Thursday, April 3, 2008

"The Overseer" by Albert E. Cowdrey

The novella in the March issue of F&SF is remarkably good. It will almost certainly be on my awards-nomination lists for 2008. Cowdrey blends historical drama with horror to write a creepy yet beautiful story about real, human, not over-the-top evil.

The story takes place in two times: in the early 1900s Nicholas Lerner is a old rich cripple, slowly dying. He has a big house in New Orleans, and some servants to care for him. He is secretly writing his memoirs and these writings make up the other sections, detailing his life in the South before, during and after the Civil War.

He describes his childhood on the plantation in idyllic terms, but there were also problems. His father treated the slaves "too well," especially his mixed-race offspring. Eventually he hires a cruel overseer to literally whip them into shape. As young Nick is about to leave for college, the overseer begins to get overly familiar with Nick's sister. Nick encourages his black half-brother, Royal, to kill the overseer if necessary, which Royal eventually does. Right after this the war breaks out. Nick joins the Confederate army, fights in one battle and has to have his arm amputated. His family plantation is confiscated, his father drinks himself to death, and eventually he must try to support himself and his sister however he can - very difficult for a one-armed man in war time. He turns to mugging, then smuggling, making connections with shady people that will leave him well-off when the war ends. Meanwhile Royal joined with a colored regiment and used his natural leadership, eventually becoming a leading figure amongst the black politicians in the Reconstruction South.

Throughout, the ghost of the overseer haunts Nick. The ghost is an enabler, helping him to steal, to avoid detection, and to kill when needed. As he navigates the political waters of the post-war climate, playing both sides of the fence between progressive politicians and the KKK, the overseer is always there.

In the real world, Nick's main manservant, Morse, has been getting into trouble. He's met some shady characters himself while supplying Nick's opium addiction, and has been relying on his relationship to Nick to get out of them. Nick is a mean old man, but he realizes how dependent he is on his servants. The climax of the memoir story and the resolution of Nick and Morse's relationship is dramatic but not histrionic, and the figure of the overseer continues to loom large.

Cowdrey does some remarkably good things in this story. For one, Nick is very straightforward about his evil deeds. He does what he does in order to get by and further himself, not out of any psychotic or political agenda. One gets the feeling that in peaceful times, when it easy to advance while being basically righteous, he could have been a "good" man, i.e. he is a morally neutral character shaped by the ease of evil in the chaos of war. Even with supernatural help, Nick's evil is mundane.

Next, the examinations of race relations in the antebellum and postbellum South are not presented in any simple way here. While Nick idealizes the plantation he grew up on, he is not blind to its problems. Nick himself admires Royal in many ways, but after the war he is uncomfortable with the equality for which the blacks are trying to reach. Likewise, in the more modern time period we see that blacks have come farther, they are paid more and have more autonomy, but are still relegated to "their place," and are punished when they transgress the firm but unwritten boundaries. One is forced to compare what Cowdrey writes to what we read in the newspapers everyday.

The other two masterful touches have to do with style. For one, the third-person narrative voice of the modern sections and Nick's first person narrations have completely different tones and styles. They are easy to tell apart. Nick's voice matches up particularly well with the tone of Civil War memoirs that I have read. And with both voices, the story is beautifully written and completely readable, with the prose pulling you through the story without a stumble, something I always look for and particularly appreciate in a writer. The other well-done aspect is Cowdrey's ability to evoke a sense of place. He specializes in New Orleans and its surroundings; almost all his short fiction is set around there. Here he continues to do it well, and also to evoke the sense of change over time - New Orleans during the Civil War was a very different place than it was afterwards.

This is one of the best stories that I have read so far this year. I'm particularly impressed because I don't usually like stories classified as "horror," but it wasn't until after I was finished with this one that I realized that it could be classified that way. As with all the best writing, while I was reading it I wasn't thinking about genre or classifications, instead I was caught up in it. I hope that this will earn the author some recognition come awards season.

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