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Onyx reviews: Candles Burning by Tabitha King & Michael McDowell

Starting in the early 1980s, Michael McDowell released numerous novels under a variety of names, including his own. His best-known book is the six-volume Blackwater serial novel, which is sadly out of print. He also wrote for television anthology series, penned screenplays for films like Beetlejuice and Thinner, and wrote the novelization of Clue, the film based on the popular board game.

When he died in 1999, he left behind several hundred pages of a novel he'd started a few years earlier, along with incomplete notes for the rest. His editor, aware of McDowell's close friendship with Tabitha King, approached the author through her agent and suggested she finish Candles Burning. See interview. In her acknowledgments, King writes, "The story as I completed it is not the story that Michael set out to tell, or the one that he would have told, had he lived to finish it . . . This is the story that I drew from Michael's manuscript."

McDowell and King take their time with the story. It luxuriates in the slow pace of life, breathing in the air and carefully considering each momentous event. Candles Burning falls into the Southern Gothic subgenre that was McDowell's forte. Though supernatural events occur, the ghosts populating the story aren't there to shock or horrify. What antebellum mansion is complete without a ghost or two? The fantastic is window dressing, an element of everyday life.

Calley Dakin is seven years old in 1958 when her father dies unpleasantly. That mild adverb is her neglectful mother's understated description of events. Dakin is kidnapped while on a business trip to New Orleans with his family. Though the abductors demand a million dollars, they make no effort to collect the ransom. Dakin is tortured, murdered, mutilated and returned to the family in a trunk. The scheme is so ineptly conceived and executed-and the perpetrators so easily caught-that suspicions arise about hidden motives.

Joe Dakin comes from hillbilly stock. He amassed a small fortune as an automobile dealer in rural Alabama after exploiting his inherent ability to fix cars. It is perhaps symbolic that the car he leaves behind upon his death is an Edsel. Roberta Ann Carroll, on the other hand, is Alabama elite. Their unlikely marriage only worked because Joe Dakin was rich. Though her husband snuck out to see his family from time to time after they were married, Roberta has no use for the Dakin clan. She insists on calling her husband Joseph even though his birth certificate bears the name Joe.

With his death, Calley loses the one person who genuinely seemed to love her. While her older brother, Ford, resembles the Carrolls, Calley is Dakin through and through, the first female born to the family in generations. She's awkward, ungainly, sickly. Her plight is straight out of Cinderella: tormented by her brother, harangued by her grandmother, Mamadee, and ignored by her mother-unless Calley is rubbing Roberta's feet, a chore she does frequently and without complaint.

So many people believe Roberta masterminded Joe's death that it becomes impossible for her to remain in town. Lawyers claim he was in serious financial difficulty and that his estate is essentially worthless. Roberta pleads poverty, though Calley knows she still possesses the ransom money, stored in a trunk identical to the blood-soaked one in which Joe's remains were returned. The two trunks play a mystifying game of sleight-of-hand for the rest of the book.

Abandoning Ford to Mamadee, Roberta takes Calley to Pensacola Beach, where they become long-term guests in a house that is inexplicably identical to Roberta's childhood home. Their hostess, bossy Merry Verlow, agrees to protect Roberta and Calley so long as they remain in Florida. People back home are conspiring against her, and she stands to lose everything if she returns.

Candles Burning recounts Calley's coming of age by way of The Twilight Zone. Merrymeeting sits on a small coastal island and seems to exist outside time. It's a cross between a boarding house and a vacation resort. A steady stream of people come to stay, some for a few days, others for weeks and months at a time. Much of what happens seems related to Calley and her mother, but Calley is blissfully disinterested. She's too busy growing up. Like the ugly duckling, she molts her hair, and what grows back is a different color and texture. She also comes into her full power, for she is clairaudient: she hears the voices of the dead. They engage her in dialog at unexpected times, telling her things she doesn't always want to know, and not always speaking the truth.

Those familiar with McDowell's earlier work will find his voice and some of his major themes represented in Candles Burning. Foremost is the disposability of children, who are frequently ignored, abandoned, traded, or used as bargaining chips in family conflicts. Readers will have a hard time finding seams in the book where King exerts her presence, though. If the later sections of the book feel somewhat different, this reflects Calley's emergence from her prolonged incarceration and her return to the larger world.


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