America’s best horror writer you’ve never heard of

Lauded in his lifetime by horror masters Stephen King and Peter Straub, Michael McDowell had a rather self-deprecating view of his own work. 

However, Laura finds out that thanks to the continued fan-ship of horror lovers and a re-issue of his major works by champions of supernaturally slanted fiction Valancourt, his readership is once again on the rise.

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Michael McDowell was born on the 1st of June, 1950 in Enterprise, Alabama. Although much of his writing would return to this area, belonging squarely in the Southern Gothic genre, he would spend most of his life living in either California or Massachusetts.

He maintained an interest in death from the very start of his career—writing his Ph.D dissertation on ‘American Attitudes Towards Death 1825-1865’. He collected death related memorabilia—including death pins, casket plaques, photographs and other ephemera; after his death his vast collection was acquired by Northwestern University in Chicago where it is now on display.

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McDowell began his fiction writing with screenplays, but quickly shifted to paperbacks when he started to have success in this form. Right from the beginning he considered himself a jobbing writer—writing in several genres under different non de plumes, and dismissing artistic pretension by saying “I am a commercial writer and I’m proud of that,” and that “I think it is a mistake to try to write for the ages.”

Despite this his books continue to haunt readers. He was a master at the vivid horror image, but more than that at situating it in such a mundane setting as to render it at once more realistic and more shocking at the same time. His writing is the razor blade in a child’s apple after trick or treating— all the more horrible for its innocuous and even homely setting; tapping into an almost folkloric current of unconscious fear in the reader.

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In McDowell’s lifetime Stephen King described him as ‘the finest writer of paperback originals in America today’ and his popularity seems to be on the upswing. Although out of print until recently, publishing house Valancourt has recently reissued many of his fan’s favourites in good-looking new editions. Most horror fans agree that his best work in that genre spanned from The Amulet in 1979 through to Toplin in 1985. If you are thinking of picking up any of books (and they are, to me, the epitome of summer holiday reading) the following are some of my favourites…

The Amulet

The Amulet was originally conceived as a screenplay, and its cinematic origins are clear in the gory tableaux that follow one another at a fast clip. His gift for presenting outrageous horror that seems not only natural but somehow inevitable is present right from the outset in this debut novel. In the book the protagonist, Sarah Howell, comes to realise that the series of inexplicable and gruesome deaths in their small Southern town are an effusion of horror straight from the well-spring of evil resentment that is her horrendous mother in law Jo.  What unfolds and what she does about it is as satisfying as it is horrifying.

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Cold Moon Over Babylon

McDowell’s second book, Cold Moon Over Babylon focusses on the misfortune of one rural family, and the consequences of their unearned and brutal deaths. As with his previous book, McDowell delivers up a good dose of Southern-tinged dialogue between the quick tongued ladyfolk and their sullen or silent men, but in this book he also delivers a slower, more subtly spooky set of horrors.  In this book the real curse on regular people’s lives is the intersection of psychopathy and capitalistic greed.

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The Elementals

This is definitely a contender for my favourite book by McDowell. After the death of the family matriarch her relatives retire to their holiday homes on an isolated stretch of beach. There three identical Victorian homes are slowly being reclaimed by nature, or possibly something far more malevolent. This is one of those books which is able to conjure such an atmosphere of the uncanny that it stays with you long after the book has been put down. Somehow the terror owes as much to the torpor of the family in such proximity to evil as it does the startling images of horror that McDowell was so good at inventing. This is the very definition of a ‘beach read’.

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Although he was primarily a novelist, after 1985 McDowell made a return to his initial interest in screenwriting and had a very successful second career in this area. He wrote many of the best episodes of horror anthology shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Amazing Stories, Tales From the Crypt and in particular Tales From the Darkside.   In fact his most famous work is probably the screenplay he wrote for Tim Burton for Beetlejuice, the hugely successful film in which the Recently Deceased are moved to extreme measures to protect their home from its ghastly new owners. He collaborated again with Burton on The Nightmare Before Christmas.

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In 1994 McDowell was diagnosed with AIDS. For the next five years he continued to write and teach. He taught screenwriting at both Boston University and Tufts University, while also working on commissioned screenplays including a sequel to Beetlejuice. He died on December 27, 1999 in Boston Massachusetts, just four days short of the new millennium, of an AIDS related illness. He was survived by his partner of over thirty years, theatre historian and director Laurence Senelick, as well as his siblings. His unfinished novel, Candles Burning was completed in 2006 by novelist Tabitha King. Who knows what awesome horror he might have brought us in this century had his life not been ended so prematurely.

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