(The whole review is a SPOILER. If you've read the novel, you don't want to read this. If you haven't, you don't want to read this, either.)
Born in 1950 in Enterprise, Alabama, author McDowell had penned some six manuscripts with titles like Venus Restored and Blood and Glitter before he hit publishing ink with The Amulet, his first public offering from 1979. His literary prowess had been educationally honed with a master's degree from Harvard in 1972 followed by a PhD in Literature from Brandeis in 1978. Swooshing through the 80s decade, he published over 30 novels, only half of them under his own name. The seemingly-humble author disregarded any erudite, ivory tower of Art in his work, pinning himself as "a commercial writer" with no interest in writing "for the ages"(1).
And, after turning the last page in The Amulet, I have to nod to Stephen King when he said, "Mr. McDowell's must now be regarded as the finest writer of paperback originals in America"(2), although I'd wither that back some. Yes, it's a word churner, disgorging scene after scene of deliciously-wrenched mayhem, and with a cavalier attitude toward verisimilitude that only this genre will allow. It's a rousing read alright, filled with crackling, "punch it, Chewie" power and sufficiently-peculiar characters living through a Southern Gothic setting of typical slim times. It is a novel a publisher would consider right for the era, but today, well, Mr. McDowell might have run it by Jack Ketchum or John Shirley for this one.
The epicenter is Pine Cone, Alabama, circa 1965. It is a "small and mean"(p.20) town of two thousand inhabitants where a "few hundred dollars would mean much to almost anyone"(p.14). Its livelihood is under the weight of the Pine Cone Munitions Factory, that is currently employing five hundred residents to produce rifles for the Army, many of which are going to Fort Rucca, thirty miles away. The novel opens with one poor, hapless grunt, while training on the firing range, has his hometown assault weapon explode, creating a "corrugated, bloody mess that was hardly recognizable as a face"(p.10). This is the trigger, as it were, that fires all the action of the novel.
The victim is Dean Howell and he spends the entire book with his head swathed in bandages. He never utters a word. He never moves unless he's moved. He "breathed and swallowed, and filled bedpans"(p.35) under the watchful handling of his 20-year old wife Sarah, who ironically works the assembly line at the Munitions Factory. And, his other babysitter, Dean's mother Josephine Howell, is described matter-of-factly as "mean as the hell that's prepared for her, with a rear end like the side of a Mack diesel"(p.24). Sarah Howell is our protagonist; Jo Howell, a most memorable antagonist. Sarah is exasperated as the only household income earner, plus her mother-in-law demands she do the cooking, cleaning, and all ministrations involving her debilitated son. Jo sits "around the house all day long, watching television and eating Ritz crackers"(p.31). Her "sullen temper," constant complaining, and "intractable laziness"(p.30) makes life miserable for Sarah, who is by nature passive, sensitive, and duty-bound.
Jo squawks out demands for recompense regarding the crimes of disfigurement to her innocent, upstanding son. No matter what's offered, it is not good enough. When Larry Coppage—Dean's oldest friend and hiring manager at the Munitions Factory—pays a sympathetic and guilt-ridden visit, Jo gives him the necklace of the book's title as a gift for his wife Rachel, pitching it that "Dean said he wanted her to have it"(p.45). This is the start of The Jo and Dean's Demonic Magic Show.
Now, for a moment, imagine this amulet not as a fob but as a necklace of flashy gems, each one polished and curiously mesmerizing. Because the rest of the novel is encapsulated scenarios of the murderous slaughterfests of about a score of luckless victims, none of which are even close to being culpable for Dean's silent anguish. The fun is to see if the next "gem" will top the former butchering festivities.
The Coppage's, well, they burn up in the house along with their five kids. What's noteworthy is the sourness that overcomes the mother who vanguards the fire and is last seen "completely relaxed. She was bouncing her youngest child up and down on her knee, smiling at it, plying it with a soft voice to stop its crying. The baby wailed abysmally from the discomfort of the heat and the smoke"(p.64).
Jo's reaction? "You think Rachel Coppage's casseroles are gone put the flesh back in Dean's face?"(p.67)
The next attack by an immobile piece of jewelry is on James—he's a Pine Cone police officer—and Thelma Shirley. Their young daughter Mary is the go-between for the amulet and fortunately misses the murder and demise of her parents. Again, the wife goes psycho-dog and puts an ice pick in James' ear. She then slips and finds a broken water glass "slicing through her jugular vein"(p.96). The Negro maid finds the bodies and the amulet. As a side bar, this episode prompts a reminder of the "rigid segregation"(p.15), decisive mistreatment, and the down-and-out meanness of bigotry.
When James Shirley's sister Dorothy and hubby Malcolm Sims come into town for the aftermath, Dorothy filches the amulet for herself. After the Shirley family funeral on the drive home, Dorothy starts feeling "violent loathing"(p.142) toward her husband. She grabs the wheel and over the bridge and into the water they go. The water's not that deep, so she drowns Malcolm before heading back to the road, where she gets her spine snapped over the grille of a moving truck.
In the truck is Jack and Merle Weaver, farmers trying to tear a living from the "stubborn earth. They [are] pious, well-meaning people"(p.146) who, when finding out that the Shirleys' little girl is orphaned, hope to help by adopting Mary. Merle's carrying the loathsome thing in a pocket of her dress, and it drops out into the mud of the pig's sty while she's feeding them. Merle goes after it and gets her throat torn out by one of her favorite sows.
At this point, the bodies are piling up faster'n explanations but Sarah Howell latches on to the connections. Her duty becomes "to get hold of the thing, and destroy it, or put it in a safety deposit box, or something"(p.159). She more than suspects Jo is the evil machinator of these violent doings, so wasting the amulet "would have her revenge on the old women"(p.195). Concerning her husband Dean, he was just
Unfortunately, the amulet is not finished with Sarah Howell just yet.
Farmer Weaver has the pigs slaughtered and hung up in Morris Emmons' country store. Two dirtball yahoos—"sorry men . . . they were always willing to do a bad turn for someone, always ready to kick a staggering man"(p.218)—discover the damned thing in one of the hogs' mouth. The sudden rampage that follows leaves one man with a double-ought-sized hole in his chest and another chewed down to just a single foot sticking out of a cotton-baling machine.
Next up is Audrey Washington, a fifteen-year-old black babysitter who stuffs one of her white cracker charges—a year-old toddler—into the agitation cycle of the washer. Audrey slips in the machine's overflow, grabs out to an electrical cord and frys herself. Mom comes home to find her three-year-old playing in the bloody, glutinous mess.
"Well", said Sarah, "what do we do now?"(p.243)
Ahh, there's always the "wee-gee"(p.244) board. Sarah and her best friend and co-worker Becca Blair justify their suspicions, except the answer to "who's next?" keeps coming up BAKA/BLAR.
In the segregated, across-the-tracks part of town, Ruby(3)—she's the hairdresser who prepared Audrey in the morgue for her casket debut—goes deadly crabby and scalps a client who's complaining about her 'doo. After carefully arranging it "atop the white Styrofoam head of a wig dummy"(p.277) she falls off a ladder and decapitates herself on the ceiling fan.
As the story moves toward its dependable—and exhaustive—big-brawl finale, the poisonous charm's locomotion gets sketchy. In this case, it falls off a blade of the scimitar-like ceiling fan and into Becca's purse. She catches her daughter, Margaret, in the kitchen making candied fruit. Becca sends her bobbing for apples in the boiling syrup, "cooking her flesh until it was the colour and consistency of deep-fried chicken skin. . . Margaret's face was a featureless, bubbling lump of pink candy"(p.296).
Becca's special, see. She's Sarah's best friend. The juju slacks off. So, instead of rabidly raging whenever worn, it slumbers while Becca and Sarah go to work. That Pine Cone Munitions Factory is just too big a piñata to pass over. And, yeah, Becca gets her ticket punched by the metal-punching machine. Then, the gleeful amulet gorges. Windows shatter, water fountains overflow, shelves give way, "filing drawers shot out of their casings"(p.307), toilet bubble over, pipes burst, "flying bits of metal seemed to seek out eyes, mouths, and throats"(p.305). Cars even steer around the parking lot, driverless.
Sarah makes it home to Jo and Dean. She seems expended, conciliatory. The factory's gone; Jo's been vindicated. But where's the amulet? Sarah confesses she burned it up as she pours death in the form of applesauce mixed in lye down Dean's throat. Jo feels the starting prickles of runaway hysteria while she querys her calm and quiet daughter-in-law.
There are quite a few plausibility questions—like where the amulet came from and where did it go?—as this novel is all about plot. But, seriously, never mind. Characters? Mostly stereotypical, but who will ever forget the grossly-painted Josephine and son Dean Howell? Subtext seems non-existent—it is 1965 and racial and gender prejudice are common, after all—but, inspecting the vignetted characters yields an unbalanced number of Southern women who are back-biting, hypocritical, and bitchy mean. The majority of men, however, are calm, giving, nice guys, or just complete doofasses. The amulet is such a distinctive feminine way to kill so many people gruesomely. And, like Stephen King says, "Mr. McDowell's next book can't come soon enough"(4), I'm standing at the mail box right now waiting for my copy of Cold Moon Over Babylon, his next, chronological book.
2) Hawking blurb on inside page of Katie, Avon paperback, ISBN 0380801841, c.1982, McDowell's 5th book. Which, of course, is complete balderdash when you consider names like Frederic Brown, Charles Williams, JD MacDonald from a generation before. Jim Thompson, David Goodis? Hell, anybody remember Cornell Woolrich? Even in strict 80s Horror there's Graham Masterton, John Farris, Robert McCammon. Come on Stevie, McDowell ain't that good.
3) Another victim of Vanity, since she got the amulet from her boyfriend. But, more importantly, it's illustrated she's jealous and vindictive even before she goes on the warpath. On doing the deceased final hairdo: "she thought I wasn't good enough to do her hair, but now she don't have no choice."(p.256)