Michael Farris Smith creates an atmosphere of hypnotic claustrophobia in the masterfully haunting Blackwood. Set up by a traumatic 1956 event, the novel immediately jumps ahead 19 years to a broken-down Cadillac in Mississippi hill country. In 1975, Red Bluff is overrun by empty storefronts and land "long since conquered by the timeless vines" that creepily engulf everything in their path, running up to the very edge of the blacktop.
The vehicle's occupants--man, woman and boy--are confronted by Sheriff Myer after a run-in at the drugstore. The Caddy is gone the next morning, but the trio slinks through the kudzu and roams the town like revenants, pushed to the brink by circumstances, escalating resentments and emotional burdens. Meanwhile, industrial sculptor Colburn Evans is brought to town by an advertisement for free artist workspace, but mostly the call of his tragic past. He's drawn to bar owner Celia, unaware of both the married man who covets her and the 1956 link between her mother and Colburn's father.
Smith (River; Desperation Road; The Fighter) perpetually sets his characters on insecure terrain, and Blackwood may present the most treacherous and suffocating yet. Madness descends, jealousies flare and old regrets surface, leaving no one untouched. The ghostly presence of the dementedly patient kudzu and an old slave-built tunnel system create a gothic horror bent, amplified superbly by Smith's prose. The writing is stunning and steady, but short chapters create an almost frantic apprehension as Colburn's noble search for himself is marred by wickedness, past and present. --Lauren O'Brien of Malcolm Avenue Review