My third McDowell and I think I am a little in love with his writing. How else did I just enjoy a work of horror fiction with a blood-curdling and violent revenge plot at the heart of its story?
In an earlier update I mentioned that I could see some similarities between Gilded Needles and The Godfather. I still believe this is true. Except that Black Lena Shanks and her daughters are far superior in every aspect to any of the Corleones:
1. They seek to grow their business interests openly.
2. They do not pick fights with rivalling families for reasons of business. When they escalate operations, it is for deeply personal reasons. And, yet, they limit extent of their wrath and try to shield the innocents bystanders.
3. They are not afraid to take on “the man” – or in this case, the police, a senior judge, the newspapers, and pretty much all of “polite society”.
I loved the scene-setting that McDowell uses in the first chapters to give us that panoramic view of the Black Triangle (a district in the underbelly of New York) on New Year’s Eve 1881: we get to be drawn right into the crowd and mingle with prostitutes, opium addicts, drunks, the sick, and all the other destitute characters that make up the society outcasts. All of whom are outside the law, because the law neglects them, and outside of society because they do not deemed to belong.
Here is another aspect where Gilded Needles compares with The Godfather: I was struck that the society described in The Godfather excluded and dismissed minorities (and women) as valueless disposables. In Gilded Needles, the society is based on an inclusion of minorities – and most of the main characters and acting agents of the plot are women. Granted, most of them were murderous, but still, if McDowell’s aim was to create an alternative society that thrived on differences, this worked incredibly well.
Gilded Needles was published in 1980. When reading, I could not help thinking the McDowell was not only writing about 1882, but also about his observations about society at the time of writing. There are descriptions of political scheming that could have easily been set in any modern decade, as could the observation how the legal system may not in fact offer equal protection to all members of society, and let’s not even go into the treatment of minorities by society.
Anyway, there was a lot more to this book than a crazed gang of villainous women going on a killing spree to satisfy their feelings of revenge. But of course, one could also enjoy the book just with that plot alone. If not, why do we find The Godfather so gripping?
As I don’t generally like horror (readers of my posts may have noticed), I’ve been trying to figure out what it is about this book that drew me in so much. All I can come up with is that McDowell was an author who really understood the art of writing: His characters are spot on, his scenes are dripping with atmosphere, we get this narration that just shows us everything that is going on without telling us how to feel about it:
In the drugstore, which was neither larger nor brighter nor appreciably cleaner than Lena Shanks’s pawnshop, three fat, gaudy whores, whose vermilion lay half a dollar deep upon their cheeks, huddled at a small low table, on which stood three large glasses of absinthe. There was a short candle jammed in the mouth of a bottle and its guttering flame shining through the liquid in their glasses cast green shadows onto their pallid, pudgy hands.
Their gossip hushed when Maggie entered and they watched her closely and with evident mistrust. The shop was run by a young man whose hair had fallen out, whose skin was scarred with the smallpox, and whose eyes worked at cross purposes.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said slyly to Maggie, “what can I get for you?”
“Powdered opiate,” replied Maggie. “Three ounces.”
“Twelve dollars,” the druggist replied and, plucking out of a little wooden box his one- and two-ounce weights, dropped them onto one side of his scales. Then from a large jar filled with white powder he measured the opium, slipped it into a pink envelope, and slid it across the counter to Maggie.
“Can’t sleep?” he inquired in an oily voice. “Bad dreams? Pain in the tooth?” Mischievously he had listed the common lies of the addict.