Given that this is the third column I’ve devoted to the criminally underrated horror author Michael McDowell, you’ve probably guessed that I’m quite partial to his work. There aren’t many writers whose entire canon I’ve devoured, and having done so I’m determined to share every ounce of my enthusiasm with you. So without further ado, let’s get onto his final seven books.
Katie is definitely one of my favourites of his many books; it’s a welcome return to his historical east coast novels. Young Philomena Drax is resigned to a life of gentile poverty with her seamstress mother in the small Massachusetts town of New Egypt when a letter arrives from her estranged grandfather begging for her help. Philomena travels to her grandfather, Richard Parrock’s farm to rescue him from the clutches of the Jepsons and their stepdaughter Katie. Katie is perhaps McDowell’s best ever villain – a murderous sociopath with no moral compass and very little intelligence, beyond a low cunning and a talent for self-preservation – who is nevertheless a genuinely gifted psychic, able to read minds and see the future. Katie murders Philomena’s grandfather and then her mother and makes off with the fortune that should have been Philomena’s before cutting a bloody swathe through the population of Boston. This novel reads like a 20th century take on the popular melodramatic Sensation Novels of the 1860s, such as The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret, which it essentially is, only it’s a great deal gorier than those Victorian works and moves a good deal faster. You really can’t have any more fun with a novel than you will with this.
McDowell’s next six novels form his magnum opus, known collectively as the Blackwater series. They are The Flood, The Levee, The House, The War, The Fortune and Rain. The series begins in 1919 when the small town of Perdido Alabama is flooded. Oscar Caskey, scion of Perdido’s first family, finds a mysterious red headed woman, Elinor Dammert, in the upper floor of the submerged Osceola Hotel. Oscar rescues Elinor and they eventually fall in love and marry, much to the displeasure of Oscar’s domineering and manipulative mother Mary-Love. Elinor has many dark secrets however, not least of which is her ability to turn into a decidedly inhuman river monster. What follows is an utterly engaging multi-generational saga that takes us from the 1920s all the way through to the 80s (the present day at the time of publication).
The publishers, Avon, hit upon the novel idea of releasing each of the six novels on a monthly schedule, so The Flood came out on January 1983 (Aug 85 in the UK) and Rain came out on June 83 six months later (April 86 UK). The series works on a whole number of levels; the multi-generational saga has an epic quality that covers many decades without ever losing its pace in the transition between decades. It takes in the great sweep of history, which includes depressions, world wars and the changing face of the nation, while blending this effortlessly with the small personal moments, upon which the lives of the main characters turn. It also has moments of high strangeness and extreme horror that work as counterpoints to the family saga. It’s as though Flannery O’Connor and Joyce Carol Oates decided to write a multi volume family saga together, and, for some bizarre reason, agreed to give over one chapter per volume to Robert Aickman and one to Jack Ketchum. It is an astonishing, gripping and engrossing work and one hell of an achievement. When you’re done with the series, you feel as though you are yourself a distant member of the Caskey family and have known them for at least six decades of your own life.
After the publication of the Blackwater series, McDowell’s editor left Avon Books and, as is often the case in an author’s career, he found himself without a publisher for his horror novels. His last horror novel Toplin was originally published in hardcover by the independent Scream Press in 1985 in a limited run, with photographic illustrations by Harry O. Morris. It was then republished as a mass market paperback by Dell’s short lived, and much missed, Abyss line of high quality horror paperback originals in 1991, with Morris’s photos as an insert in the middle.
The almost surreal nature of the photos compliments the intensity of Toplin’s prose. It reads like the sort of existential novel that Sartre or Camus might have written if they’d attempted a horror novel set in 80s America, in an urban environment. The narrator is a high functioning sociopath who is also a narcissist and most probably suffers from OCD. For this reason, his account is never entirely reliable. So in love with his own perfection is he, that when he encounters a waitress named Marta, who challenges every one of his ideals of physical perfection, he is compelled to kill her because she is so repellant. He considers this a mercy killing and an act of love and everything that happens to him from that moment on is in some way a message or a sign from the universe to support his mission. The nightmarish backdrop of the nameless city, where the novel takes place, also makes the story a study of urban isolation and decay. It is unlike anything else McDowell (or anyone for that matter) ever wrote and it’s an intriguing and challenging work.
At the time of his death, McDowell left one unfinished novel – Candles Burning – which was finished by Stephen King’s wife Tabitha King. Calliope (Calley) Dakin is only seven when her father is tortured to death, and chopped into pieces by two women with no apparent motive. As a result of this Calley and her mother find themselves in exile at Pensecola Beach where a woman awaits them in a house that is an exact replica of the one her great grandmother once lived in. Calley, it would appear, is no ordinary child. This starts off looking like it’s going to be a classic example of McDowell’s Southern Gothic work, but sadly, though she is a talented author, King just can’t sustain the atmosphere of the story, or the nature of McDowell’s prose, and it’s very easy to see where she took over, ultimately making this a sad and frustrating book to read if you’re a huge McDowell fan.
There are two incredibly cool facts about Michael McDowell that I’d like to cover before I leave off. Firstly, throughout his life, McDowell amassed the most amazing collection of artifacts concerned with death. The collection reaches from the 1600s right up to the time of his death. It included a small child’s coffin that he used as a coffee table, antique wreaths, jewellery such as mourning pins and brooches, hundreds of photographs and postcards showing everything from staged photographs of child corpses from the Victorian era, to public executions and horrific accidents captured on film. He even had documents detailing the history of spiritualist churches and paranormal investigations. His massive collection was sold to the Northwestern University after his death by his longtime partner Laurence Senelick, and is now on public display. A fitting tribute to a man who wrote so eloquently and so imaginatively about death and to whom it came too quickly.
The second is the huge, and given his style and subject matter, quite surprising debt that McDowell owed to H. P. Lovecraft. In an interview with Fangoria he said: “I read all of Lovecraft, and that was very influential. I get from him reliance on a landscape. A sense of place; that comes directly from him.” In an interview with Douglas E. Winter, McDowell elaborated. “It’s quite popular to cry Lovecraft down, and to say that he’s overwritten and overpraised and that nobody over the age of thirteen reads him or ever has read him. But he taught me several things, and the one that appears most prominently in my own work, is the sense of place – his region. I adopted the South to be the equivalent of his New England, and that works well for me. Also, he taught me how to depend on sense, and the sense that you not normally associate with writing, such as smell – particularly smell, with Lovecraft, and hearing too. Those aesthetics are very important to me.”
The influence of Lovecraft on McDowell’s work is important to me, because my own work has been touched by Lovecraft. So much so that I am at work on a graphic novel with the artist Rob Moran called Beyond Lovecraft which draws heavily on Lovecraft’s work.
I currently have an Indiegogo campaign running to raise funds for the project, which includes some completely unique and one of a kind experiences in the way of perks for contributors. Including the opportunity to buy and own a house in the ancient town of Innsmouth (for real). Please check it out here, I can promise, if you do, it will be the single most exciting and original campaign you’re going to fund this year.
Trust your Uncle Jasp on this, you know it makes sense.
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