In my last column I wrote about Michael McDowell’s career as a horror novelist and screenplay writer. In this column, the second of a three part feature on McDowell, I’m going to write about his novels.
McDowell was a very fast and a very prolific writer. Before the sale of his first published novel The Amulet, he wrote five unpublished novels. Between 1980 and 1987 he wrote 19 novels, mainly crime and thrillers, in conjunction with Dennis Schuetz and John Preston under the pseudonyms: Axel Young, Nathan Aldyne, Mike McCray and Preston MacAdam. He also wrote three romantic murder mysteries about a couple called Jack and Susan. The Jack and Susan books all take place 20 years apart (1953, 1913 and 1933 respectively) but the couple are always strangers when they meet at the beginning and are always 27 years old.
His crowning achievements as a writer, however, are the twelve and a half horror books he wrote mainly between 1979 to 1985. It’s these books that I’m going to focus on in this month’s column.
As I mentioned last month, The Amulet began life as a screenplay and, as a simple exercise, McDowell decided to do the novelisation himself. The novel is set in the decidedly blue collar town of Pine Cone Alabama whose main source of employment is a munitions factory that makes rifles for the war in Vietnam. Dean Howell works on the factory assembly line and also tests the rifles on the firing range. When a rifle he’s testing explodes and takes out most of his face and his brain, Dean is sent home an invalid, incapable of undertaking any independent act.
Dean is cared for, and supported by Sarah, his twenty year old wife, who lives with him in his mother Jo’s house. Jo Howell is the first of McDowell’s wonderful villains. She is petty, spiteful, mean, lazy, ugly and extremely overweight, what’s more she blames the whole town for her son’s misfortune. When the manager of the factory, an old friend of Dean’s, calls round to see how he is, Jo gives him an amulet as a present for his wife. The amulet is cursed and whoever owns it will murder everyone they love before taking their own life. The unfortunate piece of jewellery moves from person to person in Pine Cone unleashing a paranormally motivated, homicidal spree of near biblical proportions.
Sarah realises what is happening and, in spite of Jo’s protestations of innocence, she sets out to track down the amulet and undo her mother in law’s evil handiwork. The Amulet reads like one of the goriest and most vicious 80s horror movies you never saw and McDowell takes great delight in outdoing himself with each inventive and gruesome death. However, the real horror of the novel lies in the depiction of Sarah Howell’s life. Trapped in a dead end job fitting the same three screws to a rifle for 8 hours a day, then coming home to a nightmare mother in law and a vegetable of a husband who needs to be fed, bathed and changed like an infant. There is no hope, no love and no future for her and you cannot help but sympathise with her plight as she tries to stop the murderous amulet.
McDowell’s next novel followed fairly quickly and was published within six months of his first. Cold Moon Over Babylon is one of my favourites of his books and a movie adaptation is currently in post-production. Evelyn Larkin and her grandson Jerry make a bare living off the blueberry farm they run in Babylon, a tiny town in the Florida panhandle. Unfortunately, the manager of the local family bank, the louche Nathan Redfield, (another wonderfully despicable McDowell villain) knows this property might be highly valuable and he sets out to drive the Larkins off their land so he can profit from it. He starts his campaign of terror by murdering Evelyn’s teenage granddaughter Margaret and then putting the screws on the surviving family members. Margaret’s spirit rises from its watery grave and launches a campaign of retribution on Nathan that is far worse than anything he visits on her family. This wonderfully violent, yet atmospheric ghost story reads like a Southern Gothic cross between Alice Seebold’s The Lovely Bones and Koji Suzuki’s Dark Water. I discovered recently that McDowell was a big fan of Asian horror and his handling of the supernatural in this novel owes a lot to it. I would highly recommend you grab this before the movie comes out.
McDowell followed these two gruesome Southern Gothic novels with the marvelous historical horror/crime hybrid Gilded Needles. Set in Boston in 1882 it’s a Machiavellian examination of class and retribution. To ignite the political career of his son in law, the rich and influential Judge Stallworth launches a campaign to clean up the area of Boston known as the Black Triangle. He focuses his energies upon an all-female crime ring presided over by the aged Black Lena, hoping to make an example of them all. However, Stallworth has reckoned without the intense ingenuity and extreme viciousness of Black Lena. One Sunday, Stallworth’s whole family receive invitations to their own funerals and one by one they are all brought to death and ruination. Gilded Needles is a compulsively readable tale full of grotesque characters and incisive period detail that brings the era to vivid life. With this novel McDowell turns away from writing present day novels set in the South of his past and starts writing novels set the historic past of his then present day location – Boston.
His next novel, The Elementals, is considered by many to be his masterpiece. It was also purportedly McDowell’s favourite of his novels. We’re back in Southern Gothic territory as two wealthy families, the Savages and the McCrays, take to their summertime retreat in Beldame, a small piece of land on the gulf of Alabama, to put the death of the family matriarch behind them and to cope with an upcoming divorce that threatens to be altogether messy. There are three large Victorian houses at Beldame but only two of them are hospitable. The third is being slowly engulfed by a mysterious, and rather unnatural, sand dune. A malevolent, inhuman presence has resided in the third house for quite some time, and now poses an unspeakable danger to the two visiting families. An air of oppressive heat hangs over this novel and McDowell is wonderful at conjuring up the restful somnolence that this climate demands. His characters are forced to do nothing at all for great parts of this novel, while a terrifying entity slowly encroaches upon them. This inactivity might have made for very dull reading in the hands of a lesser writer, but it actually makes for some of the strongest, most evocative passages of this whole novel. In spite of the well-deserved praise for this book, I have to say it is my least favourite of his works. It’s not that it isn’t brilliant, it’s just that, for me, every other book was more brilliant.
By the beginning of the eighties McDowell was at the absolute height of his powers as a writer. He had yet to embark on his highly successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter and his great magnum opus, the multi-part Blackwater series was still ahead of him, but everything he wrote at this point is worth picking up.
Next month I’ll finish my examination of Michael McDowell’s novels, in the meantime why don’t you grab some of the books I’ve mentioned in this column. I can promise you won’t be disappointed. Trust your Uncle Jasp on this. You know it makes sense.
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