Just a Girl and Her Hammer: Katie by Michael McDowell

Katie Slape likes her hammer. She also knows when your pockets are brimming with cash. She’s pretty good at convincing you to part with that cash, and pretty handy with that hammer.

Michael McDowell’s 1982 novel about a psychic psychopath and her nasty predilection for murder is punchy and brimming with gore. Not for the delicate of stomachs, there’s some pretty memorable imagery, including some involving stomachs, exploding and worm-ridden and the like.

The title is somewhat misleading, as the novel revolves the plight of our heroine, Philo, a determined young woman whose impoverished life becomes a litany of insanity and tragedy thanks to Katie, her conniving stepmother, and brutish father.

Set in 19th century, post-war America, the novel’s setting is grimy and grimly alive, a character in its own right. McDowell’s talent for creating memorable spaces for his characters shines again, from the dusty streets of a New Jersey village to the sparkling sidewalks of Saratoga, to the smoky hell of a train wreck in a dark forest.

It’s the kind of novel that necessitates a long, hot shower afterwards; stomach-churning and bluntly told. The setting and time evokes echoes of Lizzie Borden and her suspected crime. Trade a hatchet for a hammer and a middle-aged spinster for a teenage telepath, and the rhyme could just as easily go…Katie Slape took a hammer…

That hammer looks a bit like a hatchet…hmm

Valuable lessons abound: Sandbags may leave less marks but are not quite suitable for efficient kills. Large sums of cash should be left at home. Always be wary of teenagers. Dog karma is strong.

The big questions go unanswered, if they’re even important. The cracks out of which this vile family oozed remain undiscovered. Sometimes the only explanation for evil is evil, and nothing more.

*bits of gore

  • For more excellent horror by McDowell, check out The Elementals, a southern gothic ghost story set on an isolated spit of land that harbors more than just sand.
  • Damn, but dogs always get short shrift in horror stories. What does it say about me that I can handle all matter of exploding eyeballs and spattering brains but start weeping if a dog so much as sneezes?
  • There’s a pretty fantastically described train wreck that reminds me of a real train crash that occurred in 1867. For some real-life horror, read about that in The Angola Horror by Charity Vogel.


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