By Michael Farris Smith

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In this timeless, mythical tale of unforgiving justice and elusive grace, rural Mississippi townsfolk shoulder the pain of generations as something dangerous lurks in the enigmatic kudzu of the woods.

The town of Red Bluff, Mississippi, has seen better days, though those who’ve held on have little memory of when that was. Myer, the county’s aged, sardonic lawman, still thinks it can prove itself — when confronted by a strange family of drifters, the sheriff believes that the people of Red Bluff can be accepting, rational, even good.

The opposite is true: this is a landscape of fear and ghosts — of regret and violence — transformed by the kudzu vines that have enveloped the hills around it, swallowing homes, cars, rivers, and hiding a terrible secret deeper still.

Colburn, a junkyard sculptor who’s returned to Red Bluff, knows this pain all too well, though he too is willing to hope for more when he meets and falls in love with Celia, the local bar owner. The Deep South gives these noble, broken, and driven folks the gift of human connection while bestowing upon them the crippling weight of generations. With broken histories and vagabond hearts, the townsfolk wrestle with the evil in the woods — and the wickedness that lurks in each and every one of us.


Foxes have dens and birds have nests,

but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.

—Matthew 8:20

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COLBURN WAS STANDING WITH his mother in the kitchen when she said go fetch your father. The long light of an August day bleeding through the windows. His face and hands dirty from playing football in the neighbor’s yard. His mother wiped the sweat from his face with a dishtowel. Held his chin in her hand and gazed at him. You’ll be twelve soon. I can’t believe it. He asked where his father was and she said out back in the workshop. Go tell him it’s time for supper. The boy noticed the empty bottle on the counter, beneath the high cabinet where his father kept his whiskey, and he picked up the bottle and unscrewed the cap and sniffed and it burned through his nose and his mother laughed when he winced and then told him that should teach you all you need to know about that stuff. Don’t ever bother with it. Not now not ever. And then the smile left her face and her eyes drifted out of the kitchen window and into the backyard. Her eyes drifted toward the workshop where his father hid most days when he came home from work. Sometimes the buzz of a saw or pounding of a hammer but mostly silence from the workshop. Her eyes drifted and an emptiness came across her face.

She lowered her eyes. Turned on the faucet and washed her hands. Closed her eyes and touched her wet fingertips to her eyelids and held them there, drops of water running down her wrists and from her cheeks and so silent as she paused with her fingers against her eyelids as if commanding time and space to wait for her. Only wait for her for a moment until she was ready again. Colburn knew to leave her alone when she was like this and he backed out of the kitchen and walked across the backyard. He called for his dad before he got there. It’s time to eat. Momma said come on. Sometimes he liked going into the workshop. When the radio was playing and his father was sweating in the middle of some timekilling project and his father would let him drive a nail or wipe a paintbrush and there was a calm in his father then that he recognized at no other time. Random specks of light against the darkness he carried. And because of this darkness he did not like going into the workshop when there was no sound. Because that was when he would find his father sitting in a folding chair, hunched over with his elbows resting on his knees and a bottle hanging from his hand and bloodred eyes and the voice of some other man saying to him, what do you want? Huh? What the hell do you want? And he would back out of the open door and turn and go inside as quickly as he could and say to his mother he’s not ready to come in yet and then it would be the next day at the breakfast table before he saw his father again.

On this day there was no sound but he was still running for touchdowns in his mind when he came to the door of the workshop. He reached for the handle but then he paused. Wondered why the door was closed in the heavy heat and he peeked through the slats of the door and saw only shadow. He looked over his shoulder toward the kitchen window and his mother moved back and forth, setting the table and pouring tea into icefilled glasses and he touched his hand to the door handle again and he pulled the door open. He reached inside the door to turn on the lightswitch but that was when he heard the grunting and the exit of breath. Slices of daylight between the wall planks that cut across his wrestling father as he swung from the ceiling beam of the shed, his ankles bent like a ballerina’s and his toes batting against the top of a stool and his face red and spit down the sides of his mouth as the noose squeezed his throat. The boy’s eyes went wide and he stepped back and hit his head against the doorframe and his father grunted and choked and smacked at his own throat and face and tried to say something but he could only wave the boy toward him. He waved the boy toward him and Colburn came forward and from a small stack of bricks in the corner of the shed he grabbed two and set them on top of the stool and tried to set his father’s feet upon them but his father kicked the bricks away. Slapped at the back of Colburn’s head and with another quick wave he motioned him away. Motioned to the other side of the workshop and tried to communicate some impossible message but he was only grunting and spitting and dying. The tips of his toes tapping against the top of the stool and this great moment of indecision and Colburn stared up at his father and into his bulging eyes. He didn’t run or scream, as if invisible hands covered his mouth and held him by the shoulders and arms. The ceiling beam creaked with the weight of his father struggling against time and gravity and the dust danced in the slanting light. And then Colburn jerked his head and jerked his shoulders as if to break free from hands that held him and he surged forward and kicked the stool out from under his father.

He backed away. Met his father’s eyes one last time. And then he stepped out of the workshop, closing the door behind him. He stood in the yard. Watching his mother move from the stove to the table, ovenmitts on her hands and holding a casserole dish. She set the dish in the middle of the table and then she looked out of the window. Caught Colburn staring at her and she gave him a halfsmile, a halfsmile he had seen many times that was a poor mask for sadness and when there was silence inside the workshop, he crossed the yard and went inside to get her.



THE FOULRUNNING CADILLAC ARRIVED chugging into the town limits of Red Bluff, the car having struggled out of the Delta flatlands and into the Mississippi hill country, the ups and downs of the landscape pushing the roughriding vehicle beyond what was left of its capabilities. The engine finally died as they drove closer to the handful of streets that made up the downtown and the long car rolled to a stop at the edge of the post office parking lot. The smoke curling around the hood and then forming a sloppy cloud that was carried away by an early summer wind. A hiss from the engine. The smell of gasoline. The man and woman sat in the front seat and the boy sat in the back. Eyes out of open windows. Thin faces of submission.

“Where we at?” the woman said.

“Right here,” the man answered.

A woman in a dull blue uniform came out of the post office with a package under her arm. Paused and removed her glasses and looked at the car. No hubcaps. Small dents in the doors. The back fender held in place by a twisted coat hanger. The man leaned his head out of the window and snorted and spit. She shook her head and frowned and then walked across the parking lot and climbed into the boxlike postal vehicle and drove away.

“I’m hungry,” the woman in the car said. “What we got back there?”

The boy passed up a cupcake wrapped in cellophane. It was lopsided and the icing had melted against the wrapper but she took it and tore it open.

“Gimme a bite,” the man said. But she opened her mouth wide and stuck the entire cupcake inside, the chocolate squishing from the sides of her mouth as she chewed.

The boy got out. Then the man and woman did the same. They gathered at the front of the car, the hissing having died away. The man got down on his knees and looked underneath. A drip in the front and a drip in the back. Then he stood and without a word he started walking and the woman and boy followed. Three gangly figures. The woman’s clothes too big and the boy’s clothes too small and the man pulling at his chin and stroking a patchy beard. They moved like revenants along the sidewalk. Each with the same spindled limbs and sunken mouth and leathery skin. They passed a church. A feed store. A hardware store. And then empty buildings. For every storefront with an OPEN sign there were three more that provided only shells, the small town mired in the purgatory of what had been and was to come.

A bell jingled when they walked into the drugstore. The pharmacist in a white coat looked up from his perch in the back. A teenage girl with a ponytail sat on a stool behind the counter smacking gum and reading a magazine and when she smelled them she held her breath until they walked past and then she wrinkled her nose and fanned the magazine under it.

“You need some help?” the pharmacist called. His hair was thin and silver and glasses and pens stuck up from his coat pocket. None of them answered the pharmacist as they shuffled from aisle to aisle looking at batteries and cough drops. Wasting as much time as they could in the cool air. The drugstore was silent but for the moving of the pharmacist and the girl, and the woman whispered I wish I could lay down right here and go to sleep.

“Drugstores used to have ice cream and sandwiches,” the man said. “Y’all got that?”

“We do not,” the pharmacist said.

“How come?”

“Because we don’t.”

“They got sandwiches at the café,” the girl said. She set her magazine down and moved from behind the counter and to the door. Holding it open as if they had asked her to ready for their exit.

“You must be passing through,” the pharmacist said.

“Not no more,” the woman answered.

“Might turn out to be home,” the man said. His face dirty and he stared at the pharmacist with his black burrowed eyes as he walked along the middle aisle and closer to him. He mindlessly picked up a box of tissues and held it up and said how much for this.

“Café is right down that way,” the pharmacist said and he waved his hand toward the door. “You can’t eat a box of tissues.”

The man tossed the box on the floor. Grabbed another from the shelf and did the same. The woman was on one side of the store shoving a pack of clean underwear under her shirt and the boy was on the other side shoving candy bars down his pants.

“Leave them boxes right there,” the man proclaimed. “I’m gonna come back and get them after we get to this café y’all keep hollering about. I remember right where I left them. Don’t let nobody buy them out from under me.”

“Get on out of here,” the pharmacist said. He had slid a step to his right. Closer to the telephone. “I mean it.”

“So do I.”

The man then turned around and strolled along the middle aisle and toward the open door. The boy and woman met him there and as they left the drugstore the man poked his finger into the belly of the teenage girl who was still holding open the door and he said I think I’ll come on back here pretty soon and get another look at you.


The woman was asleep across the backseat with her arm draped across her face. The man sat on the trunk smoking a cigarette, his eyes out into the twilight and his mind on the argument he and the woman had two days before. Their squatting time up in the farmhouse. A graybeard in overalls holding the shotgun on them and walking them to the property line. The woman holding the little boy and the man and the older boy with their hands held above their heads. Walking to the spot in the woods where they had hidden the car and getting in and driving down the dirt road as the shotgun fired a final warning into the air. Getting to a gas station and sitting there with the windows up while a slanting rain blew across the Delta and he gave the boy a dollar and said go inside and get us some canned meat and some Cokes. When the boy was gone the man said to her we can’t feed everybody. We got to cut loose. The little boy asleep in her arms. His mouth open and his lips dry. We can’t do this shit no more. It was rudimentary math to him. The simple equation of not enough to go around and too much weight to carry in this life and he had never trusted that any of his blood flowed through the child anyway.

That night he stared into the twilight and justified it all as he smoked a cigarette and listened to the crickets. He had known before he even brought up the idea that she would give in. That she’d agree. Had to lighten the load. And she had agreed, more easily than even he thought she would.

They had left the little boy in the afternoon. Naked but for his diaper. Dropping a backpack on the ground next to him stuffed with wadded shirts and diapers. Little green army men. A scrap of paper with his scribbled name. The woman knocking on the back door of the donation store and running around and getting in the car, not looking back at the child. A hand covering her eyes as they drove out of the parking lot. Before dark she was stabbed with regret, crying all night as they sat in the car. Parked down some backroad. The older boy unable to look at them knowing what they had done and climbing over a fence and walking out into a pasture and lying down in the wet grass. The storm having blown away and leaving a long dark sky and a thousand stars. And in the empty night the boy could still hear her crying. Sometimes in whimpers and sometimes in violent thrusts when she pounded her fist against the car and the man saying I don’t wanna hear it no more and she had taken the back of his hand across her face and then fought him until he got her pinned against the car window and he spoke calmly to her then. You’d better stop or I’ll kill you.

The man finally got her to be quiet by promising everything he had promised to begin with. The little boy will be safer somewhere else and we will get the hell out of here and go into Tennessee. I told you I got people up in Tennessee. We got a place we can stay and we can figure it all out then. She knew he was lying but believing him anyway as a way to suffer her guilt and then waking up in the Cadillac the next day and driving.

He didn’t expect to hear about it again and now here they were. Not even making it out of Mississippi. But they had done it. One less to worry about and he wished he could do the same for himself. Drop himself off at somebody’s door and let them find him. Take care of him. Feed him. Give him somewhere to sleep. But he was too mean and ugly and all he wanted was to strike back at the world. Get this goddamn car running and leave them here and I should’ve done that in the first place. Should’ve taken the little boy all by myself over to the Salvation Army store. Should’ve never let her go with me even though she begged to be the one to do it. To touch him last. Should’ve never gone back and got the big one. Should’ve gone alone and kept goddamn going and left them to figure out their own life.

The woman woke and climbed out of the backseat. Joined him and took a cigarette from the pack lying on the trunk. A kid on a bicycle came along the sidewalk. A dog with its tongue dragging followed behind. The man flicked away his cigarette and asked the kid if anything in this shithole town was open after dark and the kid pedaled on in silence. The boy had spent the day walking around the town and he had found a shopping cart and he rattled into the parking lot, the cart filled with aluminum cans, half a loaf of bread, a handful of paperback books. The man hopped down from the trunk. Took out the bread and nodded toward the books.

“You learn to read?” he asked the boy.

“Leave him alone,” the woman said.

The man pulled a piece of bread from the sack and shoved it in his mouth and when the woman reached for the sack, he snatched it away. She then picked up the pack of cigarettes and said you can kiss these goodbye and he changed his mind and passed her the bread. She took a slice for herself and gave one to the boy. It smelled funny but they were standing there in a triangle eating when the cruiser with the star on the side came along the street. The headlights like two bright eyes in the dustblue shift from day to night.


THE CRUISER TURNED INTO the parking lot. Pulled alongside the busted Cadillac. The engine and the headlights turned off and then Myer stepped out. He took off his hat and held the brim with both hands as he walked over to them. Pantlegs tucked inside his boots. A slight limp. Deep lines around the eyes of his sunworn face.

“You got a little hitch in your giddyup,” the man said.

“That’s nice of you to notice.”

Myer waited on him to say something else but the man stuck another bite of bread in his mouth and the three of them chewed with no regard to the sheriff or his car or anything in the world at all. Finally Myer said it looks like you’re having some trouble. Been sitting here a good while. I can get you towed over to the garage. The man finished the bread and shook his head at the sheriff.

“We fine,” he said.

“We ain’t fine,” the woman said.


“You hush.”

“Where you heading?” Myer asked. He began to move around them, an examining walk around the Cadillac. Looking inside.

“Tennessee,” the woman said.

“Yeah. Tennessee,” the man added.

“What part?”

The man scratched at the back of his neck.

Myer made the lap around the vehicle and stood there close to them. He eyed the woman and then the boy.

“How old are you, son?” he asked.

“Fifteen. Sixteen.”

“You don’t know?”

“He knows,” the woman said. She moved to the boy and put her hand on his shoulder. “He’s just messin with you. That’s all.”

“We ain’t done nothing,” the man said. His words quick as if he had been prodded by something sharp.

“I didn’t say you did.”

“Well then.”

“But you are broke down on government property.”

“Tell it to the car.”

“I by God am telling it to you,” Myer said. He set his hat on top of the trunk and put his hands on his hips. “I came down here to see if we might help you get going but you don’t seem interested in my help so I’ll try something else. You the one who went in Jimmy Guy’s drugstore today and touched his granddaughter?”

“Don’t know.”

“Don’t know what?”

“This Jimmy Guy fellow.”

The sheriff huffed. Laughed a little.

“Stop it,” the woman said and she poked at the man’s shoulder.

“I ain’t stopping nothing. We ain’t done nothing.”

The sheriff stepped closer to him. He was a head taller. Twentysomething years older but a figure of health against the scrawny and hardworn man.

“Okay. I won’t ask you anything else. I’ll just tell you. You went in that drugstore. You put your hand on that girl and you threatened that girl.”

“That’s a lie.”

“You said you’d be coming back for her.”

“That’s a goddamn lie.”

“I’m telling you what I was told and I can’t find a reason not to believe it.”

“I ain’t touched her. I ain’t made her no promises. You can ask them two standing right here with us.”

“I ain’t asking you anything else. From here on it’s telling.”

A well of spit filled the man’s mouth and he held it. Wanting to let it fly right into the sheriff’s face. But he held it. Swallowed. He nodded and said yes sir, knowing that was how to get rid of him.

Myer eased back. Picked up his hat and tapped the trunk with his index finger and said open this up for me.

“It’s just our stuff,” the woman said.

“Open it.”

The man took the key from the ignition. Came around to the trunk and opened it. The trunk was a mess of wadded clothes and blankets. Pots and pans. Gallon jugs of water. Empty bottles and cans. A hatchet and lengths of rope and cans of baked beans and corn. Myer poked at the clothes and shifted around a few items and then he closed the trunk. Wiped his hand on his shirt.

“Now,” he said. “Back to where I started. Do y’all need some help with this car?”

“We don’t need no help,” the man said.

“Yes we do,” the woman said. “But unless you got a mechanic who’s gonna fix it out of the goodness of his heart we probably gonna have to let it sit here.”

“You can’t let it sit here. I already told you,” the sheriff answered. He then rubbed his chin. Raised his eyes into the evening sky and then looked again at the woman. Looked at the boy who was taking the last slice of bread from the sack. “Let me see what I can do in the morning. Maybe we can work something out. We’ll figure out a way to get you folks back on your way.”

“Yes sir,” the man said.

“You got somewhere to sleep?”

The woman pointed at the Cadillac.

“All right,” the sheriff said. “I’ll be back in the morning.”

He nodded to them and set his hat on his head. Walked back to the cruiser and got in. His headlights shining on them as he backed out of the parking lot, their eyes flashing in the light like the eyes of animals hidden and staring from the dark of the wood.


AS SOON AS THE WOMAN and boy had fallen asleep in the backseat, the man carefully opened the car door and slipped out, leaving the door open so as not to wake them. He walked the sidewalks and the alleys. He walked through yards and looked into cars parked in driveways. He slipped in and out of the shadows, searching for some answer. And then he quit. I’ll leave them there, he thought. And he began to walk out of town. No idea of which direction he was going and only coins in his pocket and the town shrunk behind him. He was missing a front row of teeth and was perpetually smacking at his upper lip with his bottom lip, a sucking rhythm that kept the woman sitting right on the edge of anger, the sound a constant reminder to her of this life that they lived but as he walked he listened to the smacking as if it were some notice that he was alive. A lone effigy moving through the moonlight. He walked and wondered and then imagined falling into a big black hole that had no bottom, falling with his arms and legs spread wide and no fear of what was below. He turned and looked back at the few faint lights of town and then he kept walking until he came to the valley.

The moonshine gave a pale light across a land covered in kudzu. The rich green depths and rises and falls of trees and hillsides long since conquered by the timeless vines. The man gazed across the great expanse of green, captivated by the reach of the kudzu. By the multitude of heartshaped leaves that seemed to wave to him as the nightwind swept down through the valley. He stood on the road and the kudzu came right up to its edge. One step from the bumpy asphalt. He knelt and took the end of a vine in his fingers and it was thick like a pencil and rough and scratchy. He then touched a leaf. Slick and smooth. He snapped it from the vine and held it flat in his palm and stroked it with his rough fingertips as if trying to soothe it to sleep.


  • "Mr. Smith is a gifted writer whose lean, mean, prose underscores an extraordinary talent for creating atmospheric, vividly described scenes and characters....atmospheric and riveting."—Susan Pearlstein, Pittsburg Post Gazette
  • "A timeless story of good and evil...the luminous prose and depth of emotion Smith conjures in this beguiling book makes "Blackwood" one of the more literary entries in the [Southern noir] canon...There is an inclination to read the book quickly, but the beauty of the language demands you slow down to savor it."—Suzanne Van Atten, Atlanta Journal Constitution
  • "Smith's eye lingers on those elements of the Southern experience most people look right past...In the South of Smith's fiction, no portion of our landscape is too humble or hardscrabble to warrant study."—Matthew Guinn, Mississippi Clarion Ledger
  • "Miraculously beautiful...Smith's prose is both raw and poetic, like opera sung at a honky-tonk. His books are tinged with reverence, an intangible and nearly religious grace that watches over the often brutal events he describes, hinting at the possibility for redemption even in the most debased."—Ivy Pochoda, LA Review of Books
  • "Blackwood is a solid page turner, written in smooth prose"—Associated Press
  • "Unsettling, heartbreaking, and frequently astonishing, this Southern gothic never runs out of revelations...Such is the power of Smith's pitch-black poetic vision that the deeper you get into the book, the more entwined you are by its creeping effects...A gleaming, dark masterpiece by one of Southern fiction's leading voices."—Kirkus, starred review
  • "As in the best noir, a soul-strangling inevitability hangs over Red Bluff, yet somehow Smith gives his doomed characters a dignity in the face of forces well beyond their control"—Booklist, starred review
  • "Masterfully haunting...The writing is stunning and steady, but short chapters create an almost frantic apprehension as Colburn's noble search for himself is marred by wickedness, past and present."—Shelf Awareness
  • "In Smith's haunting, engrossing latest (after The Fighter), strangers awaken an evil force lurking in a small Southern town...Smith's meditation on the darkness of the human heart offers a moving update to the Southern gothic tradition."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Startling, brutal and eerie...Blackwood places Smith firmly among the masters of Southern gothic literature."—G. Robert Frazier, BookPage
  • "Blackwood feels like tumbling into a mirage. Smith's writing levels up with each book he writes"—Parnassus Books
  • "Michael Farris Smith has blown me away again with his powerful words and depiction of a small town in the South"—Page 158 Books
  • "Michael Farris Smith is writing with one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in current fiction"—Square Books
  • "A disturbing, tense, breathtaking novel by the masterful storyteller, Michael Farris Smith"
    The Country Bookshop

On Sale
Jun 1, 2021
Page Count
304 pages
Back Bay Books

Michael Ferris Smith

Michael Farris Smith

About the Author

Michael Farris Smith is an award-winning writer whose novels have appeared on Best of the Year lists with Esquire, NPR, Southern Living, Garden & Gun, Book Riot, and numerous other outlets, and have been named Indie Next, Barnes & Noble Discover, and Amazon Best of the Month selections. He has also written the feature-film adaptations of his novels Desperation Road and The Fighter, titled for the screen as Rumble Through the Dark. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife and daughters.

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