All my life I've made arrangements for unwanted men. I thought, once upon a time, Mother was searching for one she could keep. But she wanted what they owned, whatever she could get. She chose the ones who were proud of the size of a wallet, or the gold of a tie clip. Most were liars. They flashed a dime store pinky ring, called it a diamond, and said there was a lot more where that came from. Card sharks with fake names. Vacuum cleaner salesmen, hundreds of miles from home. Lonely men. Nobody looking for them, nobody expecting them home. They weren't afraid to travel alone. They should have been afraid.
Ever since I read S.P. Miskowski's Skillute Cycle, I have been a fan of her writing. She creates creepy, dreadful, oppressive atmospheres, along with engaging, flawed characters. She digs deep into these characters--with great skill, I might add--and reveals grisly portraits of broken homes, fractured child/parent relationships, poverty, family cycles, identity, self-preservation, past deeds, and much, much more. In her story, Muscadines, Miskowski does not disappoint, crafting a fine piece of Southern Gothic Horror literature that left me staggering.
Muscadines is published by Dunhams Manor Press, with art by the great Dave Felton. Felton's cover is a truly accurate, ghostly and terrifying depiction of what awaits the reader. Honestly, I can't imagine anyone else doing the cover. Muscadines tells the story of Alma, Martha, and Louise, three sisters living in their family home in an unknown, rural part of Georgia. At first, it's just Martha and Louise living together, but after many years of living in various places, Alma returns to assume the role as head of the household, much to the consternation of Martha. Told through Martha's fragmented narrative, we are treated to a horror show of family secrets that involve abuse, their deceased mother, poison berries, morbid rituals and traditions, and murder.
Miskowski immediately establishes the mood of her story by not telling us exactly where it takes place. We know it's in a rural part of Georgia because of other areas mentioned in passing, such as LaGrange, Stone Mountain, Warm Springs, and Chipley, but that's all we have to go by. What we are told is:
Down here, in our part of the state, the roads disappear in the dirt and weeds. Houses are half a mile or more apart, and some are deserted. Farming families that didn't lose husbands in the last World War lost sons in Korea. So there's nobody working the land now but a few old ladies. Their houses are like ours. No fancy driveways. No lawn jockeys. No estate names. We're not on any historic route. For that you're better off heading to Warm Springs or Stone Mountain. Even chicken farmers from Chipley think of this place as the sticks.
Muscadines is told in the first person, by Martha. The narrative is fragmented, in that some chapters are only one or two sentences, while others are anywhere from one paragraph, to multiple paragraphs. It makes you feel like you are reading a diary of sorts; something you'd find in an old abandoned farmhouse. It definitely makes the story feel more personal, adding heightened levels of emotion, rawness, and pain. Some of the things Martha says are enough to make you recoil in horror, causing you to put the book down and catch your breath. The story is perfectly paced, as Martha reveals more and more with each page turned, all the way until the very end.
At the heart of Muscadines is the theme of unbreakable family cycles, and abuse. We learn that Martha, Louise, and Alma's mother, Ruth, grew up in a fanatically religious, abusive household. Ruth's parents, Ophelia and Desmond Parker, attended church three times a week, and always asked for the congregation to pray for Ruth, who Desmond said had a demon in her. No one was to believe anything Ruth said. She would receive beatings from not only her parents, but Sunday school teachers, as well. Miskowski doesn't pull any punches in her descriptions:
Once Ruth was unconscious, or at least couldn't move, Desmond would put on his dentures and unbutton his collar. He'd take a flashlight down off a shelf in the hall, and go to search for signs of the demon on his daughter's body. Taking special care to check all the hidden spots where that crafty monster might leave his traces. After a thorough search Ophelia would bathe Ruth, change her nightgown, and put her back into bed.
The family cycle of morbid rituals and traditions doesn't begin until Ruth is eighteen years old and inherits her house after her parents die. Since she was a kid, Ruth kept a berry plant hidden underneath the back steps of her home. With the discovery of what the berries could do, and the appearance of muscadines growing on her land, Ruth established a new vocation that would ensure her survival, and would be passed down to her children. She would ground up the berries to a fine powder and mix them with the muscadines to make wine that could render someone unable to move. Thus began the ritual of Ruth going out to find men to bring back to her home, sometimes having sex with them, drug them, tie them up, murder them, and take their possessions; and her children played a part in it, as well. And we later learn that all three girls have a different father that fell prey to Ruth.
When Ruth dies, and Alma leaves, Martha takes over the household and cares for her sister, Louise. Martha does everything she can to break the horrible cycle that her Mother started. But when Alma returns years later and assumes the role as head of the household, the cycle comes back, as Alma begins doing the same thing her mother did: bringing men back to the house to be drugged and murdered. At first, Martha fights it; she hates that Alma is back and wants her out, but as the story reaches its end, all three girls fully embrace the cycle, and vow to continue it.
What's so great about Horror and Weird Fiction, is that strange, bizarre, and horrifying ordeals are effectively used to highlight numerous themes. In this case, Miskowski crafted a tale about an unbreakable family cycle, and that no matter how hard we try, we are destined--or doomed, which may be the more appropriate word--to fall into the those cycles, some of which began generations ago. We always talk about how we aren't going be like our parents, and our parents said they aren't going to be like their parents, and so on and so forth, but it's inevitable. Even the best of us maintain certain aspects of a cycle, despite our best efforts not to. Whether it's your father's temper, or your mother's gambling, something is going to stay with you. In the case of Alma, Martha, and Louise, it's their mother's ritual killings.
Once again, S.P. Miskowski has shown us why we should be reading her work. It's her skill at writing evenly paced stories and smooth prose, coupled with her incomparable ability to dig deep down into peoples' souls and unearth all their complexities and layers. With Muscadines, Miskowski brought us a tale that's, brutal, raw, and unwavering in it's onslaught of the reader's being. If you haven't read Miskowki yet, now is the time to start doing so; she is taking literary Horror to new heights.