If you follow my blog, or chat with me on Goodreads or Facebook, then you already know how I feel about Michael McDowell. If you don’t, please sit back because I’m about to tell you.
When I first joined Goodreads back in 2011, I met a lady that I now consider a good, good friend, (even though our politics are polar opposites), named Tressa. She’s from Alabama and we probably started to chatting about the love we both feel for Robert McCammon, but that’s another story. I respected her recommendations and when she sang the praises of Michael McDowell, I paid her heed. Problem was, I couldn’t find his books anywhere. (Tressa wrote about this in her piece about underrated Alabama authors here.)
About a year or two later, another Goodreads friend alerted me to a new press, and I forget what her original reason was because when I checked them out the first thing I saw was that they were re-releasing The Amulet, by Michael McDowell. I was PSYCHED! Finally, I was going to be able to actually read something written by this man that I had heard so much about. I’m not sure how the relationship grew from there, but I probably contacted Valancourt Books to tell them how I excited I was about The Amulet and they responded. We’ve since developed, (at least I think so), a friendship and a working relationship based on our love of books and all things Michael McDowell.
They have since gone on to bring back nearly every book McDowell has written and that was how my crush began. The Amulet was a great 80’s horror book and has everything going for it that made 80’s horror awesome, but it’s nowhere near my favorite. That would have to be The Elementals. A story about a Southern family, their history, and the story of an abandoned house on a small spit of land on the Alabama Gulf coast, known as Beldame. This tale is about the family dynamic as much as it is about the mysterious house. The enticing tag line that stayed with me was “Savage mothers eat their children up!” After reading this book, I felt like okay…maybe McDowell was just lucky and wrote two great books, but he’s still not all that. And then came Blackwater. (Please note that I am recounting these books in the order that I read them, not the order in which they were originally released.)
Blackwater was a series, though probably not considered a horror series, even by me. It was more like a Southern epic spanning generations, which included some horrific elements. Here, McDowell’s writing really shines. In his depictions of (again) family dynamics, he has such an ear for the dialogue, and a keen eye for the interactions between people. By the end of this 6 book series, I was crushing HARD on Michael McDowell.
Katie, Gilded Needles and Cold Moon Over Bablyon came next and I loved them all. As far as horror goes, Katie, (that’s her up there on the book cover with her hammer), kicked ass. You might think it’s just schmaltzy 80’s splatterpunk, and while it sort of is, it’s a much deeper story than that. Her schemes and those of her family are plotted and doggedly carried out. (Much as Tressa states in her piece which I linked above.) Katie is not the same old story of a girl and her hammer.
Gilded Needles begins with a beautiful, almost theatrical flight over the streets of NYC, (specifically, the Black Triangle), in the 1880’s. I say this because the scene reads like a movie and the reader so easily visualizes the landscape, it’s like they’re there. This was another book in which the plot sounds simple, it’s a revenge story at heart, but the villains are so diabolical and their machinations so intricate, you can’t tear yourself away. I mean, really, when someone sends you and your entire family invitations to YOUR OWN funerals? That’s just horrifically AWESOME, right?
And now, now I’ve finished reading Wicked Stepmother. A story that reeks of the 80’s and is mostly set in Boston. Again, we have the family dynamic that rings so true for me and again, I became attached to these characters. So much so, I actually yelled at them for time to time, much like I do with the TV show The Walking Dead. Anyway, it was a 250 page story that felt way too short and I finished it way too soon. What am I going to do now?
I know there will be at least one more Valancourt release of McDowell’s work, (Blood Rubies), some time this year. But what then? What will I do then? There aren’t that many more books that can be brought back, and I’m seriously depressed about that.
I find myself so sad that this author is dead because I adore him. I wish that I was familiar with him and his work back when he was still alive, so I could have written him a letter telling him how I feel. I would have said how real his characters are to me. I would have asked him if they were based on his family, or families that he knew when he was back in Alabama. I would have asked him how he developed his sharp observational skills and if he worked at it, or if it came naturally. I wish he could have seen how this country has changed, regarding gay rights and gay marriage. (Of course not everyone is on board with these changes, but as compared to gay rights in the 80’s, certainly we have made progress as a country.) I wish, I wish, I wish. But alas, none of these wishes will come true.
And that is the reason I wrote this piece. If you’ve stayed with me this far, I thank you. If not, I understand. I wrote this for me, and what more perfect place to post it than my blog?
Either way, I hope, (I dare to hope!), that perhaps this essay persuades you to look into McDowell’s work. As a screenwriter that also worked on the films Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, you may be familiar with his work already. If you’ve seen these films, you know his work is good. Believe me when I say his books are even better. I sincerely hope you try one of them.