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Candles Burning


Candles Burning

My favorite short story is Michael McDowell's "Halley's Passing,"
about a serial killer who is so much more than he appears to be.
Perhaps better known for his screenplays, McDowell was a masterful
author of horror novels in the gothic tradition, including his
Blackwater series, which stands collectively as a classic of the
genre. He passed away in 1999, leaving behind an unfinished
manuscript for CANDLES BURNING, which was to have been his
penultimate novel.

Tabitha King, wife of Stephen King, is the author of a number of
novels as well. The publication of this book occurs as the result
of King's relationship with the McDowell family. She was given
McDowell's manuscript and asked to complete the work. King is quite
up front about what the novel is --- and what it's not. It is not,
she tells us, the story that McDowell set out to write. This will
disappoint some. What we have here though is a tale infused with
southern gothic tradition and strategic strands of horror
interwoven into the foundation of its tapestry.

It is said that every Southern family of means has a streak of
madness that runs deep and long through it; CANDLES BURNING takes
that truism and runs. Here, the family of means is the Carroll
family, whose lineage intersects with the "no-account" Dakins
family when Roberta Ann Carroll marries Joe Cane Dakin. There is a
method to her madness; Joe Cane is one of the richest men in 1950s
Alabama, the owner of a string of highly successful Ford auto
dealerships. It is Dakin's success that indirectly leads to his
downfall. Accompanied by his wife and their two children, Calley
and Ford, Dakin attends an auto dealers' convention in New Orleans
and is murdered in gruesome fashion. The family quickly finds
itself bereft and destitute, none more so than Calley, who was her
father's favorite even as her mother seems constantly to resent

After leaving Ford with her own mother, Roberta takes Calley to
reside in an enigmatic resort home on Pensacola Beach, one with
ties to Calley's past and heritage. King's prose and pacing are
first rate; one is transported to a time and place that no longer
exist --- the south of the mid-20th century --- while insanity
dances in the shadows just out of sight. While CANDLES BURNING
deals on the surface with Calley's coming of age, there is more
than adolescent turbulence roiling in her heart. The truth about
all --- Dakin's death, Calley's birthright --- is revealed in the
end, with some help from an unexpected source. But it is King's
triptych, as opposed to the final destination, that makes this book
worth reading.

Ultimately CANDLES BURNING is somewhat reminiscent of Peter
Straub's earlier work. The focus is not on horror, or even
necessarily the supernatural, though some of the latter is present.
The characterization is sharp, and more importantly, when you
finish the book you truly will miss Calley --- so much so that you
may well read this finely crafted work again and again.


Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on December 26, 2010

Candles Burning
Tabitha King & Michael McDowell

  • Publication Date: June 21, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Berkley Hardcover
  • ISBN-10: 0425210286
  • ISBN-13: 9780425210284