You remember those kids at school, who were into whatever band you were into before you, before anyone in fact? Who would roll their eyes at you when you mentioned the band, as if the simple fact of you being into them meant they weren’t worth being into anymore, because you were so behind the curve, like everyone else?
I’m afraid I was one of those kids. Too terminally hip to draw breath, because hey, everyone breathes, it’s so passé. I’ve always been fascinated by obscure artists of immense talent who, if there was any justice in the world, would be a million times more famous than any of the Kardashians. Of course on those rare occasions when justice is actually done, and the individual is given the belated recognition they deserve, I instantly go off them. Because, hey, everyone likes them now and I’m kinda fickle that way.
My love of writers, artists and musicians, who are more obscure than they deserve, has led me to write about comic creators like Dick Briefer and Howard Nostrand in previous columns, usually under the heading ‘Who The Fuck Is …?’ You see, even if I have the perennial hipster’s disdain for anything mainstream, I can’t help pressing the work of my favourite creators onto anyone I think might enjoy them. So I’ve decided to start an occasional series under that banner, to draw your attention to work that you might not have seen but really ought to check out. If this helps raise the profile of the creator I will undoubtedly go off them, and if you tell me you’ve gone out and bought everything they’ve done after reading one of these columns I will probably roll my eyes, but hey – I’m a dick sometimes, that’s just something we’ve all gotta get over.
I’m going to devote a two part ‘Who The Fuck Is …? to Michael McDowell because he’s one of my very favourite horror writers. I first heard of Michael McDowell in my teens when I read an interview with him in the pages of Fangoria #40. I didn’t know why, but the interview stuck with me and I started to look out for his books while hunting for the works of Clive Barker, Ramsey Campbell and Robert Bloch.
Sadly nothing as exotic as a Michael McDowell novel ever made it into the tiny bookshops in the small north English shipyard town where I grew up. A little later I began to spot his name in the writing credits for shows like Tales from the Darkside, Amazing Stories and Tales from the Crypt and then in the credits for the movie Beetlejuice. Luckily, no one I knew in the UK had heard of him, so this mainstream success didn’t put me off. In fact I was kind of pleased for him. I still hadn’t read anything he’d written, even if I had watched his screenplays.
Then about a year ago I ran across a review of McDowell’s first book The Amulet on Will Erickson’s excellent blog Too Much Horror Fiction. The minute I clicked on the link, I had that feeling you get when you recognise one of your ‘favourite writers you’ve never read’. I first had that feeling when I worked in a second hand bookshop in Notting Hill. I picked up a copy of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and my fellow hipster shop assistant sneered. “I can’t stand Calvino and all that pretentious, self-conscious literary shit,” he said.
“Oh really?” I replied. “This is one of my favourite books.” I knew this even though I hadn’t read it. In fact, I knew this even though I’d never heard of the book or Calvino until I’d picked it up ten seconds before, and wouldn’t read it for another six months. I knew it the moment I came across Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman and that took me a decade to finally read. I know it about Malcolm Lowry’s Dark as the Grave Wherein my Friend is Laid and I haven’t read that yet, despite owning it for two decades.
Will’s review of The Amulet was excellent, and the minute I’d finished reading it I was dumbfounded that I hadn’t gone out and bought every book by Michael McDowell already. He was, after all, one of my favourite authors, even if I’d never read anything he’d written. At the time, all but one of his books had been out of print since the early 90s. I quickly became obsessed with his work and bought all the novels in their original paperback editions. This wasn’t too expensive as I didn’t care what condition they were in, so long as I could read them in their original printed form, and they’re not that collectable yet. Even when they do get to be really collectable I doubt that will spoil my enjoyment, that’s how much I rate McDowell’s work.
Michael McDowell was born in 1950 and grew up in what he describes as “small towns in southern Alabama”, near the border with Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. Though he went to state schools in Brewton, he claimed to have had an excellent education: “the equivalent, if not superior, to that of my classmates in college who had been to various prep schools. I never once felt inadequate at Harvard.” He had a very successful academic career graduating from Harvard and going on to earn his doctorate from Brandeis with a dissertation entitled: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1825-1865. A fascination with death, in all its forms, informed the whole of McDowell’s short life, almost as if he knew it was going to come sooner for him than others and he’d have to learn to understand and embrace it.
Having won his doctorate he promptly: “did absolutely nothing with it”. He’d started writing seriously in college and “by the time I was in graduate school I decided to try and make a career in writing. Actually I was very lucky that I was so ignorant, and had no idea how hard it is to make a living by writing.” If any of us did, we’d never chance it. He goes on to add: “Also, you tend not to take yourself as seriously, I think, if you have something to fall back on. I had nothing to fall back on, except a secretarial job. But I couldn’t have written as much as I had if I had been teaching.” Sentiments with which I couldn’t agree more.
The six early novels he wrote, while supporting himself with secretarial work, had titles like: Venus Restored and Blood and Glitter, and they all went unpublished. His writing career only got off the ground in 1978 when he attended a showing of Barry Lyndon “which was terrible. But before it, they had a trailer for The Omen (which is the only thing I ever saw about The Omen). In it, the child was called Damien. And I had just seen The Exorcist, and in it the child was called Regan. So I thought, isn’t that convenient, that demonic children have such interesting names. And so I thought what if you have a demonic child named . . . Fred!”
McDowell began a screenplay based on this premise but the child angle was quickly dropped and instead it became a story about an accursed amulet. Once the screenplay was done he decided to try his hand at the novelisation, just as an exercise. This exercise became his first sale to paperback original publishers Avon. In 1979 they released The Amulet and McDowell began a five year relationship that produced the very best novels of his career.
McDowell never wrote the same type of novel twice; all are as utterly unique from one another as they are from anything else published at the time. However, the novels fall into two camps, there are the Southern Gothic novels that start with The Amulet and find their apotheosis in the epic six volume Blackwater series, which details six decades of changing fortunes for the Caskey clan and their more-than-human matriarch Elinor Dammert Caskey. Then there are the historical novels, set in Boston at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. These comprise of Gilded Needles and Katie, both are richly evocative, filled with period detail and driven by violent and compulsive plots.
McDowell rarely returned to his native Alabama, once he left for Massachusetts, and for the latter part of his life, divided his time between Boston and LA. It remained one of his deepest sources of inspiration, though. Like all the best southern writers he wants to celebrate as much as condemn the communities and social institutions with which he grew up. He wants to lay bare the hard facts of life in the deep south and at the same mythologise them. You find these tensions in the best work of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Erskine Caldwell and Harry Crews, and you find them in abundance in McDowell’s nine southern gothic novels.
In an interview with the Northern Alabama paper The Gadsen Times back in 1989, McDowell wrote: “I deal with Alabama both as a narrative and as atmosphere.” He elaborates by saying: “Alabama is dense emotionally, and you’ve got to deal with everything there. It is the intensity of the morality. I consider it a major part of what success I’ve had.” What McDowell brings to the forefront of his fiction, that other southern writers only hint at, is the everyday relationship people had with the occult and the supernatural that he saw first-hand when he was growing up. Instead of letting this add to the mythology and the atmosphere of his writing, McDowell uses it to drive the narrative and it ends up taking us to some gruesome and extraordinary places.
In the late 80s McDowell’s career moved back into screenplay writing, but this time incredibly lucratively. His big break came from a lucky accident, when the producers of Tales from the Darkside phoned to ask for the rights to a Michael McDowell story. As they talked it became obvious they were talking about a story written by science fiction author Michael P-Kube McDowell. “I pointed this out to them,” McDowell said later. “And they were so embarrassed, they asked if I had anything to show them. Naturally, I said yes and immediately ran upstairs and wrote something.”
From here, he decided to attempt another screenplay, once again as an exercise. On the recommendation of someone in the industry he tried his hand at supernatural comedy and the result was the hugely successful Beetlejuice. Very little has been written about how McDowell managed to sell his first screenplay straight off the bat to a big name director like Tim Burton. It led to several more collaborations with both Burton, in the form of The Nightmare Before Christmas, and teen star Winona Ryder (whom he described as “the world’s smartest 16 year old”), with whom he wrote an un-filmed script that Ryder described in Film Monthly in 1991 as “a corny romance, almost a satire, about a girl who works in a bobby-pin factory, whose dreams come true.”
McDowell wrote many other feature film screenplays, including an adaptation of Stephen King’s Thinner. He and King were good friends and mutual admirers who wrote about each other’s work in books as various as Danse Macabre and Kingdom of Fear a book of essays on King’s work. While McDowell did continue to work regularly on novels with his longtime collaborator Dennis Schuetz under a variety of pseudonyms, the majority of his working life was spent on screenwriting and his last years were spent teaching it at Boston and Tufts University.
McDowell’s screenplays do not measure up to the quality of his novels. He was one of those brilliant writers, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and John Fante, who applied their prodigious talents to churning out mediocrity when they became part of the Hollywood machine. On December 27th 1999, two days after Christmas, Michael McDowell died from an AIDS related illness at the age of 49. He left one unfinished manuscript Candles Burning, that was completed by Stephen King’s wife Tabitha and published in 2006. Sadly, it is not the best work of either writer.
That I never got to meet Michael McDowell in the flesh, never got to flirt with him or overwhelm him with a barrage of questions about his wonderful books, causes me great sorrow. A painful sense of loss that I can’t quite put into words, even though he died before I read a single one of his books.
In Douglas E Winter’s seminal Faces of Fear: Encounters with the Creators of Modern Horror, McDowell told the prominent critic “I am a commercial writer and I’m proud of that. I think it is a mistake to try to write for the ages. I would be perfectly willing if a publisher came up to me and said, ‘I need a novel about underwater Nazi cheerleaders and it has to be 309 pages long and I need fourteen chapters and a prologue’.” He was also scornful of the literary approval of the academic, writing in Kingdom of Fear: “I was trained as an academic, with an eye towards analysis and criticism, but now I have only contempt for the sapping methods of literary ‘appreciation’ taught in colleges and graduate schools. The idea of analyzing a volume of writing that I think very good seems unappealing and pointless.”
However, I don’t think you can consider McDowell to have been a hack at any point in his novel writing career (his screenwriting is another matter). I think his early academic career did give him a sense of what genuinely good writing was and he brought this to bear on the horror genre. Just as science fiction allowed Philip K. Dick to become a far greater writer than his early attempts at more literary novels, horror fiction gave McDowell license to live up to his potential as an author. That’s why he abandoned his early literary attempts in favour of the horror novel. It freed him from the weight of expectation and allowed him to give full reign to his macabre imagination.
McDowell believed that “the best art comes out of being strictured [sic]. I don’t think that great art comes from experimental novels.” He worked diligently at his craft and took the whole process of storytelling very seriously. He said, in the Fangoria interview I mentioned earlier, that he didn’t: “want to give the impression that I’m not a careful writer just because I write so much. I’m extremely careful, and very proud of my work. I look on it as a craft, and a craft that I’m trying to perfect.”
McDowell is equally at ease writing about violence and gore as atmosphere, tension and unease. He was happy to approach the pulpier elements of horror with as much verbal skill and technical prowess as the more literary proponents of Quiet Horror. This is one of the many things I find so inspiring and enthralling about his fiction. I aspire to do the same things in my own work, to embrace the whole gamut of possibilities that horror has to offer. This is something that McDowell does with style and passionate intensity.
It’s why I’ve come to view his work as both role model and a silent mentor to my own efforts. If you write yourself, or if you simply like an exquisitely well told horror story, then I think you’ll be equally inspired. And I promise not to roll my eyes at you if you tell me this later.
Valancourt Books and several other valiant Indie publishers are bringing all his books back into print and Ryan Cagle over at Valancourt Books has started a wonderful blog called Cold Moon Over McDowell as the go to place for any and all news about McDowell’s books. So there’s never been a better time to rediscover the works of Michael McDowell, a true master of horror.
Trust your Uncle Jasp on this, you know it makes sense.
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