*Used with permission of Stanley Wiater
An interview with Michael McDowell in Fangoria #40, 1984.
An interview with Michael McDowell in Fangoria #40, 1984.
Horror in Print: Michael McDowell
A talk with the prolific horror author described by Stephen King as "The Finest Writer of Paperback Originals."
by Stanley Wiater
First impressions, as the saying goes, can be decieving. This is especially true of author Michael McDowell who, from a distance, just naturally appears foreboding. And so for those who expect such a stereotype, he willingly appears to the public as someone who would simply have to enjoy writing some of the most macabre and perversely gruesome novels being published today.
Yet even if there wasn't a popular acceptance of his works, McDowell can count amount his biggest fans such critics as Stephen King, who rates him as "the finest writer of paperback originals in America." While Peter Straub declares, "He is beyond any trace of a doubt, one of the absolutely best writers of horror in this or any other country."
Pretty nice praise, considering McDowell's first novel The Amulet, was only published five years ago by Avon books. For the record, his published novels include Gilded Needles, Katie, (both are historical horror novels taking place around the turn of the century), Cold Moon Over Babylon, and The Elementals, which to date remained McDowell's personal favorite. The, beginning in January of 1983, the monumental six-novel series known as Blackwater appeared at the rate of one a month. If this "family saga" dealing with the multi-generational Caskey family whose matriarch "isn't quite human" didn't assure McDowell's reputation in the field, then nothing would.
(In fact, this prolific rate still isn't enough to satisfy McDowell. With collaborator Dennis Schuetz, he also writes a highly acclaimed series of mystery novels using the join pseudonym of "Nathan Aldyne." These include Vermillion, Cobalt, and the recently published Slate. And if this still wasn't enough to keep three ordinary writers busy, McDowell--again in collaboration with Schuetz -employs the pseudonym "Axel Young" to co-author such psychological horror thrillers as Blood Rubies and last year's Wicked Stepmother. So for those already addicted to Michael McDowell, rest assured there's much more than one might originally think!)
In spite of his foreboding appearance, we find McDowell more than willing to discuss any and all aspects of his career. Rather than dwell on his individual books, it was agreed to try and find out just what it is that shapes someone into being a horror writer, and then go on from there.
FANGORIA: What made you want to write horror or occult novels to begin with, rather than some other genre?
MICHAEL MCDOWELL: Well, I had written half a dozen novels which were not occult. I don't even want to talk about them--now they don't seem very good at all--but they were not occult, and I was getting tired of not selling! I went to see Barry Lyndon, the film, which was terrible. But before it, they had a trailer for The Omen (which is the only thing I ever saw about The Omen). In it, the child was called Damien. And I had just seen The Exorcist, and in it the child was called Regan. So I thought, isn't that convenient, that demonic children have such interesting names. And so I thought what if you have a demonic child named . . . Fred!
I was going to do a screenplay about a demonic child named Fred. I worked on it awhile, and it turned into The Amulet. Fred drops out. For practice, I decided to novelize the screenplay. And the "novelization" sold--immediately! And I thought, well, I've done something right--that was how I came into it, sort of back-door and accidental.
FANG: Did you watch any horror movies when you were a child?
MCDOWELL: Oh, I saw them all, sure. I still watch horror movies. In fact, the worse the better!
FANG: What about horror fiction as a youth? Any influences there?
MCDOWELL: H.P. Lovecraft. I read all of Lovecraft, and that was very influential. I get from him reliance on a landscape. A sense of place; that comes directly from him. I've read a lot of horror and occult short stories. Other influences would be mostly Chinese and Japanese films of the occult. Not for anything specific, but just for their way of treating the supernatural in a straightforward fashion in a way that Americans never quite get. As a part of life. And they are simply telling a story in which the supernatural is a major element. I still go to see all the Chinese horror films I can. Number one, because I enjoy them. Number two, because you can steal from them! Now, what was something I stole? The eating of the eyes in The Elementals; that was taken from a Chinese film in which that happens. A young woman eats the eyes of a sorcerer....
FANG: You've stated elsewhere some past instances where your editors have come right out and asked you to change aspects of your novels to make them less "downbeat." Could you elaborate on how you feel about this type of outside influence or pressure?
MCDOWELL: It comes down to why you write horror novels, or novels about horror. My philosophy, if I have one, is that the universe is a joke and we are the butt of that joke. And it seems meretricious to me to have a novel about horror with a very happy ending, even with people getting killed along the way. Whereas in life, the wrong people die. The good die young, and the mean ones hang on to their bitter end. And it's also cheating your reader, for them to have 10 different characters introduced in the first 30 pages, and be able to pick out which ones are going to die, and which ones are going to survive at the end. That's cheating. Well, it's not cheating--it's boring! I remember one of the greatest lessons I ever learned was watching a Marco Polo film that came out in the late 50's or early 60's. And in it were a Chinese princess and her handmaiden. And the handmaiden died. The princess' handmaiden ALWAYS dies--so that the princess doesn't have to, and she can end up with the hero. You see it all the time, and I hated that cheap trip.
I really try to stay away from that, which is why I end a number of novels by having the wrong people die. People I like die, and they die at the wrong time. The only time I've ever changed it was for the ending of Cold Moon Over Babylon with the cheerleader. My favorite, most likable character in the book dies at the end. I have her die, and my editor asked me to change it, and I changed it. It wasn't a huge deal. But she dies at the beginning in the first draft. But I like that. When I read someone else's horror novel, I don't want to know who's going to survive! I don't mind the hero dying because that's what life is all about. [laughs]
FANG: There's always been a great debate between subtle, suggested horror, and graphic explicit horror, whether in fiction or on screen. The argument is always over which is more frightening, the seen or the unseen. Just how far do you let your own imagination go?
MCDOWELL: The limit of horror in a novel that I'm willing to put in is simply the limit of my imagination. For example, I've never seen a person's arm ripped out of it's socket. So I don't know what it looks like, how much torn ligament there is, i don't know if you can see the bone inside. . . I'm not really sure of those things, so I don't write about them. But I will write about someone's arm being torn off, and for me that's the limit to how much horror I will put in--simply how far my imagination will go. There are times I've gone farther than others.
FANG: Your readers can certainly attest to that! On the other hand, are there any instances when you'll consciously "hold back" the reins on your imagination, even though you could have gotten more involved in a graphic sense?
MCDOWELL: Well, there is a little of that. For instance, it's known fact that in most instances of a violent death, the bowels let go. You don't want to put that in every time, because in a way it steals focus, and you have to deal with it, and by then it's already taken up more room in a reader's mind than you want. So that's self-censorship, in a way. But it's also a choice, a choice of detail.
FANG: Before we get along too far, could you tell us a little about yourself, biographically? From your Southern accent, it's clear you weren't born in Boston, where you now are living.
MCDOWELL: Sure. I was born in 1950 in Alabama, and grew up in small towns in southern Alabama. I came to Massachusetts in 1968 to go to college, and stayed here. I eventually got a Doctorate in English, which I did absolutely nothing with. I started writing when I was in college, and by the time I was in graduate school I decided to try and make a career in writing. Actually, I was very lucky that I was so ignorant, and had no idea how hard it is to make a living by writing. Also, you tend not to take yourself as seriously, I think, if you have something to fall back on. I had nothing to fall back on, except a secretarial job. But I couldn't have written as much as I had if I had been teaching. But I did it, and it's paid off. So, since 1978, I just write.
FANG: What do you think of the idea that there's something inherent in horror fiction which separates the horror writer from all other kinds of writers?
MCDOWELL: That's a good question. The only thing I can think of would be a technical knack. If you're a horror writer, then you want to be able to jolt or scare. It's different from suspense because it's like peaks of electricity. And they should come--you should be able to do them--so that they come in the right places. You have to make sure they have the right rhythm of low peaks, middle peaks, and high peaks. I suppose there are equivalent ones, but they have to be layered in, and they have to be invisible in the narrative. That is, you have to have not only suspense, and not only characterization, and not only follow through on plot, but you have to have these "jolts." And that's something quite technical; I don't know if you can learn it. If you're talking about advice to young writers, it's simply to write. Write all the time. The more you write, the easier it becomes. It's still hard work. It'll always be hard work!
FANG: From the number of books you've published in such a relatively short amount of time, it's obviously you write all the time. Why?
MCDOWELL: No one's ever asked me that! There's a number of reasons. One, I write quickly and very concentratedly; I can write a lot. I do four or five drafts of everything, but the fifth draft looks very much like the first. After I've done the first, it's almost fine tuning. The other thing is, when I find a writer I like, I want him to have written 50 books so I can read every one of them! And I get mad when he hasn't, because I want to keep reading more and more of them, and they aren't there. So, for those people who do like me, I'm trying to put out as much as possible. I use a word processor, and you have to have one when you do as much as I do. I work very concentratedly, that is, I can sit down in the morning and write between 15 and 20 pages when I'm doing a first draft. And 15 or 20 pages a day for a month is a book. Also, I don't do anything else! This is my job, and I like it.
FANG: Then you don't mind being labeled as a "horror writer?"
MCDOWELL: That doesn't bother me at all. See, as far as I'm concerned, that's marketing. And anything they can use to get the books into people's hands. . . because once the books are in people's hands, then I take over. And let them be fooled by the covers, and by what they say on the back, and what they hear about me. They'll get the REAL story once they open the book!
FANG: We know you're a long time reader of FANGORIA. What do you think of the argument that reading about horror and graphic violence--not to mention seeing it in the movies--is just one more bad influence on an already violence filled society?
MCDOWELL: [angrily] I cannot believe anyone would be injured by reading! Reading presupposes rational thinking. Reading about violence is not going to incite violence; reading about sex is not going to incite sex. I don't believe in censorship of any sort. Any sort!! I would go to see a movie that had anything in it--I think the ratings should be gone. I don't think anything should be kept from anybody who wants to see it. So I don't think there should be any limits on the amount of violence shown on the screen, or written about in books. That's categorical.
FANG: Finally, is there anything you might want to add, or comment about that we might have missed?
MCDOWELL: These were good questions, because they haven't been the same things I have been asked recently. . . I just don't want to give the impression that I'm not a careful writer just because I write so much. I'm extremely careful, and very proud of my work. I look on it as a craft, and a craft that I'm trying to perfect.