will ripple through everyone’s lives for generations.
Oh, and Elinor is a very carnivorous river monster. (This isn’t too much of a spoiler. We find out pretty quickly.)
McDowell writes in a third-person omniscient that allows us to understand all of the many major characters, while keeping us at a bit of a remove; we don’t really identify with any one person in particular. You will probably find your sympathies jumping around. If you’ve dealt with an impossible mother-in-law, you might side with Elinor over Mary-Love — but then, river monster. You might cheer when rapists get their brutal comeuppance in the murky water, but be appalled when the same thing happens to innocents.
You might even find yourself forgetting Blackwater is horror for long stretches of time. You’ll be caught up in some bit of town or family drama, and then suddenly remember that the situation might, in fact, be resolved by someone becoming lunch.
Being composed of six novels, and moving at a leisurely pace much of the time, Blackwater sometimes feels its length. It took me a while to read it, but I always came back to it, and the final installment, Rain, really kicks it up a notch in my opinion. Just when the Caskeys are filthy rich and it seems like there’s nowhere to go but up, the family starts to decline instead. Old people die, young people leave town, houses decay, and an apocalyptic (but beautifully described) rain is coming. When I realized where the story was going, I thought, “… Did I just read One Hundred Years of Solitude for small-town Alabama?” I don’t think it’s necessarily quite on that level in the literary sense, but it has a similar sweep to it, and similarly tells the story of a town by telling the story of a family.
Besides an occasional tendency to drag, the only other real flaw, which Nathan Ballingrud points out in his introduction to the Valancourt edition, is “the short shrift the African-American characters are given.” In particular, the Caskey family is served by several generations of the black Sapp family, who do all the heavy work for decades while the white matriarchs get the credit for being gracious hostesses. There is a hint late in the book that McDowell may have realized the sacrifices the Sapps made, as evidenced by a speech from Zaddie Sapp about what she gave up to stay by Elinor’s side, but the most tragic sacrifice by a Sapp happens early on and then is completely forgotten by both the characters and the narrative.
Blackwater is a unique horror saga that has deservedly emerged from obscurity, thanks to its appearance in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell. It would make a great prestige TV series, I think. Recommended for fans of family sagas, Southern gothic, and occasional plunges into the shockingly visceral.