Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In The Cut, by Susanna Moore

(hb; 1995)

From the inside flap:

"We hear the wry, brazenly honest voice of an intelligence, self-determined woman living alone in New York City. She's a teacher of writing and a scholar of language in all its eccentricities, its vagaries of meaning and effect. She likes her solitude, when she chooses it; her students, when they don't follow her home; men, when they don't expect her to belong to them. She's unblinking and acute in her observations about herself as she is about other people. Uncertainty interests her -- the wish to be surprised: 'I have a. . . certain incautious adaptability.' She has chosen a private, if unsheltered life, and she is utterly unprepared for the danger that awaits her.

"In the aftermath of a particularly gruesome murder in her neighborhood, she finds herself in the grip of an unfamiliar gripping terror. She propels herself into a risky sexual liaison, as if to test the limits of her own safety, her knowledge of the world, and her ability to interpret it -- both its language and its unspoken signs. But as her fears and passions grow, she is increasingly wary not only of this one man but of every man with whom she has contact. It becomes clear that her passion, once a way of gaining control over chaos, is, instead, chaos itself. And by the time a second murder occurs, her darkest suspicions already may have already been overwhelmed by the darker desires she has discovered in herself."


Edgy, raw head-rush of a novel, with surprising dialogue and events. Is the murderer Jimmy Malloy, a charming, blunt cop? Is it Cornelius, a cynical John Wayne Gacy-obsessed student? Or is the serial murderer another man, one of a few other men the female protagonist (her name is never uttered) finds herself in contact with?

In The Cut is gripping, sharp, original and almost perfect, until, near the end, the female protagonist has a Stupid Moment -- that moment when it's clear what's going on, and who's doing what badness to whom, and a key character acts uncharacteristically Stupid (yes, with a capital "S").

That Stupid Moment is a minor nit, though. The female protagonist's surprising clarity -- practically fatalistic detachment -- to the horrors taking place around her turns this into more than the run-of-the-mill serial killer novel, almost rendering the aformentioned nit moot.

Worth owning, this.

A film version of the novel hit stateside theater screens on October 31, 2003.

Meg Ryan played Frannie. Jennifer Jason Leigh played Pauline. Mark Ruffalo played Malloy. Nick Damici played Detective Rodriguez.

Jane Campion directed the film, from a script she co-wrote with author Susanna Moore and Stavros Kazantzidis.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Blackwater serial novels, by Michael McDowell

(pb; 1983: six-part novel)

1.) Blackwater: I - The Flood

From the back cover:

"Elinor Dammert was rescued from her room in the flood-isolated hotel. What strange mission brought her there? How did she survive her isolation? Why was she in the Alabama town of Perdido that Easter morning in 1919?

"These questions would never be answered because larger and even more terrifying ones would be asked. She soon would become a strange presence in the wealthy Caskey family and their town. Horrors, virtually unspeakable and nearly indescribable, follow."

2.) Blackwater: II - The Levee

From the back cover:

"Elinor Dammert abandoned her first-born child in a bargain with Mary-Love Caskey of Perdido, Alabama, and set in motion a series of strange familial entanglements. Her goals: power, money, her way.

"In her way, she would begin to suck power from the weaknesses of the family she had entered through marriage. Her power would be felt again and again even if it meant murder -- or a horrifying ancient ritual death.

"Elinor Dammer must win."

3.) Blackwater: III - The House

From the back cover:

"The Depression came hard to most people in Perdido, Alabama, but the town's first family weathered the storm under the guidance of the indomitable Mary-Love Caskey and the increasing influence of her daughter-in-law, Elinor.

"Strange and malevolent were the ways of Elinor to those who stood in her way. Those she loved would prosper. Those she disliked would die hideously. No court could call it murder because her manner was not human."

4.) Blackwater: IV - The War

From the back cover:

"Wartime in Perdido jolted the sleepy little Alabama town as new people entered the community. Outsiders would invade the comfort of the wealthy Caskeys and take their daughters.

"This, though, was part of the master plan of Elinor Caskey, who would see the family flourish amidst the destruction and death she administered in a fashion more awesome than the war itself."

5.) Blackwater: V - The Fortune

From the back cover:

"Under Elinor's guidance, the Caskey family prospered after the war, not knowing that a dark infernal force was growing in their midst. And Frances, Elinor's favorite daughter, never understood her yearning for the Perdido River. . . until the day her babies were born.

"Elinor presided over the secret birth, the triumph of her life. And the blood red water of the Perdido continued to claim its own -- both humans and demons -- some in grisly death, some in exquisite surrender."

6.) Blackwater: VI - Rain

From the back cover:

"As the Caskey family and their town of Perdido rode the crest of prosperity in the '60s, matriarch Elinor had good reason to be proud of her domain. But slowly, silently, unimaginable horrors were creeping into their midst.

"At the height of revelry, at the peak of chaos, in the fearful silence of blackest night, preternatural horror pounced upon the Caskeys. But still Elinor reigned, until her solemn vow of death came true -- in the final hour."


Solid, character-rich narrative, spanning six decades, about the wealthy Caskey family, and a strange woman (Elinor Dammert) who marries into it. Over the course of six decades, through her quiet, smart and supernatural manipulations, Elinor furthers the family's social and financial positions.

The spookiness and horror, aside from a few gory brutal and brief instances, is more prevalent in the family's circumstances and increased wealth, and in the occasional disappearances of Perdido citizens -- often after the unreported sightings of a startling river monster.

Sublime, genre-mixed, hard-to-put-down original serial novel series, this. The history- and character-punctuated horrors mount well, culminating in a satisfactory story- and mood-consistent denouement that dovetails not-so-nicely (in a horrific way) with the beginning of the story.

Own this.

<em>The Letter, the Witch and the Ring</em> by John Bellairs

(pb; 1976: third book in the Lewis Barnavelt mysteries . Drawings by Richard Egielski .) From the back cover “Rose Rita [Pottinger]...