Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Where Michael McDowell Lies...

I had a dream last night about Michael McDowell, the author of Cold Moon Over Babylon, a book long out of print and virtually forgotten.

Right now, Mr. McDowell lies in the cold, cold ground. He's been there for more than a decade.

Thirty years ago, he was on a roll. The Amulet. Cold Moon... Katie. Gilded Needles. The Elementals. Toplin. Many more, too. Some horror. Some historical. He wrote screenplays before his death (from AIDS), including Beetlejuice, and contributed to Tales From the Darkside.
His publisher, Avon, serialized his Blackwater books. There was one a month for six months. It was a brave idea that didn't succeed, unfortunately.

A few years later, Stephen King's publisher serialized The Green Mile. This time it worked.

King himself said of the writer: "He's the finest writer of paperback originals in America."

My dream was a simple one. I could see McDowell in his grave. He hadn't rotted. He was dressed in handsome Southern garb. He was bearded. He stared without blinking at the coffin lid. I was trying to dig down to him with a long, square shovel, but the ground was too dry to assist me. I don't know what I would have done had I reached him, but I was awfully depressed by the fact that he was dead and his books were dead, too. I guess I'm determined to play some part in  resurrecting his reputation and his books.

I despise seeing true talent go to waste, just as I despise seeing the untalented accorded the adoration of easily persuaded morons.

McDowell was the finest of writers. Cold Moon Over Babylon, the first book I read of his, made me uneasy and anxious. It also excited me. That was one of McDowell's talents. He could scare and excite you at the same time. There was a deep sensuality to his language that had nothing to do with sex, but had everything to do with mood, time, and place.

Consider this from the 87th page of Cold Moon...

The slow spin, gentle sway, and smooth inexorable rise continued until the delicate bare feet skimmed the water. Gradually, then, the revolutions subsided and the figure hovered lightly on the surface of the river. It turned deliberately toward the Larkin farmhouse on the northern bank of the Styx. The eyes opened, but behind the gray lids was a flat infinite blackness, blacker far than the muddy Styx in the shadow of the rotting bridge. Those terrible eyes were without surface; the lids opened directly onto noisome void and nonentity, and the black holes were fixed on the darkened window of Evelyn Larkin's bedroom.

While you read these words,  Michael McDowell lies beneath us. Still. Prostate. Calcium-depleted. Above him, in a stratosphere of  mud and slush, beyond a loamy island of crawling things, his legacy has begun to fade.

That makes me sad.


  1. Hi there. It's a really odd coincidence that I've just started looking up Michael McDowell books on Amazon around the time you posted this. I've loved his work and first read The Elementals when I was thirteen.He's inspired me to write myself. I'm sure he'd appreciate the dream he featured in as well.

  2. Excellent and creepy post. Over the past year I've read The Elementals and Toplin, and have bought copies of The Amulet and the second three books of the Blackwater series. I'm sorry I didn't read him back in the day when I used to see his books regularly. Fortunately plenty horror fiction fans still remember his name...

  3. Anonymous -- perhaps Mr. McDowell's time has come once again. He inspired you to write? That's a very fine thing.


    Will -- I'm curious: What did stop you from reading his books when they first hit the shelves? Was it the cover art? The synopses? I'm very curious. I'm happy to hear that he is remembered by some.

  4. Great question, Phantom. Let me think for a moment... Probably a combination of those factors you note. Back then his books seemed rather old-fashioned, and I was at the time way into Barker, Lansdale, Schow, Skipp & Spector, Brite, Kathe Koja, and other more modern horror fiction (this was late '80s/early '90s, so a bit later than when he was actually published). I think if I had read him then I would have liked him, as I liked literary stuff like Peter Straub, but basically I was looking for edgier, gorier, even more experimental stuff. Now I'm glad some internet horror folks got me to reconsider him!

  5. Will -- have we ever discussed Jessica Hamilton/Ken Greenhall? I'd be very interested in your take on his/her work -- ELIZABETH and BAXTER are truly extraordinary. An amazingly original voice.

    Perhaps your timing was a little off. I bought the McDowell books as they were published, although I was not in the U.S. when THE AMULET appeared. I remember a wonderful bookstore in Detroit where I would buy several horror paperbacks every week. The proprietor, Matt, had been a childhood friend of adult film director Chuck Vincent.

    When the 'Blackwater' series appeared, Matt's shelves were sagging with it. Avon pushed the series hard. Perhaps, due to McDowell's literary style, a serialization was too heavy for most people. King's 'The Green Mile' was certainly a more accessible work.

    Other writers I associate with this period were Charles Grant, Andrew Niederman, William Halahan, and Rick Hautala.

  6. THE ELEMENTALS is one of the few books I've ever read that truly scared me. Not just gave me the creeps while I was reading it, but that stuck in my head and freaked me way the hell out long after it was read and put away. I quickly tracked down everything he'd written so far, and grabbed up each of the Blackwater books as they appeared. Sadly, he didn't write much after that, but what he did write had a heck of an impact on me.

  7. Penh -- I'm so happy to hear that McDowell impacted on you in this way. I like THE ELEMENTALS, too, and found it made me delightfully uneasy. I felt the same way about COLD MOON... one of the few that gave me the true creeps.

  8. I read Cold Moon Over Babylon when I was a teen-ager and spent most of my adult years trying to remember the title & author some I could read more. I'll never forget how much that book scared me. One of these days I'm going to start the Blackwater series...

  9. I must find more of his books. I'll poke around the ancient second-hand store in Vancouver, where I found TED Klein's books. That store is only open 1-4, four days a week, but it's over 35 years old and it is a labrynth of bookshelves. I'm sure I'll them somehow.

  10. I'm glad you appreciate Michael McDowell's prose. But as to your nightmare, you should know that he was cremated, not buried.