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Blackwater: The Mysterious Saga of the Caskey Family

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The Flood
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The Levee
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The House
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The War
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The Fortune
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opening lines:
At dawn on East Sunday morning, 1919, the cloudless sky over Perdido, Alabama, was a pale translucent pink not reflected in the black waters that for the past week had entirely flooded the town.

Here's two facts: (1) horror fiction has always been obsessed with family, history and heredity (it's the theme of Horace Walpole's Castle of Otranto, the first horror novel); (2) the offspring of horror - fantasy and SF - both specialize in multi-volume novel sequences. Given these facts, it's odd that horror has never really gone in for the big, sprawling, family saga.

And now here's the exception. Michael McDowell was already a pretty successful horror author when he decided to bring out this six-volume slab of Southern Gothic, with the books being published on a monthly basis. It was a great idea and, even if it's not McDowell's finest moment, it's still a whole heap of fun.

We start at Easter 1919 with the small town of Perdido, Alabama under water after the Perdido and Blackwater Rivers have burst their banks. The entire population (1200 people) have fled to higher ground, but curiously, as the flood-waters begin to recede, a stranger is discovered, stranded in the upper storey of the hotel. Elinor Dammert has red hair, seems somehow organically linked to the rivers and - when seen in a particular light - appears to have webbed feet.

Two of McDowell's strengths are on display here: his fascination with horror in the South (as in The Amulet, Cold Moon Over Babylon and The Elementals) and his ability to write historical Gothic, previously seen in Gilded Needles. And that kind of keeps things ticking over, as we follow several generations of a family being ripped apart by the evil influence of the interloper. To be really honest, though, there's not quite enough narrative material here to sustain the full six volumes.

Still, it's a magnificent folly, and you've got to give McDowell credit for attempting something so ambitious. And I like some of the asides. Here's a character speculating on the fact that outsiders don't see the reality of the town:

...they never suspected that it was really the women who ran Perdido. Oscar wondered if that were the case in other towns of Alabama. It might, he thought suddenly and terribly, be true everywhere. But men, when they got together, never talked about their powerlessness, nor was it written about in the paper, nor did senators make speeches about it on the floor of Congress... (The Flood, p.31)


Publishing note: Volume 1 is from the original US edition (Avon, New York, 1983); the remaining five are the British edition (Corgi, London, 1985).