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 Michael McEachern McDowell
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 described by author Stephen King as "the finest writer of paperback originals in America today".[1] His most well-known work is the screenplay for the Tim Burton film Beetlejuice.

Personal life[edit]

McDowell was born in 1950 in Enterprise, Alabama. 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".[2]

McDowell lived in Medford, Massachusetts and maintained a residence in Hollywood with his sister Ann and the filmmaker Peter Lake. He also had one brother, James. McDowell's partner was theatre historian and director Laurence Senelick, whom he met in 1969 when McDowell was a cast member of the Senelick-directed play, Bartholomew Fair.[3] McDowell and Senelick remained together for thirty years until McDowell's death.

McDowell specialized in collecting death memorabilia. His extensive and diverse collection, which reportedly filled over seventy-six boxes, included items such as death pins, photographs and plaques from infant caskets. After his death, the collection was acquired by Chicago's Northwestern University, where it went on display in 2013.[4]

McDowell was diagnosed with AIDS in 1994. After his diagnosis, McDowell taught screenwriting at Boston University and Tufts University while continuing to write commissioned screenplays. One of his final projects, upon which he was working at the time of his death, was a sequel to Beetlejuice. His final, unfinished novel Candles Burning was completed by novelist Tabitha King and published in 2006.

McDowell died on December 27, 1999 in Boston, Massachusetts from an AIDS-related illness.[5]

Literary career[edit]

While arguably best known for his works of Southern Gothic horror, McDowell was an accomplished stylist who wrote several series with marked differences in tone, character, and subject matter. His period novels are praised for their intricate eye for historical research and accurate details, and range from Gilded Age New York City to wiregrass Alabama in the depths of the Great Depression.

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). The four novels were published under the pseudonym Nathan Aldyne.

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

In the mid-1980s, McDowell wrote the "Jack and Susan" mysteries for Ballantine Books, featuring characters reminiscent of 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. 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). 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. He also contributed screenplays to a number of television horror anthologies, including Tales from the Darkside.

Of his writing, McDowell once said, "I am a commercial writer and I'm proud of that. 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."".[1]


  • The Amulet (1979), reissued in 2013 by Valancourt Books, with a new introduction by Poppy Z. Brite
  • Cold Moon Over Babylon (1980), reissued in 2015 by Valancourt Books
  • Gilded Needles (1980), reissued in 2015 by Valancourt Books, with a new introduction by Christopher Fowler
  • The Elementals (1981), reissued in 2014 by Valancourt Books, with a new introduction by Michael Rowe
  • Katie (1982), reissued in 2015 by Valancourt Books
  • The Blackwater series (1983)
    • "The Flood"
    • "The Levee"
    • "The House"
    • "The War"
    • "The Fortune"
    • "Rain"
Books 1-3 and 4-6 of the Blackwater series were collected as two omnibus volumes released immediately after the original serialized publication in 1983. In 2014, the series was reissued as e-books of both the original individual volumes and as a single omnibus by Tough Times Publishing. In 2015, another mass-market paperback of the full series with illustrations by Patrick Loehr and an introduction by author Poppy Z. Brite was released as a limited edition by Centipede Press.
  • Toplin (1985)
  • Clue (1985) ISBN 0-449-13049-5, movie novelization
  • The Jack and Susan novels, a.k.a. the Wild Card series. All novels in this series were reprinted in 2013 by Felony & Mayhem Press.
    • 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
As Axel Young
  • Blood Rubies (1982)
  • Wicked Stepmother (1983)
As Nathan Aldyne (with Dennis Schuetz)
  • Vermillion (1980)
  • Cobalt (1982)
  • Slate (1984)
  • Canary (1986)
As Preston Macadam
  • Michael Sheriff, The Shield: African Assignment (1985)
  • Michael Sheriff, The Shield: Arabian Assault (1985)
  • Michael Sheriff, The Shield: Island Intrigue (1985)
As Mike McCray
  • Several titles in the "Black Beret" series (1984–1987)

Screenwriting credits[edit]


  1. ^ a b Winter, Douglas (1985). Faces of Fear. New York: Berkley Books. p. 177. ISBN 0-425-07670-9. 
  2. ^ Morgan, Chris (May 17, 2014). "Grocer's Gothic". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved June 14, 2015. 
  3. ^ Schwartz, Lloyd (January 20, 2000). "Michael McDowell". The Phoenix. Retrieved June 14, 2015. 
  4. ^ "Acclaimed horror writer’s ‘Death Collection’ goes on display". Daily News. October 31, 2013. Retrieved June 14, 2015. 
  5. ^ Oliver, Myrna (January 18, 2000). "Michael McDowell, Horror Writer Dies". Bangor Daily News. p. B6. Retrieved June 14, 2015. 

External links[edit]

Further reading[edit]

Stamm, Michael E. "Michael McDowell and the Haunted South" in Darrell Schweitzer (ed), 'Discovering Modern Horror Fiction II', Mercer Island WA: Starmont House, 198, pp. 51–62.