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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
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
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
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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