Books you’ll love if you love Lovecraft

Before one of the most unexpected posthumous career upturns saw the unknowable Cthulhu suddenly culturally ubiquitous, H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was simply a very odd bod whose work was almost impossible to find in print and who was mainly of interest to other writers of weird fiction.

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H. P. Lovecraft

The prolific writer of weird fiction from Rhode Island published only in pulp magazines and in his lifetime was considered by many (if he was considered at all) to be a Bad Writer of Trash.  Acolytes like August Derleth, who founded Arkham House specifically to publish hard to find weird fiction like Lovecraft’s, collaborated with the Rhode Island writer and worked to expand the Cthulhu mythos himself, did much to turn Lovecraft’s writing into a genre in itself.

The cosmic horror that these writers explored can be identified by its focus on immense, unknowable and ancient powers encountered by a lonely protagonist who is often sent mad or left awed by their contemplation of this vast and previously hidden reality.

 

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Time was that Lovecraft’s work only came up randomly in the odd anthology– short stories like Rats in the Walls, The Dunwich Horror and The Colour of Out of Space were included once in a while in a larger collection, and stories like Pickman’s Model were adapted for the screen for shows like The Night Gallery.

Nowadays you can find a copy of The Necromicon and just about all his other writing with two clicks of a mouse.  So if you have read all the Lovecraft, and then all the Derleth and still haven’t got your fill what next?  Well luckily there is plenty to sate your Lovecraftian thirst.  There are the contemporaries of Lovecraft and those who inspired him, and there are modern writers who continue to draw upon the universe he created for settings and stories (Lovecraft’s work is now in the public domain, so if you are looking for a writing project maybe Innsmouth is where you need to go).

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Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951)

One of my favourite authors was also considered by Lovecraft to be a ‘modern master’ of the horror genre.  Algernon Blackwood tales of the supernatural traverse everything from the standard haunted house narrative (The Empty House) to tales of cosmic terror and human psychology (The Willows).  To my mind he is one of the best writers in any genre, and you can see his influence on Lovecraft in the latter’s portrayal of human vulnerability in the face of terrifyingly indifferent universe, but he also has a sweetness and a love for humanity that Lovecraft perhaps does not.  If you have not read him try The Listener and Other Stories (1907).

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William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918)

Another author admired by Lovecraft was William Hope Hodgson, who was sadly killed in the First World War at age 40.  Before he died he produced some outstanding weird fiction, including stories featuring the occult detective Carnacki (The Whistling Room), many set at sea, and novels like The House on the Borderland (1908) and The Night Land (1912).  The copyright on most of Hodgson’s work has now expired, which is perhaps why there are now several new reprints to be found, so that it is now much easy to experience his dreamlike, sometimes almost psychedelic horror.

If you have exhausted the work of Lovecraft’s influences and contemporaries never fear– writers continue to be inspired by the Lovecraftian universe and Lovecraft himself.

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Cherie Priest is one of my favourite fantasy/dark fantasy/horror writers so squeals were heard when I discovered the Borden books.  Combining two of my favourite things– a Lovecraftian horror and the story of Lizzie Borden makes for a Victorian action-adventure with moments of true spine-tingling horror.  What if the Borden sisters dispatched their parents not in cold-blooded murder but to defend the world from an eldritch horror threatening all humanity?  You’d be plenty pleased Lizzie is so handy with an axe then!  The Borden Dispatches, Mapelcroft (2014) and Chapelwood (2015) provide plenty of thrills and spills but Priest’s writing also delivers on emotional and aesthetic levels which makes for a super satisfying package.

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Unlike these other writers, in the The Broken Hours (2014) Jaqueline Baker has Lovecraft the author as the subject rather than his fictional world.  After replying to an advertisement protagonist Arthur Crandle finds himself secretary to a writer who won’t come out of his room, in a house that poses more questions than it reveals answers.  Baker’s cold and beautiful book is a haunted house story and a haunted person story– speculating on the kind of demons a character like Lovecraft may have wrestled with.

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Winter Tide (2017) and Deep Roots (2018) are my most recent discoveries in terms of Lovecraftian horror.  Like Derleth, Ruthanna Emrys has taken on the Lovecraftian universe entire in her series of fantasy novels, but she has also inverted it so that the monsters are now the heroes.  Siblings Aphra and Caleb Marsh, former inhabitants of Innsmouth search for the lost libraries of their kind within the halls of Miskatonic University while under continued suspicion from the twentieth century humans who have persecuted them and yet also want the waterfolk’s knowledge.

Emrys writes beautiful, lyrical and questioning fantasy that reminds me of Ursula Le Guin in its examination of the intersection between individuals, culture and lore– more than an homage to Lovecraft it opens up his work in ways that are both loving to the original and at the same time make you aware of its weaknesses.

So cosmic horrorheads– what are your favourite Lovecraftian stories?  I am always excited to find another awful tome to open!

Classic Beach Reads to Revisit

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“Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.” 
― Grace Metalious, Peyton Place

In 1956 the book that would spawn nine sequels, two movies, two television series and two made for television features came out and immediately shot to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List where it stayed for fifty-nine weeks.  The heady mix of lust, adultery, murder, incest and abortion set in the strait-laced New England town was an instant success, selling sixty thousand copies in the first ten days of its release.

Being regularly banned only helped secure its place as a guilty pleasure.  It has inspired everyone from Jacqueline Susann to John Waters.  Read it for the ‘good bits’ left out by the cleaned up film version, and because as Vanity Fair writer Michael Callahan puts it it’s “a cultural bitch slap at the duplicitous notions of proper conduct in the age of Eisenhower“.

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“I bet the pill is harder to get than drugs–which shows how screwed up this world really is!” 
― Beatrice Sparks, Go Ask Alice

Before your insta-chats and snap-webs, when phones were attached to walls and therefore couldn’t come to school with you, books like this were what got passed around at lunch time.  Published anonymously as the real diary of a TROUBLED fifteen-year old who falls in with a BAD CROWD and succumbs to DRUGS, Go Ask Alice was in fact penned by Mormon counsellor Beatrice Sparks.  Sparks published a whole slew of teenage diary books around issues like teen pregnancy, homelessness and eating disorders.  Read it for the nostalgia hit or if you’re parents just won’t stop yacking and listen to the kids for once, man.

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“Elaine Conti awoke in her luxurious bed in her luxurious Beverly Hills mansion, pressed a button to open the electrically controlled drapes, and was confronted by the sight of a young man clad in a white T-shirt and dirty jeans pissing a perfect arc into her mosaic-tiled swimming pool.”  ― Jackie Collins, Hollywood Wives

Jackie Collins, sister of Joan and queen of the trash (novel) got her big break with her ninth book Hollywood Wives in 1983.  The book, which looks at the lives of Hollywood hostesses, stars and starlets has sold over fifteen million copies and was turned into the most successful mini series of the 80s by super producer Aaron Spelling.

Read it for the glitz, the sex and to try to figure out who the who the real life inspiration for the characters are!

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“Nothing is whole, not for too damned long. The world is half night.” 
― Peter Straub, Mystery
Mystery is the middle volume in Peter Straub’s weird Blue Rose trilogy, a thriller series that hovers somewhere between detective fiction and horror and is like nothing else you’ll read.  Despite being published as a trilogy the books are all stand alone works that cross paths only tangentially.  It came out in 1990, won the Bram Stoker Award in 1993, and continues be one of his most popular books.
Set on the Caribbean  island of Mill Pond, teenage sleuth Tom Pasmore investigates a historic murder case with the help of elderly neighbour and ex-celebrated detective Lamont von Heilitz.  At over five hundred pages Mystery is the perfect book to fill empty days at a bach with– just add a hammock and you’ve got the perfect holiday read.

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“There were shadows in the corners and whispers on the stairs and time was as irrelevant as honesty.” 
― V.C. Andrews, My Sweet Audrina

The only stand alone novel in V.C. Andrew’s oeuvre, My Sweet Audrina is an insane (even by her standards) mix of rape, hauntings, multiple falling-downstairs-accidents (in fact the same stairs), diabetes and brittle bone disease.  No, seriously.

Although many V.C. Andrews’ books were ghostwritten, this 1982 masterpiece of trashtastic madness is definitely from her own hand.  Her hugely popular books make the phrase ‘guilty pleasure’ kind of redundant– just embrace the magic and go with it.

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“Helen Lawson: They drummed you out of Hollywood, so you come crawling back to Broadway. But Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope. Now get out of my way, I’ve got a man waiting for me.” 
― Jacqueline Susann, Valley of the Dolls

It’s no secret that we at Eclectic Ladyland love Valley of the Dolls.  And we are far from alone– the novel was the best-selling book of 1966 and has since sold over thirty-one million copies.  Jacqueline Susann wrote what she knew– a stage and television actress she filled her books with show bizz types so familiar many assumed the book to be a Roman à clef .

Valley of the Dolls follows three friends through the trials and tribulations of Broadway and Hollywood and their increasing dependence on speed and tranquillisers– the eponymous dolls.  The book was adapted for the big screen in 1967 and the resulting film starring Patty Duke, Susan Hayward and Sharon Tate helped seal its place as a cultural artefact of high camp.

Fun fact— Jacqueline Susann had met Grace Metalious, author of previous trash hit Peyton Place when the latter was interviewed for television by Mike Wallace.  Minutes before the interview Metalious’s girdle broke and Susann who was working in the studio apparently helped her out– although exactly we may never know!

 

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“Which one of you bitches is my mother?” 
― Shirley Conran, Lace

 

That is the line that confronts the three central characters of Lace— Shirley Conran’s 1982 scandalous classic.  Filled to the brim with sex, bitchiness, and female desire the book has remained extremely popular.  It was adapted into a fabulous mini-series (with Phoebe Cates) in 1984 and was re-issued on its thirtieth anniversary, at which time The Guardian described it as a “feminist bonkfest”.

Read it for the high-class bitchery and remember how much it actually celebrates female friendship and sexual agency.

As always– one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and what may be denounced as low-brow entertainment in one era, can be another era’s celebrated classic.  Don’t feel guilty in your pleasures– literary or otherwise– whether you’re lazing on a beach or wishing you were.  As Shirley Conran once said– “Life’s too short to stuff a mushroom” .

Our favourite fantasy destinations and the heroes who live there

Most of us as children spent time in far off fantasy worlds found in books– whether it was Narnia, Discworld, Middle-Earth or Camelot.  With a new movie adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time in cinemas, Laura looks at six other fantastical destinations you can visit with your children or on your own.

Madeline L’Engle

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First edition of A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time is the first of what is often grouped as a quintet by Madeline L’Engle.  Set in our world, the heroine Meg Murry and her family must scale the intersection of science and faith to rescue their father, a scientist who has disappeared.

Madeline L’Engle was an American East Coast author who wrote fiction and non-fiction for all ages.  The Time quintet are probably her best known and most loved books.  In them scientific and Christian-based mythology interact in a seamless way– cherubim, nephilim, unicorns and tesseracts all operate and interact in the same startling and sometimes scary universe.

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Uncredited cover art for A Wrinkle in Time

A Wrinkle in Time is also one of the most banned books of all time– frequently targeted by school boards and parents groups as being too religious or not religious enough.  The books do spend time examining not only ecumenical concepts of Christianity but also scientific, philosophic and mathematical ideas; so they no way exclude folks with a different or absent spiritual perspective from joining in.

Particularly great for readers of sci-fi fantasy who self-identify as outsiders, nerds, who love maths or watch everything Neil deGrasse Tyson presents on the telly.

Joan Aiken

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Author Joan Aiken

Joan Aiken is one of the most prolific authors on our list, which is fantastic news because once you have fallen under her spell you’ll want to go on reading her books forever.  One of her most popular series begins with The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, and through twelve books introduces us to one of literature’s most doughty heroines– Dido Twite.

The world of Dido Twite is set in an alternate England in which Stuart Kings are in constant threat from Hanoverian and Burgandian conspirators, wolves rampage England through the newly opened channel tunnel and steam trains and hot air balloons charge around the snowy countryside.

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Illustration of Dido Twite

Dido Twite starts out as a plucky street imp who grows up of the course of the series into a resourceful heroine; careless of her appearance and optimistic of attitude she faces many foes and has outlandish adventures, and may end up on the throne.

These books are perfect for everyone, but especially those readers who like gutsy heroines who care more for adventure than romance.

Garth Nix

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Ancelstierre is a land a lot like ours—specifically a lot like England—but it borders a world stranger and more dangerous. The Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix opens up a universe where magic courses through everything and the living and the dead vie for control of it.

Garth Nix is an Australian author who writes fantasy novels for children and young adults. His Old kingdom series consists of four novels Sabriel, Lirael, Abhorsen and Clariel.

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In this world there is the official, sanctioned Charter Magic and the forbidden Wild Magic, an uncontrolled amoral force favoured by necromancers. The Abhorsen in this world is a ruler not only of the living population, but someone who must maintain the balance of power and keep the dead where they belong.

In each of his Old Kingdom books a young woman has to face-up to unlooked for responsibilities and the wielding of great power. It rarely goes exactly to anyone’s plan. Nix is a fabulous world builder and the Old Kingdom thrums with magic and fantastical landscapes—from the Clayr’s glacial home with it’s vast and dangerous library to the Abhorsen’s house, situated mid-river on the edge of a rushing waterfall.

Perfect for fantasy readers who like their books with a hint of scariness, stories of quests, talking animal companions, and the ordinary girl who becomes extraordinary.

Ursula Le Guin

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First brought into the world by Ursula K. Le Guin in 1964, the ocean and magic-bound world of Earthsea has become one of the most loved fantasy locations.  In this roughly iron-age archipelago magic is a fact of the world.  In the first novel, The Wizard of Earthsea, would-be wizard Ged makes his way to the wizardry school on Roke, earns his staff, but must at last face his earlier hubris and defeat the shadow he let loose into the world.

The other Earthsea novels also follow classic heroic quest plotlines, with The Tombs of Atuan focussing on young potential priestess Tenar and The Farthest Shore continuing the story of Ged.

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Dragon of Pendor by tsmor of DeviantArt

As with all of Le Guin’s writing, the Earthsea novels (and there are five in total, along with various short stories) deal with Taoist and Jungian ideas, dandle different ideas of gender and race on their knee and look sensitively at the way different cultures and faiths interact.

All this and dragons, magic and more dragons.

Ingrid Law

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In Mibs Beaumont’s family, unusual goes with the territory.  All her relatives have a particular ‘savvy’– a gift that manifests itself when an individual turns thirteen.  It might be the ability to cause hurricanes, control electricity, or move the earth itself.

Twelve year old Mibs was excited to find out what hers was going to be, until her dad’s terrible accident put her birthday in a different light.  Now she’s determined her savvy will be something that saves his life… except what your savvy is not something you have a say in.

Ingrid Law’s Savvy is a great introduction to fantasy literature– the world is recognisably ours but with a magical twist, the story is funny and family centred without being saccharine or shallow.

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Ingrid Law extends the Savvy universe in two more books– Scumble; which focuses on Mibs Beaumont’s cousin Ledge, and Switch; which follows Gypsy Beaumont, little sister of Mibs.

These books have all the key elements of successful fantasy– fantastical worlds that are completely believable, likeable characters who discover and struggle with new powers and elegant storytelling beautifully written.  These are great books to read aloud or be read by oneself up a tree hiding from your siblings.

Lucy Boston

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Illustration by Peter Boston

I can’t remember how old I was when I first went to Green Knowe in one of Lucy M. Boston‘s books, but her description of the place and the atmosphere was so vivid that it felt for many years more like a memory of an actual visit than of something I had read.

Perhaps this is partly because the books are based the actual house where she lived, so the house itself and its gardens and inhabitants so convincingly portrayed in her writing.  The opening of that first book, in which the boy Tolly arrives at the house by night, crossing floodwaters to get there is one of the most haunting sequences ever written.

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Illustration by Peter Boston

There are six books in the series, all set in the same manor house where dwells the ancient Mrs Oldknow, as well the ghosts of three children from the reign of Charles II.  The fantasy within these books is very gentle– the ghostly goings on are sometimes a little scary but never sinister; the overall feeling is one of mysterious sanctuary.

The books are perfect for quiet, sensitive readers interested in ghosts and stories about the past.

Lewis Carroll

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Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Of course the most famous wonderland of all is probably the one visited by Alice all those years ago after she tumbled down a rabbit hole.  It is so famous that we all feel a little bit familiar with Alice and her kooky companions, even if we have never read the books or seen any of the film adaptations.

If you have not read the books, or is it has been some time since you have it is worth opening them up, for you will find them curiouser and curiouser than you might imagine.

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Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Charles Dodgson, writing under the pen name Lewis Carroll, published Alice in Wonderland in 1865, and its sequel, the somewhat darker Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There in 1871.

Both books are filled not only with strange and humorous (and sometimes frightening) characters but also poems, songs and nonsense that will delight readers who find puns and wordplay funny.  Everybody has their favourite iteration of Alice and company, for me the Arthur Rackham illustrated editions are the most perfect.  Rackham had such a knack for animating the inanimate– the knobbly joints of his coppiced trees– that they give the story a suitably sinister frisson.

 

So what do you think?  Where are some of your favourite fantasy destinations?  Let me know– I’m always ready for a literary adventure!

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.