Forgotten authors No.36: Michael McDowell

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 07 June 2009 00:00 BST

"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.

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