I’ve talked in the past about rediscovering the writer Michael McDowell, who died too young. For decades his best work lay unnoticed on dusty bookshelves, but now smart new reprints have returned them to both print and online formats, and they deserve fresh success.
Recently I wrote the foreword to one of his most interesting novels, ‘Gilded Needles’, a vivid historical tintype of old New York that forms the backdrop to a nightmarish cascade of almost Jacobean retribution.
In an extraordinary opening scene we seem to fly over New York City, dipping down to observe lives lived in desperate circumstances. No-one feels sorry for themselves; they accept their lot and make the best of what they have. We follow two families, the aristocratic Stallworths and the lowly Shankses, one side taking revenge against the other. The slow build-up, shifting from Gramercy Park elegance to pawnshops, brothels, opium dens and beer houses, is designed to provide immense satisfaction when it delivers the goods.
The drug-dipped needles of the title come into play as both families suffer losses, proving that revenge is a dish that satiates no-one. McDowell foregoes the opportunity to introduce any element of the supernatural, instead concentrating on producing some of his most elegant and powerful prose. The author has an uncanny ability to deliver is into a world we can scarcely comprehend now; there’s an early scene in which two children sing as they clear away a corpse in preparation for carting it off to medical students. It should appal us, but simply feels right.
It’s no surprise that, as the creator of dazzling set pieces and highly visual images, McDowell later came to write the classic comedy ‘Beetlejuice’, as well as collaborating on Tim Burton’s eerily beautiful animated film ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’.
Even when outlining horrific acts, there’s a gentility and grace to his most baroque stylings. Tragically he died shortly before his fiftieth birthday, and the world lost a unique voice that was just reaching its peak. The good news is that we have his books back again (with a great new cover from Mike Mignola), and so an author who was once so obsessed with death has found a way to live on.