Edgar Allan Poe meets Bruce Catton: a mishmash of historical novel, thriller, and psychological study set in Civil War–era Louisiana.
It stands to reason that if someone were to have bitten a person's ear off in the days before Mike Tyson, he or she might have earned a fitting sobriquet of savagery. So it is with Elise Durel, in New Orleans for her first dance and the victim of unwanted attentions, who now, 18 years later, is known as “Mademoiselle le Cannibale” or—shades of Anne Rice—“ ’Ti Vampire.” High-strung only begins to describe her, and things go from bad to worse when her 12-year-old son, his father Angel Woolsack of Wascom’s debut, The Blood of Heaven (2013), goes missing. It being New Orleans, anything can happen, especially in a dislocated time when the Confederate regulars have just fled in droves, “overtaken by the Federal blue,” and an occupying Union force led by a memorably corrupt, porcine general racked by “burning diarrheal evacuations” is now in charge. But is it really? Not in a city in which the stamp of the devil is common currency and all kinds of bestial things happen, the more distaff of them “bolstering the general’s growing impression that the women of this city are more twisted than the men.” Wascom’s yarn is shaggier than 10 sheepdogs, and while there’s much of merit in the book, it’s relentlessly overwritten, as if the shade of Cormac McCarthy had been summoned to the Ouija board and ping-ponged a text from some other dimension where the dictionary is better exploited than in our own. Beneath the showy language and endless allusion (one character, in an evident nod to Poe, is named Ligeia) lies a potentially satisfying thriller packed with meaningful malice (as with, for instance, a banner embroidered with the motto “the she-adder’s venom is as deadly as the he-adder’s”). Getting to it, though, takes a lot of work.
More discipline and fewer pyrotechnics would have served this story well. For the moment, in the Rhett Butler–ish words of Angel, “It doesn’t make a damn.”