Well, we're still in the South, circa 1965, when we meet two people in a boat, fishing the murky Styx River in the uppermost tip of NW Florida. The river is "a wide slow stream"(p.7) through boggy ground and thick pine forests. Jim and JoAnn Larkin—owners of a blueberry farm upstream—snag a hook on an old croaker sack and pull it aboard. Five rattlesnakes with dampened rattles slither out of the bag and the couple—in their thrashing panic—over turn the boat and lose their lives to the Styx and its snakes. Never found, the farm is left to Jim's mother, Evelyn Larkin, and their two children Jerry and Margaret.
Thirteen years later, the three Larkins are still picking the "intricate unplanned maze [of] over five acres" of blueberries, but the plants are getting old, weather has become unpredictable, and "inflation has reduced their margin of solvency"(p.9). Jerry's been working an attenuating crop since he got out of high school three years ago. He's not very intelligent, but he's a hard worker and responsible. He holds his family duties high, and has become quite sullen of late concerning the inevitability of his Grandmother's demise and eventual bankruptcy of the farm, which he considers his "blocked diminishing future"(p12). Margaret at fourteen is with "regular features that could be considered pretty by the sympathetic"(p.13). She's soft-spoken, secretive, and can be downright morose. Anotherwords, a typical teener going into high school.
The plot's mainspring fires when Margaret doesn't come home from school the week going into harvest. But since this is a third-person narrative, we know why. She's been waylaid on the bridge over the Styx which is within visual distance of her house. A bare-chested man wearing a "tight-fitting leather mask, seamed and zippered"(p.158) jumps out of the bushes, gets her off her bike, picks her up and throws her off the bridge. She hits a sandbar, dazed but not dead. This Zodiac wannabe(1) tosses her bike on top of her, then follows. He cuts her clothes open but not off, ties her to her bike, then sends her down the river to drown.
There's not a lot of point in documenting further plot travails. At the end of Act I, author McDowell decides to make his So Goth crime novel a horror one as well. However, somebody's gotta get haunted by Margaret, so he has to expose the killer, which means we get to know him throughout his tribulations of some quite daunting scares. Concerning this jump into the miraculous: there's no witch, no spell. No demons, no pact with Baal. No voodoo rituals or burnt-up effigies. It seems as if you die by foul means in this part of Florida, you get to be a ghost and haunt shit. Oh well, the murderer was pretty transparent anyway. So maybe you only get the BOO! if you're the most despicable character. Anyway, more surprising is the ghosts' abilities. They're just about anything that needs to be done; i.e., disappear or appear as you died or worse, make noise, anti-gravity floating, be immaterial and, best of all, looking like anybody so the bedeviled one is fooled into killing his brother, maiming his lover, making a fool of himself in front of others 'cause nobody else can see—in broad daylight—his tormentor.
Now, there is no town in Florida called Babylon, but there is the river Styx. The associations are hard to ignore. Concerning Babylon, I'd hafta go with the "tower of Babel" connotation. Gossip plays a huge role in inter-social activities of small towns. People act on embellishments of a person or incident rather than the facts of the matter. This is rampant in McDowell's Babylon, but it doesn't effect the action enough to call it a motif, an explanation, or subtextual meaning. Besides, this is a town seeing the after-effects of a family of upset ghosts. They toss a cemetery. They wreck cars. They let other people see them beyond just their chosen victim. And, alluding to the river Styx doesn't really go anywhere, either. Yeah, the Larkins travel from one plane of existence to another and are apparently cognizant enough to re-appear in their old reality. However, even that is inconsistent, as Ma & Pa Larkin in the prologue don't get no stinkin' second coming. Styx and Babylon—as hints, touchstones, or symbols—don't seem to have any stick 'em in this story.
The writing is more polished than The Amulet. Author McDowell complicates his plot and devices while expanding on secondary, idiosyncratic characters. His style is very visual with hi-octane adjectives punching the accelerator of action, and participle phrasing used like a film editor would to jack the tension. There's that trademark humor of loss and gruesomeness so prevalent in Southern Gothic, and it takes on a Tarantino-like, black comedic bite, such as with Jerry's severed head that "had floated out of the automobile . . . tumbled downstream, and come to rest on the sandbar"(p.201) that terrifies the tween Girl Scouts on its discovery. Later, Jerry shows up in a "quality" restaurant, rocks "the severed head back and forth until it was torn free of the trunk" in front of his murderer, then "the head spilled forward, landed with a loathsome thud on the carpet and rolled beneath an unoccupied table"(p.249). It is last seen back on Jerry's stump of a neck, but "was unrecognizable, not one feature remained intact"(p.289).
Cold Moon Over Babylon is no more than a tight read with typical character types and motivations familiar in their genres. Yeah, it's got some genuine fright about it, if you'll let its irrationalities find safe harbor within. It wanders off a destined cliche path by killing off its sympathetic protagonist halfway through and switching emphasis to its antagonist for the rest of the novel. Sorry, no characters left alive are worth knowing, but the novel leaves with the world restored back to its comfortable yet wobbly center once again.
1) The Zodiac killer of the Bay Area at about the same timeframe knifed a girl to death on the banks of Lake Berryessa. The boyfriend who escaped with injuries couldn't describe this infamous killer because he was wearing a black executioner's hood. In broad daylight. On a Saturday afternoon. In a very popular recreational area. The question is, why did he don the mask--a definite visual clue to something's wrong--when his intention was to kill them both, just as he'd done with previous couples, unmasked.