Image of Blackwood
Release Date: 
March 3, 2020
Little, Brown & Company
Reviewed by: 

“Southern gothic novels such as Blackwood are not for the fainthearted, but for those who love symbolism, metaphor, and complex characters filled with angst and tortured self-reflection. Give it five stars out of five.”

Blackwood is a Southern gothic novel that will ever alter your view of kudzu vines as merely a pesky form of vegetation, but as a metaphor for the past’s malevolent intrusion into the present.

Red Bluff, Mississippi, is a small, economically depressed town populated by citizens barely hanging on, and with little or no hope that life will improve either financially or personally for its residents.

Even the town’s offer of free rent to any artist, musician, or writer one who wants to locate to one of the many vacant storefronts on its main street fails to find anyone except an artist who makes sculptures from discarded metal. Hopeless poverty threatens to envelope Red Bluff much as the kudza vines threaten to choke it.

“For every storefront with an OPEN sign there were three more that provided only shells, the small town mired in the purgatory of what had been and was to come.”

First came a family of three—the man, the woman, the boy—in an old Cadillac that died “at the edge of the post office parking lot . . . Three gangly figures . . . Each with the same spindled limbs and sunken mouth and leathery skin . . . They moved like revenants along the sidewalk.”

The man’s touching the local pharmacist’s granddaughter brings county sheriff Myer to the scene. After first offering to have the old Caddy towed and repaired and being turned down, Myer tells the man they will work something out so the family could be on its way.

Instead the man explores the valley overrun with kudza vines. “The man gazed across the great expanse of green, captivated by the reach of the kudzu . . . By the multitude of heartshaped leaves that seemed to wave to him as the nightwind swept down through the valley.”

The man has found his family a home in an old shack surrounded by kudza vines. The woman and the boy forage in the dumpsters of Red Bluff during the day, while the man wanders in the dark. It is then he begins hearing the voice that signals his evolution into a monster waiting to seize whoever ventures into the kudza jungle.

The second stranger to enter Red Bluff, the sculptor who accepts the town’s offer of free rent, is Colburn, who is not a stranger at all, but one who fled the town as a young boy and now returns as a man.

Colburn drives his flatbed truck around the county looking for any kind of discarded mental be it a rusted radiator, an old car door minus its car, or a rusted out boat. The men turn him down, but their wives give permission.

To the men the rust and grime-covered objects were symbols “better days gone by or suggestions of the possibilities of futures they were now certain would never come.”

Colburn “hauled away their pasts and their hopes, strapped into the back of the truck.”

One day Celia, the owner of the local bar and daughter of a deceased psychic, beckons him to follow her. He does, and thus begins a daily ritual in which he sits on a barstool and drinks beer and smokes cigarettes with her. He tells her his last name is Evans, a name almost anyone town would recognize.

One of the old men in the bar remarks that “That boy is in for a surprise . . . Thinking won’t nobody know who he belongs to.”

Who Colburn belongs to is a father who committed suicide when Colburn was a boy, the last man for whom Celia’s mother gave a reading.

Frequently Colburn joins Celia in her old home, which is surrounded by kudza vines without, and home to “the ghosts she had always believed to be there . . .”

Myer also knows Colburn as he was a young deputy when Colburn’s father committed suicide. He saw the young boy who grew up to be the man hanging on to his mother.

When not sleeping with Celia, Colburn roams the neighborhoods surrounding downtown looking for his old home, “As if his mother’s screams would resurrect and pierce the dark and lead him to his haunted home.”

Someone else roams the town and the valley in the night, someone who is no longer a man except in physical shape. It is the man from the old Caddy who has found an old tunnel dug by slaves and now swallowed by the kudza vines. It is the perfect place to hide his prey.

The man’s son, terrified by his father, finds an old cabin covered in kudza vines, and hides there, protected by stick figures he draws on its walls. He wonders if his mother’s sudden disappearance has something to do with his father

Colburn can no longer fly under the radar when twin boys disappear right after he talks to him. Myer finds no evidence that Colburn is guilty of abducting the boys, but knows that he has a record of violence.

Hidden by the jungle of kudza vines is the secret of man turned monster, and it is among the kudza vines that Colburn confronts the part his own rage played in the disappearance of Celia.

Michael Farris Smith’s Blackwood is a novel that will haunt one long after the last page is turned. Like Faulkner’s, Smith’s descriptive narrative is poetic, and like Faulkner, his story is heavily weighted by past acts that consciously or unconsciously motivate the characters.

Colburn’s rage is rooted in his father’s past actions, and Celia’s attraction to Colburn is at least partially a reaction to her mother’s guilt at not helping his father.

Blackwood is dark, no walking off into the sunset holding hands for Colburn and Celia. The kudza vines as a metaphor prove to be impenetrable to happy endings.

Southern gothic novels such as Blackwood are not for the fainthearted, but for those who love symbolism, metaphor, and complex characters filled with angst and tortured self-reflection. Give it five stars out of five.