The Forgotten Stephen King
At a time when Stephen King was jump-starting a phenomenal publishing wave of horror novels, Michael McDowell was one of the few writers who deserved the same attention. While he never had King’s way with a killer hook, he was the better stylist.
‘I am a commercial writer and I’m proud of that,’ said the Alabama-born author, ‘I think it is a mistake to try to write for the ages.’ His gothic deep-South novels appeared mainly as paperbacks in the golden age of the throwaway read, the early 1980s, but there’s something about them that remains to haunt the reader. McDowell earned high praise and good sales, producing some thirty volumes including mysteries, comedies, period adventures, psychological suspensers and family epics. He also adopted aliases for two sets of pastiche novels, one featuring a gay detective. Pointedly hailed by Stephen King as ‘a writer for the ages’, his prose was tight and his idiomatic dialogue was shorn of folksiness.
McDowell frequently returned to the idea of matriarchal revenge in his books, and his wonderfully conversational style made it feel as if he was imparting a terrible piece of gossip while describing all manner of disturbing events. It is generally accepted that his best book was ‘The Elementals’, in which two families fatefully clash during a summer holiday on a spit of land being slowly engulfed by tides and mournful spirits. Personally, I prefer his six volume ‘Blackwater’ saga, which chronicles a tragic fifty year period in the lives of the Caskey family, whose women bear a strange affinity for running water, and whose vengeance knows no bounds. The saga plays out like a gruesomely overheated Dickensian soap, and is constructed for maximum page-turning efficiency. Surely they’re ripe for republication?
‘Cold Moon Over Babylon’ is set in the harvest season of a foggy Southern town, and has a marvellous feel for its location. McDowell frequently returns to the idea of being engulfed by natural forces, as the levees break and the seas rise, as sand pours in through the windows of an abandoned house, and he links these natural catastrophes to our own selfishness or blindness, flaws that leave dark stains on future generations. His characters are often powerless and insignificant in the face of time and nature. ‘The Amulet’ captures the close-to-the-bone poverty of a small town beset by tragedy; its heroine works on a production line making the rifles that will eventually destroy her husband.
McDowell was a creator of highly visual images, and wrote the film ‘Beetlejuice’, also collaborating on ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’. Even when outlining horrific acts, there’s a gentility and grace to McDowell’s prose. He died shortly before his fiftieth birthday. All of his books are out of print, although I recently spotted four volumes of ‘Blackwater’ in a secondhand bookshop in Brighton.