Michael McDowell – Blackwater: The Complete Saga (1983)

Review by Justin Tate

Blackwater makes you utterly desperate to find out what happens next, as if your life depends upon it. When I was almost done, I considered calling in sick because I was afraid I might die in a car crash before finding out how the story ends. It’s that good.

Though categorized as a southern gothic and shelved in the horror section (when it’s not out-of-print) it often feels closer to Harper Lee or John Steinbeck than Stephen King. But other times, always when you least expect it, it is very much a horror novel. Not King, though, nor Lovecraft. This is a quiet, creeping horror that doesn’t exactly feel supernatural. After grounding the story so firmly in realistic, earthy characters, how can anything—even water monsters and vengeful apparitions—be unreal?

Blackwater is also unique for being so damn epic. Originally published in six parts, it totals nearly 1,200 pages or 30 hours on audio. Thankfully Valancourt Books reprinted the entire saga as a single volume so you don’t have to hunt down each individual book on eBay. That can get really expensive!

Because the complete novel is so long, I stopped to take note of my emotional reaction at the end of each book. Here’s my spoiler-free reader journey:

Blackwater I: The Flood

After a chilling, supernatural opening, the story steers into ordinary domestic squabbles. There are sections reminiscent of such folksy classics as Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street and Steinbeck’s Cannary Row. I won’t lie this catches me off guard and tests my patience. I’m a horror fan and came here to read a horror story. What gives?

Halfway, I stop worrying about when beasties will show up and learn to savor the tea-drinking, humid, swampy thrill of southern gothic living. Clearly this book isn’t typical and it’s going to do it’s own thing. That’s cool. I’m down for something new.

That ending–damn. Yep, smart to trust McDowell. He clearly knows what he’s doing. The new development is juicy enough that I can see how it’s going to fuel the remaining thousand pages. Let’s do this!

Overall: While The Flood by itself is very low on horror, I must remember this is only a small slice of one epic, continuous story. McDowell understands that horror only works when the reader is rooted in realism, and he’s putting down deep roots. The large cast of characters are vivid and recognizable, and even Eleanor—shrouded in mystery—seems like someone real. Maybe even someone I know. I don’t know how “scary” this epic will end up being, but even if it settles on being a magical realism remix on Cannery Row, I can tell it’s going to be good.

Blackwater II: The Levee

Low on drama yet high on impending doom, Book II officially has me captivated and obsessed. This family is such a trip and mixing in the mysterious river woman is the perfect catalyst for epic disaster.

I am worried though. With 800 pages left, it’s possible the novel will become one of my all-time favorites or one of my all-time biggest disappointments. With so much tension building, stakes are high. McDowell’s really got to stick the landing. Right now I proceed having faith he will deliver the goods—but I’m nervous!

Blackwater III: The House

Part III is intense. Previous plot threads are aligning, tensions have never been more high and there’s substantial creepiness throughout. Build-up from the previous two books are proving worthwhile now that McDowell is taking full advantage of the festering family drama and eerie setting. Still can’t decide if this epic is the greatest thing ever or an unreasonably long (but very good) tale. So far leaning toward the greatest thing ever, but it will depend a lot on the ending. McDowell, don’t let me down!

Blackwater IV: The War

The War focuses on the younger Caskey members and is overall less riveting than the prior books. Pages fly by as effortlessly as ever, however. There’s one particularly gruesome scene where we learn more about the mysterious Eleanor. You won’t soon forget it! This book also serves as efficient pacing, allowing narrative time to pass so the plot can simmer into what I imagine (hope) will be a boiling climax.

Blackwater V: The Fortune

Aaahhh yeah! Book five’s got the goods. At first it seems obnoxious how wonderful everything is going for the Caskeys, but I suspect McDowell is building a castle just so he can tear it down in the finale. I certainly can’t imagine this becoming a happily-ever-after type story.

Almost impossible to comment on this book alone because there’s such a frenzied need to find out what happens next that all I can think about is tearing into the final part. I can say that Blackwater is the weirdest, least conventional horror novel I’ve ever encountered. Sometimes I wonder “Is this even good?” but then I’m also like, salivating to read on. So how can it not be good? Technically the characters are somewhat cliché. They’re fully realized and fleshed out, but still very ordinary. But then, placing the sinister characters among these familiar personalities is what makes it so badass.

The terror aspect is unique too. Should I be scared? There are points when the story acts like the furthest thing from a horror novel, and then there are parts that chill me to my core. It’s such an emotional ride. I only hope he doesn’t screw it up at the end!

Blackwater VI: Rain

I can’t fully review this final book without spoilers, but know that it does not disappoint! The plot remains consistent, a blend of family affairs and uncanny abnormalities—notably an increasingly restless brood of apparitions and river monsters. Close readers may recall hints in book one to predict the ending, but even still it is hard to imagine not feeling a little surprised.

I didn’t realize how much I loved Blackwater until it was over and I had to return to the real world, with no more pages of Caskey history to follow. Generally I am much more a fan of lean, novella-length stories, but this is an epic that is worthy of its girth. There’s not a wasted sentence at any point in its 1,200 pages. I say that with reverence and awe, as it’s hard to do even in the shortest of narratives. Perhaps an even greater word of praise, more pages wouldn’t be a bad thing! It’s sad, really, that Blackwater isn’t 2,000 pages long.

Along the way I pondered whether this saga would be the greatest thing ever or a great disappointment. I can say with certainty now that it is indeed among the greatest things ever. Certainly among my favorite reads of all time. If you haven’t already, stop wasting time and start reading Blackwater!

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