Blackwater: The Complete Saga by Michael McDowell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When Oscar Caskey finds the mysterious Elinor Dammert on the second floor of a hotel during a great flood, he brings her home and falls in love with her. But Elinor isn't what she seems and Mary-Love, Oscar's mother and matriarch of the Caskey clan, doesn't want Oscar marrying her...
That's the setup but it's just scratching the surface. How do you write a teaser for an 800 page epic?
My cohort Anthony Vacca recommended this and Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of '70s and '80s Horror Fiction agreed with him. They both undersold it.
While Michael McDowell is primarily known as a horror writer and Blackwater definitely has scenes of horror in it, it's a sprawling family epic more than anything else. Oscar Caskey rescuing Elinor and bringing her back to his family kicks off an epic that spans three generations, starting in 1919 and ending during the 1960s.
Released as six novellas during the horror boom of the 1970s, Blackwater is a slow burn, the characters and their machinations taking center stage. It reminds me of The Pillars of the Earth in some ways. Painstaking time is taken to flesh out the Caskeys and their extended clan and the lumber business. The book is a comedy of manners at times, family drama at others, and the undercurrent of horror is lurking in the background, waiting to tear the arms off of some poor sucker at any moment.
The book primarily features conflict between strong female characters, first between Mary-Love and Elinor, and the conflict is carried on down the line. It could easily be a great historical novel if Elinor wasn't a man-eating river monster in disguise. All the maneuverings reminded me of Game of Thrones, only played out in an Alabama river town over the course of three generations.
The cast is richly developed and I unexpectedly started caring a little too much for this rich Southern family and their lumber business. The twists kept me thinking about the book when I wasn't reading it. The deaths were pretty sad, even Mary-Love's, even though she'd had it coming for a couple decades at that point.
There's so much I want to say but I don't want to spoil anything. This beast was 800 pages long but I would have gladly read 800 more. That's how enthralled I was by the saga of the Caskey clan. It's a crime that this book has been forgotten over the years. I'll read it on my kindle but I'll probably buy a hardcover just to keep on a shelf someplace. Five out of five stars.
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