Authors: Michael McDowell
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Occult, #Fiction, #Horror
Tough Times Publishing
© 1983 by Michael McDowell
Introduction © 2014 by John Langan
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce any portion of this work in any form, except for brief quotations used in articles or reviews. Please contact [email protected] for additional information.
First E-book Edition
If you find an error in this e-book, please notify [email protected]
is the author of two collections of stories,
Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies
(Hippocampus 2013) and
Mr. Gaunt and Other Uneasy Encounters
(Prime 2008), and a novel,
House of Windows
(Night Shade 2009). With Paul Tremblay, he co-edited
Creatures: Thirty Years of Monsters
(Prime 2011). He lives with his family in upstate New York.
Readers new to
should note that this
introduction reveals elements of the plot.
In January of 1983, Michael McDowell, a thirty-two year old writer, published a somewhat short novel of supernatural horror titled
. Set in the small, southeast Alabama town of Perdido, the narrative begins at dawn, on Easter Sunday morning of 1919, with the town in flood. While reconnoitering Perdido’s flooded streets via rowboat, Oscar Caskey, son of an influential local family, discovers a mysterious woman sheltering in a second-story room of the town’s hotel. Despite the cautions of Bray Sugarwhite, the family servant who is manning the oars, Oscar rescues Elinor Dammert. The novel spares little time in justifying Bray’s concerns. Elinor is not completely human; at times, when submerged in water, she transforms into a kind of monstrous amphibian.
In her human form, however, Elinor is completely charming, and Oscar is soon smitten with her. His mother, Mary-Love, is certain that this was Elinor’s goal all along, and she sets herself against the other woman. Elinor reciprocates Oscar’s feelings, and in short order—despite Mary-Love’s best efforts—the two are wed. The remainder of the novel relates the couple’s efforts to establish their own household, removed from Mary-Love’s sway, and the dramatic sacrifice they must make in order to do so. It also shows us the terrible fate suffered by those unlucky enough to encounter the changed Elinor.
A month later, McDowell followed
with a second volume,
, which picks up the narrative of Elinor and Oscar and the other members of the Caskey family and carries it forward in time, as the inhabitants of Perdido construct a series of levees to prevent a recurrence of the flood from the first book, an enterprise whose success demands a secret, bloody offering. In March, April, and May, McDowell released
, respectively, each of which advances the story still further, as the Great Depression yields to the Second World War, and the Caskeys, increasingly under Elinor’s guidance, gain in wealth and power. Finally, in June, came
, which concludes the story of Elinor Dammert’s relationship with the Caskey family and the town of Perdido. Collectively, the six-part saga would be known as
. Borrowing a page from the great serial writers of the mid- to late-nineteenth century, McDowell had published what was in fact a substantial horror novel. For anyone familiar with the particulars of McDowell’s life, his use of the serial form was perhaps not that surprising: he had earned a Ph.D. from Brandeis in the literature of the nineteenth century.
In its method of publication,
was ambitious. It was no less so in its narrative design. Previously, McDowell had authored a number of well-received horror novels—
Cold Moon Over Babylon
(1981) among the best of them—which had identified him as one of the bright lights in a constellation of writers that included Stephen King, Peter Straub, and Ramsey Campbell. Together, this group of writers was engaged in renovating the horror novel, doing so by bringing together the stuff of traditional horror with techniques drawn from the literary mainstream. Thus, King mixed the tentacular cosmicism of Lovecraft with the blunt naturalism of Norris and Dreiser, while Straub blended the atavistic mysticism of Machen with the mannerism of Henry James, and Campbell combined Lovecraft with the linguistic paranoia of Nabokov. This cross-pollination allowed the horror novel to develop in new directions. The form moved towards a deeper engagement with the world into which its horrific elements intrude. It traced with greater precision the emotional and intellectual responses of its characters to that intrusion. It evoked more of the ways in which the horror’s disruption might be made manifest.
In his interview with Douglas Winter for
Faces of Fear
(1985), McDowell described his own writing as the confluence of two writers, specifically of Lovecraft with Eudora Welty’s understated Modernism. As is the case with King et al., to mention Lovecraft’s gelatinous monstrosities in the same breath as Welty’s small-town eccentrics sounds like the start of a joke, possibly a very bad one. Yet it is almost surprisingly easy to identify points of convergence between their respective bodies of work. Both Lovecraft and Welty are writers of place, interested in small, carefully-rendered communities. Within those settings, they are drawn to old families, particularly as they represent the persistence of the past into the present. In their different ways, Lovecraft and Welty address the intersection of the mundane and the numinous: Lovecraft in most of his longer fiction; Welty in her short novel,
The Robber Bridegroom
(1942), and the linked stories that comprise
The Golden Apples
(1949). McDowell also drew attention to Welty’s gift for rendering her characters’ speech, especially at length, which is a recurrent feature of
. Given that McDowell was raised in Geneva and Brewton, a pair of towns in southeastern Alabama, it is not a great leap in critical biography to say that Welty’s work gave him a means to make use of his experience of the American south in his fiction.
This McDowell does to great effect in
. While Elinor Dammert, later Caskey, is never far from the events of the ongoing narrative, the book is quite happy to wander into the lives of its ever-expanding cast of characters, from Mary-Love Caskey and her brother, James; to Oscar’s sister, Elvennia (known throughout, somewhat dismissively, as merely “Sister”); to James’s estranged wife, Genevieve, and her sister, Queenie; to the African-American servants who work for the Caskeys, Bray and Ivey Sapp and Ivey’s sister, Zaddie; to the children of the Caskeys, Miriam and Frances; to a host of secondary figures. Indeed, at moments, the narrative perspective approaches that of the town, itself. His attention to setting aligns McDowell with contemporaries such as Stephen King and Charles Grant, each of whom also exploited the possibilities of an extensively-imagined small town to lend the supernatural threat to it more heft. (Given that Grant’s Oxrun Station novels and stories revisit the community at various moments throughout its history, his use of setting is in some ways closer to McDowell’s.) Of course, all three writers are indebted to the examples of Lovecraft and Faulkner, both of whom fictionalized the places familiar to them, then joined the narratives they set in them through a variety of means ranging from recurring characters to shared themes; Lovecraft and Faulkner, in turn, derive from Balzac, who arranged his fictional oeuvre into a vast, inter-related network whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts—which is the ultimate aim of and justification for any such enterprise. It is to McDowell’s credit that, with
, he succeeds in creating such a structure.