Forgotten authors No.36: Michael McDowell
Sunday 07 June 2009
"I am a commercial writer and I'm proud of that," said Alabama-born Michael McDowell, "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 30 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 shorn of folksiness.
McDowell frequently returned to the idea of matriarchal revenge in his books, and his wonderfully conversational style made it feel as though 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 50-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.
McDowell was a creator of highly visual images, and wrote the classic Tim Burton comedy 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 50th birthday. All of his books are out of print, although I recently spotted four volumes of Blackwater in a second-hand bookshop in Brighton.
Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beachart
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Husband creates spreadsheet detailing wife's 'excuses' for turning down sex
- 2 Apple has installed security backdoors on 600m iPhones and iPads, claims security researcher
- 3 Saneie Masilela, 9, marries Helen Shabangu, 53 years his senior, for the second time
- 4 UK pirates will get four warning letters a year
- 5 Why I'm on the brink of burning my Israeli passport
Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley star in trailer for new Alan Turing film The Imitation Game
Endeavour series 2, episode 4 - TV review: A gripping, sordid, startling and magnificent end to the series
It looks like Krusty the Clown is the major Simpsons character death
Russell T Davies wants your 'sexcapades' for new web series Tofu about modern sex culture
Star Wars 7: Plot details 'leak', with sequel's opening sequence and premise revealed
Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash: 'Nine Britons, 23 Americans and 80 children' feared dead after Boeing passenger jet is 'shot down' near Ukraine-Russia border
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Vladimir Putin is given 'one last chance' to end hostilities in Ukraine
The 'scroungers’ fight back: The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Ukrainian military jet was flying close to passenger plane before it was shot down, says Russian officer
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: victims’ bodies bundled in black bags and loaded onto trains