Blackwater: A unique horror saga

Blackwater: The Complete Saga by Michael McDowell science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsBlackwater: The Complete Saga by Michael McDowell

Blackwater: The Complete Saga by Michael McDowell science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsMichael 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.

Published in 1983. 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 … Originally published as a series of six volumes in 1983, Blackwater is the crowning achievement of Michael McDowell, author of the Southern Gothic classics Cold Moon Over Babylon and The Elementals and screenwriter of Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. This first-ever one-volume edition, with a new introduction by Shirley Jackson Award-winning author Nathan Ballingrud, marks Blackwater’s first appearance in print in three decades and will allow a new generation of readers to discover this modern horror classic.

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KELLY LASITER, with us since July 2008, is a mild-mannered academic administrative assistant by day, but at night she rules over a private empire of tottering bookshelves. Kelly is most fond of fantasy set in a historical setting (a la Jo Graham) or in a setting that echoes a real historical period (a la George RR Martin and Jacqueline Carey). She also enjoys urban fantasy and its close cousin, paranormal romance, though she believes these subgenres’ recent burst in popularity has resulted in an excess of dreck. She is a sucker for pretty prose (she majored in English, after all) and mythological themes.

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3 comments

  1. Jana Nyman /

    Even carnivorous river monsters can’t get love from their mothers-in-law? Oh, the humanity! :D

    • Kelly Lasiter /

      Not in the least! LOL. The mother-in-law is scarier about 80% of the time.

  2. This sounds great! Thanks for the review

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