MICHAEL MCDOWELL: BAD ASS
When I was a youngster, way back in the 1970s (or “the nineteens” as my teenaged daughter refers to that dark epoch), my mom was a big horror reader. I’ve mentioned before that it was she who presented me with a copy of Stephen King’s NIGHT SHIFT, which began my lifelong love of reading scary stuff. The period when she was the most into dark fiction coincided with a boom in the 1970s, when paperback horror novels of exceptional quality were all over the damn place. I would sneak her books away to my room and thumb through them, looking for the gory parts. One of those was called THE AMULET, and the hideous death scenes in that one freaked out ten-year-old me enough that they have been seared into my brain ever since.
Well, the author of that book was Michael McDowell, and it turns out he was a genius! It also turns out that THE AMULET is a pitch black southern gothic comedy of sorts. Who knew? The best news is that the fine folks at Valancourt Books have recently reprinted several of his novels. Yahooo!!!
I’ve read THE ELEMENTALS and THE AMULET now, and was blown away by both. In fact, they are two of the best written horror novels I’ve ever had the pleasure to wolf down. This quote from the author (courtesy of the Valancourt website) gives some clues as to why his work is so indelible:
“Someone once asked me what I thought horror fiction did. What its purpose was . . . I replied that when I wrote horror fiction, I tried to take the improbable, the unimaginable, and the impossible, and make it seem not only possible–but inevitable.”
His characters REALLY come alive, popping from the pages into your mind’s eye via sharp, unforced detail, and some of the best dialog I’ve read from any writer in any genre. THE ELEMENTALS follows a group of characters, all related by marriage, who decide to visit Beldame, a weird compound of three huge Victorian houses that sits on a remote spit of sand on the Alabama coast. This is the place where many of the characters spent their summers as children, and they go to pay tribute to the memory of the recently-deceased (but not hugely loved) matriarch. Old fears and weirdness get stirred up, centering around the “Third House”, which has always been abandoned and is slowly being eaten by the dunes.
Aspiring writers could use this novel as a book-length workshop on how to make characters and their dialog seem real and unique, as well as how to weave a spell of atmosphere and place so strong that you are engulfed in the humid Alabama summer within pages of starting the thing. And that’s without even delving into how strong the supernatural horror aspects are. The building and building of dread is just NUTS, and when the shit hits the fan, the payoff is terrifying.
THE AMULET (his first published novel) is equally strong, though much, much nastier. Reading it, I didn’t feel as much like throwing up in my mouth during the grisly murder scenes as I did as a kid. Instead, I marveled at the bleakly comic tone (when I say ‘comic’, take my word that it’s subtle. More of the Flannery O’Connor version of funny, than Carl Hiaasen), the sharply drawn characters, and the overwhelming feeling of being trapped in Pine Cone, the worst little town in Alabama.
The main protagonist of the story, Sarah, is a young newlywed forced to live with her tyrannical mother-in-law Jo, after her husband Dean is drafted for the Vietnam war. Dean is wounded in a horrific accident during basic training, and comes home with a head wrapped in bandages, basically a breathing corpse. Jo, a villain for the ages, blames the entire town for her son’s accident, and starts a ball of epically bloody revenge rolling through its streets. It’s up to Sarah to figure out what’s happening and stop it if she can…
Both of these books treat their supernatural underpinnings with delicious ambiguity. McDowell knows how to give us just enough background to get us wondering, adding more malicious detail as needed, but always leaving us in the dark enough to be truly frightened. I plan to reread THE ELEMENTALS soon because I think there is some subtle stuff going on in the background that opens up a whole other can of worms, but it didn’t hit me until the end. That is a sign of great horror writing. Of course, I’m going to wait to reread it until after checking out some of his other well-regarded novels, like COLD MOON OVER BABYLON and the BLACKWATER novels.
Anyhoo, just read the guy, okay? If you need anything else to recommend him, I’ll leave you with an odd fact: aside from writing over 30 books (under his own name and pseudonyms), McDowell was also a screenwriter. You may have heard of a little movie he wrote: