Michael McDowall (1950-1999):
I am a commercial writer and I’m proud of that. I think it is a mistake to try to write for the ages.
Born in Alabama, McDowall wrote deep-South gothic novels that were published mainly as paperbacks in the 1980s, the golden age of the throwaway book.
McDowell received good money and good reviews, publishing 30 books including mysteries, comedies, period adventures, psychological suspense stories and family epics; two sets of pastiche novels, one featuring a gay detective. His prose is tight, and his idiomatic dialogue is spare.
McDowell frequently took on the idea of revenge against the patriarchy in his books, and his wonderfully conversational style made it feel as though he was imparting a juicy piece of gossip while describing all sorts of ominous events.
His best book is The Elementals (1981), an astonishingly scary haunted house story in which two families clash during a summer holiday on a spit of land being slowly engulfed by tides and mournful spirits. There is also 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. Cold Moon Over Babylon (1980) is set in the harvest season of a foggy Southern town and has a wonderful feel for its location, a tale of revenge from beyond the grave that ranks among the most terrifying books ever.
McDowell was a creator of highly visual images, and his film credits include the screenplays for Beetlejuice (1987), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and Thinner (1996).
McDowell also wrote for horror and supernatural television shows, providing scripts for Tales From the Darkside, Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Stephen King described McDowell as “the finest writer of paperback originals in America today“.
Openly gay, McDowell’s partner was theatre historian and director Laurence Senelick. They he met in 1969 when McDowell was a cast member of a play that Senelick directed. McDowell and Senelick were together for 30 years until McDowell’s passing.
McDowell collected Victorian death memorabilia. His extensive and diverse collection, which filled over seventy-six boxes, included death pins, photographs and plaques from infant caskets. The collection was acquired by Northwestern University, where you can see it on display.
McDowell was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1994. After his diagnosis, McDowell taught screenwriting at Boston University and Tufts University while continuing to write screenplays. He was working on a sequel to Beetlejuice when he was taken by the plague in December 1999.
His work was out of print for years but his creepy books have been slowly reissued by Valancourt Books starting in 2013.