CANDLES BURNING, by Tabitha King and Michael McDowell, Berkley Books, $24.95.
In “Candles Burning,” Tabitha King has taken on the task of completing a manuscript left unfinished by the late mystery and horror author Michael McDowell. The result is a genre-blending tour de force that stands as a study in spunk.
While the action centers on the aftermath of a truly traumatizing event – the murder and dismemberment of a young girl’s father – the heart of the book is something else entirely. This is a coming-of-age-against-all-odds saga with a heroine so self-contained that she can withstand an ongoing, daily round of neglect that is almost as horrifying as the dreadful fate of her father.
Carelessness about our heroine began at birth when she was endowed with the name Calliope. “Every time I ever asked Mama why she named me Calliope,” King and McDowell write, “she spun a new lie, from the lackadaisical to the sadistic: Calliope was the name of the best friend in college who had proved to be treacherous, or of the childhood doll that had always had an odd smell, or the forbidden creek where a naughty child was bitten by a water moccasin and when the body was recovered, the snake was inside the child’s mouth.”
The cruelly named child had to discover for herself that the calliope is a steam organ much used in 19th century circuses. Calliope is also the name of the Greek muse of epic poetry. The combination turns out to be apt after all for a girl without pretense who sounds a note of down-to-earth truth and occasionally rises to making a poetic statement.
Fortunately for the reader, Calliope “Calley” Dakin is the consummate observer of things physical and supernatural. This makes her the ideal narrator for a novel written in the Southern Gothic tradition – full of challenges and eerie experiences for the narrator and brimming with overblown emotions on the part of Calley’s supremely self-indulgent mother, Roberta Ann.
A “Mommie Dearest” to the tips of her toes, Roberta Ann is a Southern belle who married below her station, a fact that she repeats relentlessly to her daughter. She is so skilled at doling out verbal abuse, it is breathtaking. But not for her daughter, who bears with it day after day, taking insult after insult with reasonable grace even when mother denigrates daughter as Calley slavishly massages moisturizing cream into her tormentor’s feet.
Not only must Calley deal with her mother, but soon after the traumatic death, Roberta Ann whisks the child off away from everything she has ever known, including Calley’s brother, moving precipitously from Alabama to a rooming house in Pensacola, Fla. Here Calley finds – in gloriously free romps along that gilded shoreline – some relief from her mother’s demands. She also finds an ally in the owner of the rooming house.
Meanwhile, Calley’s ability to hear the voices of the dead comes to the fore, giving her some power over her mother and others, but also making her the target of another exploitative woman.
Oddly for a novel in which the horrific and the supernatural would seem to be so significant, the authors are best at describing real things and ordinary emotional responses. Calley’s forays into the coastal wilds and her delight in them are as memorable as anything in the book, including the horrific dismemberment, which seems gratuitously extreme and horrific.
Despite some distracting shifts in the narrator’s voice from dialect to standard English, readers will stick with Calley Dakin. She may be the most winning loser to grace the pages of a novel in recent memory.
Rosemary Herbert is co-editor, with Tony Hillerman, of “A New Omnibus of Crime,” published by Oxford University Press. She can be reached at rosemary