It’s Scaretober, y’all! Woot! Woot! October is my favorite month, so I’m pulling out all the stops. To celebrate, I’m sharing my favorite scary fun books and movies. All. Month. Long. Let’s get to it!
Today’s feature: Cold Moon Over Babylon by Michael McDowell.
Cold Moon Over Babylon is the second novel by Michael McDowell, the great master of horror fiction you have probably never heard of. The story unfolds in the small town of Babylon, near the Florida-Alabama state line. It’s home of the Larkins, a poor but upright family of blueberry farmers who have endured a series of tragedies. The latest is the mysterious disappearance and death of 14-year-old Margaret Larkin. The family knows who killed her, but the killer is well-connected, wealthy, and above the law. The family is powerless. Justice will not be served. Or will it?
After Margaret’s death, a series of strange events roil the town. Traffic lights glow blue. Graves erupt at the local cemetery. And something is lurking, lying in wait, in the River Styx. It runs through town, and no that isn’t a typo. There really is a river Styx in this area, and yes, it is named after the one in Greek Mythology, which makes McDowell’s use of setting even more intense. The magic of this book is that you know who the bad guy is early on, but you’re on the edge of your seat until the very end wondering if justice will ever be served. I will leave you with that, for fear of spoilers. But I will say,
it only takes about five pages to get to the first WTF? Holy Crap moments in this book. It’s also been made into a film entitled “Cold Moon,” but I cannot attest to its quality because I have yet to see it.
If you’ve never heard of this book or Michael McDowell, you aren’t alone but you are missing out. McDowell was a prolific author of paperback horror novels in the 1980s. Stephen King was one of his biggest fans. (So big that his wife, Tabitha King, finished one of McDowell’s novels after his untimely death. He died young, sadly.) McDowell also wrote the screenplay for Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. His horror novels, which also include my all-time favorite Blackwater Saga and the equally awesome novel The Amulet, were hard to come by. They were out of print for many years, until Valancourt Books graciously re-released them a few years ago.
I’m not sure how to describe his writing. Haunting? Beautiful? Southern Gothic. All those and more. It is definitely rooted in the style and tradition of great writers from the Deep South. McDowell was raised in Alabama in the 1950 and 60s. His descriptions of Deep South locations and ambiance, as well as the complicated social relationships within families, in high society, as well as between races and classes in the Deep South are spot on. (I lived in New Orleans for eleven years and appreciate McDowell even more as a result. I’ve been to many of the actual places he describes in his novels. And he nails it, every time.)
His greatest talent, in my opinion, is his monster building. With Cold Moon and his Blackwater novellas, McDowell gives us original monsters, yes he uses familiar tropes but with new twists. For instance, in The Elementals, he gives us a traditional Gothic haunted house tale but set in the bright sun and heat. There are no dark drafts or shadowy corners in these haunted mansions. In Cold Moon and Blackwater, he gives us creatures tied to the water. Familiar, yet different, and always unpredictable, even when we know who or what they are and what they are capable of. Often, we are rooting for the monsters.
Earlier this year, I did a round-up of must-read McDowell fiction here.
That’s all for today. Stay tuned for more Scaretober! And, in case you missed it:
Scaretober 1: Mark Cain’s Circles in Hell series
Scaretober 2: Mad Monster Party (1967)
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