‘Cold Moon Over Babylon’ is a story of violent supernatural revenge wrought on a small town in Florida after a young girl is murdered. Reading that you might be thinking ‘Scary creature slasher story with screaming teens being picked off. Been there. Done that. Change channels.’ but this time you’d be wrong.
‘Cold Moon Over Babylon’ isn’t a trope twist. Published in 1980, it pre-dates most of the tropes. It isn’t a something you can sit back from, munching popcorn and cheering when the person dumb enough to go into the dark cellar alone after hearing a weird noise finally gets theirs. This is horror that doesn’t allow you the luxury of emotional distance, doesn’t follow a well-trodden path and doesn’t go away when you close the book.
This is because Michael McDowell writes with great power. He allows time for the reader to feel the pain and grief caused by the bad things that happen rather than going for the splashy thrill of the arterial spurt. He makes the people real, which makes the evil done to and by them, real.
The book reminds me of a steam train. Like that first flurry of steam and scream of the whistle when the train starts, the noise of violent death at the beginning of the book grabs the attention at once. Then movement feels slow, almost ponderous. The chaotic noise of released steam is replaced by the quiet rhythm of wheels starting to turn under power. You don’t notice the speed and momentum of the train until the next bad things happen and then you realise that the train is unstoppable and is going to smash your emotions.
Babylon is a small town where the same families have known each other for generations. McDowell’s descriptions of small-town life, its people and their challenges feel real. His descriptions of the sudden deaths and shocking violence that start the novel are vivid and textured. When the violence triggers a supernatural response, the response also feels real.
The most frightening force in the book isn’t supernatural, it’s human. Evil, twisted, repugnant but entirely human and entirely believable. That the revenge against this evil included not just returning the violence inflicted but destroying the sanity and dignity of the person being punished was deeply satisfying.
The juxtaposition of a detailed description of everyday small-town life with acts of human violence and supernatural revenge amplifies the emotional impact of the killings, making the violence more tragic and the vengeance well-deserved.
The scene where the corpse of the missing girl is recovered is an example of how McDowell gives his writing power. The body recovery scene is one I’ve seen in countless TV crime dramas. I know how it goes. It’s sad but it’s the first step towards catching the bad guy. Except when McDowell writes it, all that distance disappears. I didn’t see a body and evidence or hear the tick of a clockwork plot advancing. I saw raw grief. I felt the true horror that totally overwhelms the people that it strikes. I saw something broken and lost that could never be fixed or returned. I had to stop and let that pass through me before I could read more.
The plot of the book didn’t go quite where I expected. The resolution it offered was as stark. It offered no comfort, just revenge and revenge, even the supernatural kind, brings only mutual destruction.
Scott Brick was the perfect choice as the narrator for this book. His tone is implacable. His accents are perfect and the voices of his characters easy to recognise. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.
You may also be interested in reading McDowell’s ‘The Elementals’ which, for me, pretty much defines Southern Gothic