Michael McDowell (author)

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This article is about Michael McDowell, the American writer. For other uses, see Michael McDowell (disambiguation).
Michael McDowell
Born June 1, 1950
Enterprise, Alabama, United States
Died December 27, 1999 (aged 49)
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Occupation Novelist & Screenwriter
Nationality American
Period 1979–1999
Genre Horror

Michael McEachern McDowell (June 1, 1950 – December 27, 1999) was an American novelist and screenwriter. He received a B.A. and an M.A. from Harvard College and a Ph.D in English from Brandeis University in 1978 based on a dissertation entitled "American Attitudes Toward Death, 1825-1865".[1] Stephen King once described him as "the finest writer of paperback originals in America today".[2] Further, King in his book Danse Macabre, listed McDowells novels The Amulet and Cold Moon Over Babylon as, at the time of writing, being amongst his favourite books.

His works[edit]

The Amulet (1979), Cold Moon Over Babylon (1980), and The Elementals (1981) were paperback original supernatural horror stories set in the South. Gilded Needles (1980), was a non-supernatural, historical horror novel dealing with a Victorian criminal family's exquisite revenge upon the family of a sternly bigoted New York judge. These were followed by his epic Blackwater (1983), a fifty-year family chronicle of a wealthy Southern dynasty with a supernatural ally, originally published in six short volumes, and the surreal Toplin (1985)

McDowell collaborated with his close friend Dennis Schuetz in writing four mysteries starring Daniel Valentine and Clarisse Lovelace: Vermillion (1980), Cobalt (1982), Slate (1984), and Canary (1986). These were published under the pseudonym Nathan Aldyne. They are light mysteries set in and around Boston and Provincetown. Daniel is a gay social worker turned bartender and Clarisse is a straight real estate agent and later a lawyer. Descriptions of the contemporary gay scene and its problems are lively and colorful.

In the early 1980s, McDowell released two psychological thrillers under the pseudonym Axel Young. Both books (especially the second) were over-the-top parodies of Sidney Sheldon-type suspense novels. Blood Rubies in 1982 and Wicked Stepmother in 1983.

McDowell also wrote the novelization of the movie Clue in 1985. The movie was based on the board game and featured three different endings, however the novelization was based on the shooting script and includes an additional fourth ending that was cut from the film.

In the mid-1980s, McDowell wrote a series of light mysteries for Ballantine Books, featuring characters reminiscent of Nick and Nora Charles, originally created in Dashiell Hammett and popularized by the influential Thin Man movies. The series included Jack and Susan in 1953 (1985), Jack and Susan in 1913 (1986) and Jack and Susan in 1933 (1987). The books chronicled the adventures of an eternally youthful couple and their ever-changing dog. According to an interview, McDowell had contracted to do one for each decade of the century, but he bowed out of the contract after three.

His screen credits include Beetlejuice (1987), and collaborations on The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Thinner (1996). He also wrote horror/fantasy/thriller teleplays for a number of television series.

The Amulet[edit]

The Amulet was meant as a motion-picture screenplay (a collaboration with one of McDowell's friends), in which the freak-accidents were contrived first, then padded with an incidental story to support them. The basic premise in the story is that of an evil, possessive woman who bequeaths a cursed necklace to a female rival neighbor. The gift brings death to anyone that receives or finds it. The bauble makes its rounds throughout the small working-class town, and eventually falls in the clutches of her much-hated ingenue daughter-in-law. Like many McDowell's novels, the setting is usually somewhere in the American south (such as Alabama).

Cold Moon Over Babylon[edit]

Nathan Redfield discovers some valuable property. Unfortunately this land legally belongs to the poor but proud Larkin family who don't wish to give up their blueberry farm. Nathan resorts to murder, but regrets ever having messed with these seemingly humble, peace-loving folks.

Horror critic Don D'Ammassa called Cold Moon Over Babylon "one of the best ghost stories ever written at novel length." [3]

The Elementals
The Elementals by Michael McDowell, cover.jpg
The cover of the 2014 reprint
Author Michael McDowell
Cover artist Mike Corley
Country United States
Language English
Genre Horror, Southern Gothic
Publisher Valancourt Books
Publication date
17 June 2014


"Katie never killed with kindness," was this paperback's tagline. Like The Amulet, a naive young woman crosses paths with a female homicidal maniac (in this case, a young hammer-wielding psychic who dispatches mother's customers requesting palmistry service). The story takes place largely in Boston, and ends in New York City.

Gilded Needles[edit]

An immigrant German family – led by matriarch Lena Shanks – exact revenge upon a Gramercy Park judge and his children. The motley Prussian characters include lesbian wrestlers who don opium-laced Thai fingernails to subdue their victims.

The Elementals[edit]

McDowell's most-Gothic novel, the story concerns two related Southern families joined by marriage and reunited by a funeral. The families spend a terrifying summer vacation on a jetty of land, in the Gulf of Mexico, that is cut off from the Alabama mainland when the tide rolls in. The third Victorian house on this 'island' has remained empty and is overrun by sand-dunes. The entire resort is haunted by elemental spirits, able to control the elements (sand, water, etc.), and, in essence, reanimate dead relatives.


McDowell's "Mysterious Saga of the Caskey Family" Blackwater serial novels (6 total) consist of the following titles: The Flood, The Levee, The House, The War, The Fortune, and Rain. The series chronicles fifty-years in the lives of the Caskey family. In the first three books, the oldest heir encounters a woman after a flood, who makes up lies about her past and eventually marries him and has two daughters. It is revealed the woman can change into a flat faced, wide-eyed crocodilian-fish like creature that has powers over the river by the town, as well as rains in the county.

Personal life[edit]

McDowell was born in Enterprise, Alabama in 1950. His life partner of 30 years was the theatre historian and director Laurence Senelick. McDowell and Senelick meet in 1969 when McDowell was a cast member of the Senelick directed play, Bartholomew Fair.[4] According to his bio in the 1985 edition of Toplin, McDowell lived in Medford, Massachusetts. He also maintained a residence in Hollywood with his sister Ann and adventurer-filmmaker Peter Lake. He also had a younger brother named James. The bio described a typical day: McDowell "writes in the mornings and spends the rest of the day looking out of the window in hope that something interesting will happen" and "collects photographs of corpses". He specialized in collecting objects associated with death. His extensive and diverse collection which reportedly filled 76-boxes included items such as death pins, photographs and plaques from baby caskets. The collection was acquired by Chicago's Northwestern University where it went on display in 2013.[5]

McDowell was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994. After his diagnosis McDowell "taught screenwriting at Boston University and Tufts University" and continued writing commissioned screenplays. One of the projects he was working on was a sequel to the movie "Beetlejuice". McDowell died in 1999 in Boston, Massachusetts from an AIDS-related illness.[6] His unfinished novel Candles Burning was completed by Tabitha King, wife of novelist Stephen King, and published in 2006.

"I am a commercial writer and I'm proud of that", he said in the book Faces of Fear in 1985. "I am writing things to be put in the bookstore next month. I think it is a mistake to try to write for the ages."


  • The Amulet (1979)
  • Cold Moon Over Babylon (1980)
  • Gilded Needles (1980)
  • The Elementals (1981)
  • Katie (1982)
  • Blackwater (1983), a series of novels comprising:
    • "The Flood"
    • "The Levee"
    • "The House"
    • "The War"
    • "The Fortune"
    • "Rain"
  • Toplin (1985)
  • Clue (1985) ISBN 0-449-13049-5, movie novelization
  • Jack and Susan in 1953 (1985)
  • Jack and Susan in 1913 (1986)
  • Jack and Susan in 1933 (1987)
  • Candles Burning (2006) (completed by Tabitha King after McDowell's death)

Screenwriting credits[edit]

Under the name Axel Young[edit]

  • Blood Rubies (1982)
  • Wicked Stepmother (1983)

Under the name Nathan Aldyne[edit]

  • Vermillion (1980)
  • Cobalt (1982)
  • Slate (1984)
  • Canary (1986)

Under the name Preston Macadam[edit]

  • Michael Sheriff, The Shield: African Assignment (1985)
  • Michael Sheriff, The Shield: Arabian Assault (1985)
  • Michael Sheriff, The Shield: Island Intrigue (1985)

Under the name Mike McCray[edit]

  • Several Titles in the "Black Beret" series (1984–1987)

New Editions[edit]

Valancourt Books began reprinting McDowell's works in 2013 beginning with The Amulet and The Elementals.

Tough Times Publishing released e-book versions of the Blackwater series in 2014.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Morgan, Chris. "Grocer's Gothic". http://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/grocers-gothic. Retrieved 26 August 2014. 
  2. ^ Winter, Douglas (1985). Faces of Fear. New York: Berkley Books. p. 177. ISBN 0-425-07670-9. 
  3. ^ Don D'Ammassa, "McDowell, Michael", in David Pringle, St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers. London : St. James Press, 1998, ISBN 1558622063
  4. ^ Schwartz, Lloyd. "Michael McDowell". http://www.bostonphoenix.com/archive/movies/00/01/13/MICHAEL_MCDOWELL.html. Retrieved 27 August 2014. 
  5. ^ "Acclaimed horror writer’s ‘Death Collection’ goes on display". http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/horror-writer-michael-mcdowell-death-collection-display-article-1.1503281. Retrieved 26 August 2014. 
  6. ^ Oliver, Myrna. "Michael McDowell, Horror Writer Dies". http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=R6VJAAAAIBAJ&sjid=qg0NAAAAIBAJ&pg=1597%2C314228. Bangor Daily News. Retrieved 26 August 2014.