Michael McDowell: A Most Underrated Alabama Author

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The recent 9th annual Alabama Bound at the Central library brought to mind my all-time favorite Alabama author, Michael McDowell. Never heard of him? It could be the fact that not every great writer makes the New York Times bestseller’s list. Well, to be honest, most of our great writers don’t. McDowell is one of those writers. Unfortunately, he died too soon and too underrated.

McDowell was born in 1950 in Enterprise, Alabama. He died in 1999 of AIDS-related illness in Boston, Massachusetts. In between he left his mark on different fiction genres and even rubbed elbows with Hollywood’s Tim Burton through their collaborations on Beetlejuice (1987) and Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).

My first introduction to McDowell happened 25 years ago in my favorite used bookstore on Rocky Ridge Road. Browsing the horror section I came across a series set in Alabama. Blackwater (1983) is a serial of six books that tells the story of the Caskey family’s rise to power in the small mill town of Perdido, Alabama. The twist in the story is that the matriarch is something other than human; something that crawled from the red mud of the Perdido riverbank and set her ambitious sights on a man and a town.

The Amulet (1979), Cold Moon Over Babylon (1980) and The Elementals (1981) are also set in Alabama and contain similar supernatural themes of revenge and redemption. McDowell is an expert at bringing to life the mannerisms and diction of his southern characters, from the sweet tea they guzzle in the summer to their endearing use of “gone” for “going.” It's not for nothing that McDowell's southern gothics are matriach-heavy; he really had an understanding of just who heads up families here in the south.

McDowell takes a wide turn in his two turn of the centry novels set in New York, Katie (1982) and Gilded Needles (1980). Katie tells the story of a cunning woman, her dull, psychic stepdaughter and their desperate attempts to hang on to a carpetbag full of blood money. Don’t let the book cover showing a silhouette of a girl holding an hammer dripping with blood and the line “Katie kills for kicks and cash” scare you away. This is not a pulp fiction throwaway but a smart, tense story that will keep you white knuckled until the last word. Gilded Needles chronicles the clashes between a mother and her family of thieves and a powerful, wealthy New York judge.

Stephen King didn't call McDowell one of the "finest writers of paperback originals in America today” for nothing. Tabitha King was asked to complete McDowell's unfinished novel Candles Burning, which was published last year to good reviews.

Many of McDowell’s books are out of print and hard to find. So if you find yourself in some dusty used bookstore and happen to spot one, grab it for posterity.


Search the JCLC catalog for a list of McDowell's books. Books not listed on our catalog may be available through Interlibrary Loans.

For more of McDowell's life and career achievements, please visit our Biography Resource Center (library card is required)

McDowell's filmography on IMDB


castiron_bull said…
My mother-in-law is reading the Blackwater series, says it is great, and that I will find it very interesting. After this BPL website promotion of Michael McDowell, I am disappointed to find so few of his books available for checkout from BPL and/or JCLC.

It appears he truly was underrated or unknown as an Alabama author when his books were published and/or discarded.
Tressa Fancher said…
I hope you read everything of McDowell's that you can get your hands on. If it's not available in our library system, please try to get his books through our Interlibrary Loan dept. It will be so worth it.

Or, do like I do and search used bookstores and thrift stores. And there's always eBay.

McDowell himself said that he "is 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 write for the ages." Still, spread the word. ;-)
Will Errickson said…
Halfway through volume 2 of BLACKWATER, The Levee, and am totally digging it! Two of his earlier books, THE AMULET and THE ELEMENTALS, were very good as well. If you find any of McDowell's paperbacks used, buy 'em all up; you'll be glad you did. High time his stuff was reprinted - perhaps by an Alabama-based publisher? Dare we hope?!
Tressa Fancher said…
Hey, Will. So glad you're enjoying these as much as I did. Adam at GR didn't care for them too much. Oh, well. I'm just glad that McDowell has picked up another fan. He needs all he can get.

And I agree: buy them when you see them because you may not see them again for a long time.

Thanks for the comment.