Michael McDowell: The finest writer of paperback originals


Michael McDowell wrote the screenplays for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. But, prior to that, Stephen King was a fan of his paperbacks.

Michael McDowell, is “the finest writer of paperback originals in America,” according to his friend, Stephen King. In the early 1980s, horror paperback originals were all the rage.

These books could be picked up in drugstores, at the supermarket, pretty much anywhere you could get your favorite magazines. They were often lurid, filled with sex and gore, and featured fantastic eye-catching artwork on their covers.

Although Michael McDowell later went on to write screenplays for movies such as Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, he cut his literary teeth on paperback originals, and proclaimed that he was proud of being a commercial writer.

Many of his books had been out of print until Valancourt Books came into being, and re-released most of his library. Valancourt’s website states that they specialize “in the rediscovery of rare, neglected, and out-of-print fiction.”

While I don’t think you can go wrong with any of his books, I am focusing on my personal favorites for the purpose of this story. We’ll start with Cold Moon Over Babylon, which was made into a movie (Cold Moon) in 2016.

Cold Moon

Like so many of McDowell’s books, this one is set in the south. Babylon is a quiet town, where the Larkin family suffered a horrible tragedy years ago. But, fate is not finished with them, as they find out when 14-year-old Margaret Larkin is tied to her bicycle and murdered.

Michael McDowell – Cold Moon – Courtesy Curmudgeon Films

McDowell does not candy-coat his horror, and the brutal murders in this book are described in gory detail. His description of Margaret’s corpse-like entity is horrifying, and I could clearly picture it in my mind.

Margaret’s brother Jerry and grandmother Evelyn are sympathetic characters who do not deserve the awful things they have suffered, and I was rooting for the revenge that Margaret was seeking. This is a creepy, satisfying ghost story, and is filled with McDowell’s descriptive imagery. There is really no mystery as to who the murderer is, but the story is compelling all the same.

The Elementals

The Elementals is also a southern gothic / horror novel, and one I re-read fairly regularly. It’s nearly perfect, and is one of my favorite horror novels of all time. Once again, Michael McDowell mesmerizes with his clear, frightening descriptions of horror.

More from Books

When matriarch Miriam Savage dies, the Savage and McCray families witness a very strange ritual at her funeral; one that is apparently practiced every time a Savage passes away. Afterwards, the two families (who have been friends for many years) pay a visit to Beldame, Alabama, where three Victorian homes are located on the Gulf Coast.

One of the homes is being slowly and mysteriously taken over by an enormous sand dune, and thought to be empty. While there are indeed no living beings in the house, there is something far worse, and it may have been responsible for several deaths over the years.

Dauphin Savage and Luker McCray have been haunted by this mysterious presence since they were boys, and now Luker’s daughter India is seeing terrifying images. All the while, a suffocating heat wave is affecting everyone at Beldame.

The Elementals is filled with frightening events, fascinating characters, and humor as well. Luker and India, while close, do not have a typical father-daughter relationship. At one point, they converse while Luker is sunbathing in the nude, and they regularly curse at one another.

Be prepared, not all of these characters make it out alive, but the story is well worth reading. This one deserves a movie, I have no idea why it was never made.


Blackwater was released in 1983 as a series of six different volumes, and it’s a doozy. Set in Perdido, Alabama, the first volume (The Flood) opens during the aftermath of a disastrous flood, when Elinor is rescued from a flooded hotel by Oscar Casky. Oscar’s family is the most powerful in Perdido, and he falls hopelessly in love with Elinor.

But, of course, there is more to the mysterious Elinor than meets the eye, and during this rich saga, we find out that she is…not exactly human, let’s say. She is one of those frustrating characters that you don’t know if you should root for, or hate. She is admirable in many ways, but she does some pretty evil things throughout the story.

Michael McDowell – Courtesy of Valancourt Books

This is a somewhat “sweeping” saga, that follows Elinor and the Casky families for the many years after her rescue, so be prepared to invest some time in reading it. The original six volumes of Blackwater are now available as one, and you can also find the kindle version on Amazon as Blackwater: The Complete Saga.

If you read these books and find yourself hungry for more, I would also recommend Katie, Candles Burning, and The Amulet. Sadly, there will be no more books by Michael McDowell, as he died in 1999 from complications of AIDS.

dark. Next. 25 best Stephen King movies of all time

Candles Burning was left unfinished, until it was completed and published by novelist Tabitha King in 2006.

If you decide to give McDowell a shot (as Stephen King would want you to), let me know what you think? Which book(s) did you read, and how did you like it?