Michael McDowell (author)

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This article is about the American writer. For other uses, see Michael McDowell (disambiguation).
Michael McDowell
Michael McDowell (author).jpg
Born Michael McEachern McDowell
(1950-06-01)June 1, 1950
Enterprise, Alabama, United States
Died December 27, 1999(1999-12-27) (aged 49)
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
Pen name
  • Axel Young
  • Nathan Aldyne
  • Preston Macadam
  • Mike McCray
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."[6] Stephen King described McDowell as "the finest writer of paperback originals in America today".[1] McDowell was one of seventeen contemporary British and American horror writers interviewed by Douglas E. Winter in his 1985 interview book Faces of Fear.[6]


  • The Amulet (1979), reissued in 2013 by Valancourt Books, with a new introduction by Poppy Z. Brite. With her husband Dean at home in a vegetative state after a gun accident, Sarah Howell is at the mercy of her lazy but controlling and hateful mother-in-law Jo. When the citizens of Pine Cone, Alabama, begin to die in shocking and grisly ways, Sarah begins to suspect that a unique piece of jewelry that a vengeful Jo gave away is connected.
  • Cold Moon Over Babylon (1980), reissued in 2015 by Valancourt Books, with a new introduction by Douglas E. Winter. A young girl's mysterious disappearance in quiet Babylon, Florida, awakens a horror in the Styx River that draws the Larkin, Redfield and Hale families into a grisly web of deception and murder.
  • Gilded Needles (1980), reissued in 2015 by Valancourt Books, with a new introduction by Christopher Fowler. When an enemy from her past unwittingly sets in motion the destruction of her family and livelihood, cunning criminal mastermind Lena Shanks, now with the power and resources to fight back, plots her revenge.
  • The Elementals (1981), reissued in 2014 by Valancourt Books, with a new introduction by Michael Rowe. The Savage and McCray families seek out their Victorian summer houses in remote Beldame, Alabama, for what they hope will be a relaxing vacation on the Gulf Coast. But a third house, abandoned and slowly being consumed by sand, holds a horror that has plagued them for generations, and young India McCray has awakened it.
  • Katie (1982), reissued in 2015 by Valancourt Books. A plea for help from her estranged grandfather puts young Philomena Drax in the dangerous path of the wicked John and Hannah Slape and their psychotic, homicidal daughter Katie.
  • The Blackwater series (1983). A disastrous flood in Perdido, Alabama, leaves behind mysterious new arrival Elinor Dammert, who soon marries into the wealthy Caskey family and hides an unnatural secret. Over the next 50 years, her influence brings prosperity, but also animosity, conflict and even death, to the family.
    • "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 editions released in 1983 immediately after the original serialized publication. In 2014, the series was reissued by Tough Times Publishing as e-books of both the original individual volumes and as a single omnibus, Blackwater: The Complete Caskey Family Saga. In 2015, another hardcover publication 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)
  • 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.
Short stories
As Axel Young
  • Blood Rubies (1982). Twins Katherine and Andrea, separated as infants by the death of their mother in a fire, each possess one of their mother's ruby earrings. And though raised apart and differently, they also each possess a murderous evil which draws them to each other.
  • Wicked Stepmother (1983). Wicked and greedy Louise marries an elderly millionaire and then murders him, but to hold onto the fortune and get away with the crime, she must navigate—and possibly eliminate—his lawyer and his children.
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]


In February 2015, Variety reported that a film adaptation of Cold Moon Over Babylon was in production, starring Josh Stewart and Christopher Lloyd.[7]


  1. ^ a b Winter, Douglas (1985). Faces of Fear. New York: Berkley Books. p. 177. ISBN 0-425-07670-9. Retrieved September 13, 2015. 
  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. 
  6. ^ a b Winter (1985). Faces of Fear. p. 235. 
  7. ^ McNary, Dave (February 10, 2015). "Josh Stewart, Christopher Lloyd Starring in Cold Moon". Variety. Retrieved September 12, 2015. 

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