I do try to appreciate the Southern Gothic genre, though the pacing in these sorts of books (and Southern literature in general) can be a little… relaxed for my taste at times. Fortunately, books like Michael McDowell’s The Flood are well enough written that the power of the prose can carry us along where the narrative looks to be grinding to a halt. While the first novel of what would become a six-part series is now out of print, the whole thing has been re-released as the Blackwater Saga, with all six books in one volume. I’ve only finished the first book so I can’t comment (yet) on the whole series, but I can say that The Flood is a solid introduction.
We first enter the town of Perdido, Alabama, as the two nearby rivers are at flood stage and have covered most of the town. Only the tops and upper floors of buildings remain above the flood. As they are exploring the town, local lumber baron Oscar Caskey and his faithful employee Bray discover Elinor Dammert inexplicably stranded on an upper floor of the local hotel. Oscar quickly falls for the stranger and [spoilers from here on out] before we know it Elinor and Oscar are married. That is, before we know it at a Southern pace. It does take pages and pages of narrative before we actually get there. While Elinor brings a breath of fresh air to the slow-paced world of Perdido, she also brings mystery and just a touch of the supernatural. Strange disappearances, inexplicable appearances, and apparent foreknowledge of future events surround Elinor as she settles into life in the town.
Above all, Elinor raises the question of violence. She is certainly willing and able to do the dirty work that makes the community a better place. From treating minorities with dignity and decency to taking over from the teacher who bails on the town to driving away the abusive, drunken in-law, Elinor is increasingly that on which the more hesitant and careful members of the family come to rely (especially when they see themselves as bound by norms and conditions of the times–“yes, it’s terrible that the child is being abused, but we don’t poke our nose in others’ business!”). And yet, Elinor also solves many of these problems with savage brutality. Not that others always see it in action, and no one knows for sure that she is the hand at work arranging things (one individual is killed when their car slides into a logging truck during a cloudburst), but we know. This brutality especially stands in contrast with the genteel Southern tradition that defines so many of the rhythms of life for the town of Perdido. Presumably, there will be more on this contrast in later books.
This should give Christians a lot to think about. On the one hand, we are never to turn to strong men, violence, or brutal methods to solve life’s problems. We should always act with grace, mercy, and charity. These words are not just goals, they are methods and means as well. What we do is not to be disconnected from how we do it.
On the other hand, our salvation was accomplished by a savage act of brutality poured out on an Innocent–the only Innocent who has ever lived. We are justified by the shed blood of someone else, and our ultimate problems are solved by the brutal execution of someone in our place. Which tells us that violence has a place, it just happens not to be our place.
And hopefully you can see why I want to enjoy Southern Gothic literature more than I do. This book, like so many in the genre, combines religious imagery, horror, tradition, and all sorts of other themes and ideas in one place. Unlike so many in the genre, it isn’t so much of a slog as to be unreadable.
Dr. Coyle Neal is co-host of the City of Man Podcast and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, MO