Blackwood contains just about everything that I look for in a book of this genre, and everything I’ve come to expect from Michael Farris Smith. This haunting tale of a dying town in Mississippi not only deals with the death throes of a community, but also how trauma affects the people attached to it. When the sleepy town of Red Bluff becomes the victim of more tragedy than it has seen in the last twenty years, something dark and sinister awakes beneath the verdant sea of kudzu vines.
The focal point of Michael Farris Smith’s writing are his characters. He has an exquisite talent to create individuals that feel real, people that you can love or hate or at least empathize with in some capacity. Perhaps it’s because of my deep connection with the characters of Smith’s past works that I didn’t feel that way for any of the characters in Blackwood. Sure, I felt bad for Colburn when I learned how his parents had treated him. But I felt as though he was somewhat insubstantial, like he was more of an outline than a breathing person. The same goes for the three homeless people that wander into Red Bluff. We are given so few details about them that it was difficult to feel anything more than passing sadness for their situation. The character I felt the most for was Celia, and I thought that her fate was agonizingly undeserved and heart-breaking.
Smith’s other talent is to craft an atmosphere that says something. Red Bluff isn’t simply a backdrop for the events that occur, but instead a commentary on life and society itself. I couldn’t help but make connections between Blackwood and Stephen King’s IT, with Derry and Red Bluff sharing many similarities in my mind. This ancient, creeping evil that lurks beneath and within the kudzu vines slowly strangling the life out of this small, dying town. Smith is able to grasp the desolation of many places in the United States, able to accurately depict the people clinging to the decaying corpse of a place they either can’t escape or won’t abandon.
As with all of his works, Smith’s prose is something that can’t be overlooked. Beautiful and haunting, visceral and dark – his is a style all its own. It would be easy to say that Blackwood is an easy read, that the pages continue turning until you find yourself at the end. In some ways that would be true, but the content of those pages is a juxtaposition of the way in which Smith’s words flow. The prose itself may be easy to read, but the story is full of horror and sadness and leaves you feeling both empty and hopeful.
Despite my few complaints about Blackwood, and my opinion that it wasn’t quite as good as Rivers or Desperation Road, this is still a great novel. There aren’t enough authors writing Southern Gothic stories of this quality, and I can still safely say that I’ll be reading everything that Michael Farris Smith has to offer.