Stephen King. Clive Barker. Shirley Jackson. Alfred Hitchcock. If you’re a fan of anything vaguely supernatural, you’ve probably heard of them. They’re legends, masters of their craft. But I posit that another name needs to be on that list: Michael McDowell. No, not the Nascar driver. The author.
Michael McDowell wrote dozens of paperback horror novels in the 1980s, at the height of the horror fiction craze, but those works have been largely forgotten. You won’t find his books on bookstore shelves and maybe only a couple on your local library shelf, which is a shame. Because if you love stories with supernatural elements and you haven’t read Michael McDowell, then you’re totally missing out. Even Stephen King loved him, calling him the “the finest writer of paperback originals in America.” (Stephen’s wife Tabitha even finished one of McDowell’s books,Candles Burning , for him after McDowell died young at 49 from HIV complications in 1999.)
Even though I just discovered his books in January, it turns out I’ve been a fan of McDowell’s since I was a little kid, and you probably have, too. He wrote the screenplays for Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. He also wrote screenplays for the Tales from the Darkside television show and the Tales from the Darkside movie segment “Lot 249,” about an Egyptologist who reanimates a mummy to take revenge on people who’ve slighted him. (Christian Slater, Julianne Moore, and Steve Buscemi star in this segment.)
But it’s McDowell’s books that are the true gems. His books evoke two rare but strong emotions: First, I don’t want to stop reading because I absolutely have to know how it ends, and second when the book is finished, I feel sad that it’s over. Like, really sad. Yes, he’s that good.
His writing is impeccable, firmly rooting you in a place, often small rural towns near the Gulf Coast. And no one else writes about family relationships, particularly Deep South families, like McDowell. His monsters are always original, as well. And if you’re like me and you’ve seen hundreds of scary movies and read lots of horror fiction, it’s rare that a monster surprises you. He manages to create new boogeymen, and make their existence and actions seem real, natural, and inevitable no matter how over the top the monster might seem at first.
So how about those books. Here are three that I’ve just finished and just have to gush about. Sadly, I’m still trying to get my hands on more. Although Valancourt Books was gracious enough to rerelease some of Michael McDowell’s books in 2015, others written under his many pen names can be hard to come by.
First, the Blackwater Saga, a collection of six novellas: The Flood, The Levee, The House, The War, The Fortune, and The Rain.
It’s McDowell’s magnum opus. The Blackwater Saga follows the rise and fall of a prominent Alabama family at the hands of a dangerous river monster. The story begins when young, handsome James Caskey finds a beautiful well-dressed woman in the ruins of a hotel during the flood that nearly obliterated Perdido, Alabama, on Easter Sunday in 1919. I’m not going to give spoilers here, but yes, this story is about a controlling mother-in-law, the intricate social rules of affluent Southern women, and yes, a river monster. Let’s just say that even after you know who and what the river monster(s) is and can do, it never becomes formulaic or predictable. That monster keeps you on your toes wondering what it’s gonna do, to whom, how and why, for the entire six-book series. And at several points, you’re actually rooting for the monster!
It only took, oh, about five pages for McDowell to get to the WTF? Holy Crap moments in Cold Moon Over Babylon, an incredibly haunting ghost story that begins with the murder of 14-year-old blueberry farmer Margaret Larkin in the small, rural town of Babylon, Florida, and ends with exploding graves, and an unforgettable haunting at the hands of a watery creature that emerges from the Styx river. No, that isn’t a typo. There really is a river Styx in this area, and yes, it is named after the one in Greek Mythology, which makes McDowell’s use of setting even more intense. The magic of this book is that you know who the bad guy is early on, but you’re on the edge of your seat until the very end wondering if justice will ever be served.
McDowell’s fourth book, The Elementals, is in many ways a classic gothic horror tale: There’s a decaying Victorian house, supernatural entities who want to kill the main characters, and a ‘vacation’ to escape a family tragedy, which only leads, naturally, to more tragedy. But McDowell, as usual, uses setting and creative creation of monsters to put a new, interesting spin on the genre while mixing up those tired old tropes. Instead of the usual cold, wet, dark gloom of Gothic horror, The Elementals and its creatures thrive in the bright hot yellow summer sun. The sea and the sand of Pensacola, Florida, become both an escape and the enemy in this story. The novel begins at the funeral of family matriarch Marian Savage, and quickly gets creepy when the family closes the doors and privately proceeds with a rather disturbing personal family funeral ritual. Naturally, they retreat to Beldame, their compound of three Victorian mansions on the Florida Gulf Coast, cuz, you know, nothing bad ever happens in old houses with creepy estate names, especially when one of those houses is abandoned and is slowly being swallowed whole by a giant dune of bright-white sand. Oh, and a few people died in it under mysterious circumstances a few years back. No worries, right?
So yes. I tried not to give any spoilers for these books. If you’re looking for a new author who writes prose that really sings and really knows how to make a monster, give Michael McDowell a try. If you do, let me know what you think about his work in the comments!
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