Grocer’s Gothic

May 17, 2014   •   By Chris Morgan

IN 2004, British television station Channel 4 premiered a brilliant and bewildering meta-comedy series called Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. The show was framed as a lost classic, a hospital horror-drama shot in the 1980s and shelved until now. Its creators believed the series to be too “dangerous” for its time, when in fact it was just riddled with gratuitous and incomprehensible plots, insulting discontinuities, and almost self-destructively bad acting. On the surface, the series was a spoof of an endlessly amusing period and place. Just below, the parody dealt with something more timeless: the kind of hulking, asphyxiating ego that defies generations, represented in hilarious and repulsive glory by the show’s title character. Played by co-creator Matthew Holness, Garth Marenghi is Darkplace’s writer, director, and star, a self-professed “author, dream-weaver, visionary, plus actor.” Pale, dressed in all black, and brimming with atrocious puns, he boasts that he’s written more books than he’s read; books with titles such as Slicer, Afterbirth, Black Fang, and Slicer IV, featuring passages like:

The moonlight shone down on the place, unhindered. The gnarled parapets jagged upwards, like a bony hand of icy indifference. In the background there was a pigeon. Who knew how long the place had stood there? 40 years? 50 years? Tempus immemoria, i.e. always? But it was a bad place, that much was certain. A very bad place indeed.

The series lasted for only six episodes but gained a devoted cult following on both sides of the Atlantic, attributable to Garth Marenghi himself, Holness’s relish in portraying his grotesque machismo, but also to the resonant truth at the heart of the parody.

With few exceptions, Horror has always struggled to attain mainstream respectability. As a genre it has more in common with pornography than science fiction. Both Horror and pornography are set in their ways, pursuing pure sensation over what is generally considered artistic or philosophical depth. One caters to lust and the other to fear (though sometimes visa versa). And while horror films can surprise — surely The Shining is horror’s Behind the Green Door, and The Exorcist is its The Devil in Miss Jones — literary horror seems increasingly beyond that kind of redemption. The tawdry romance of pulp horror, of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert Bloch and Robert E. Howard, has since collapsed into the adolescent kitsch of the paperback original, of Garth Marenghi — his clunky prose and deficit of self-awareness. Even before the advent of, say, erotic werewolf fan fiction, literary horror seemed to be on a downward trajectory, speaking in an increasingly limited vocabulary. These limitations were further exposed by television and cinema, with their multisensory tableaus of gore, their jump scares, their ability to actually show the breasts of the sexpot victim rather than just describing them. What is the point in even reading Thomas Ligotti when we can see his words grimly purred through Matthew McConaughey’s drawl on True Detective?

Contemporary literary horror is not without its defenders, of course, nor without its sincere enthusiasts, Stephen King most prominent among them. Ever the middlebrow mediator, King promotes and defends his genre and peers with missionary zeal. Though perhaps his own career is not as up to snuff as it once was, his judgment of others is illuminating, especially his study Danse Macabre, in which he plays the role of horror’s Harold Bloom, offering a canon of its achievements. It was there that I saw the name Michael McDowell and the titles of two novels, both asterisked as personal favorites. McDowell’s reputation seems to live predominantly on the good things King has said about him, namely that he was at one point “the finest writer of paperback originals in America.” There is a ring of American tragedy in this propensity to do something well that is widely perceived as objectively bad — it is fascinating, bordering on perverse. But McDowell didn’t see his genre that way and neither do the admirers of his work, a group that has been growing steadily since his early death 15 years ago.

Assessing McDowell’s work at a cursory glance would seem to prove Darkplace’s creators correct. In his comparatively brief career, McDowell was an unabashed churner of books, whether in his own name or using a pseudonym. They were almost exclusively printed as paperbacks, selling cheaply in grocery stores and pharmacies among romance novels and gossip magazines. Though most spanned over 300 pages, none of his books made for difficult reading. They earned McDowell a comfortable living, though none of them were bestsellers, and only one is currently available in print. But the similarities end there. For one, the unpretentiousness of McDowell’s work was equaled by the unpretentiousness of his own perception of it. He called himself “a commercial writer” and scoffed at the notion of writing “for the ages.”

Little biographical information about McDowell is available today. His early books don’t even feature an author bio. Despite the dearth, however, there is enough indication that Michael McDowell managed to accomplish what fate decreed for him, in what little time he had. Bornin 1950 insoutheastern Alabama, and raised there, near the border to Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, he graduated with high honors from Harvard and earned a PhD from Brandeis based on a dissertation titled American Attitudes Toward Death, 1825-1865. Death was a recurring obsession for McDowell. When he wasn’t writing about it or studying it, he was collecting it, in the form of funeral cards, hair wreathes, crime scene and accident photos, infant-sized caskets, all of which are archived at Northwestern University and were put on display last October. “He always had kind of a gothic horror side to him,” his brother James told the New York Daily News with classic brotherly understatement.

After college, McDowell wrote fiction at night while supporting himself through teaching and secretarial work. Six early novels with titles like Venus Restored and Blood and Glitter went unpublished and remain so. His publishing debut came in 1979 with The Amulet, which he’d started writing as a screenplay. From that point to around 1987, McDowell would publish over 30 novels, 16 of them under his own name. Some were purely contractual jobs, including a series of light Nick and Nora–style mysteries written for Ballantine called Jack and Susan, and a novelization of the movie Clue. While there is no strong consensus among fans and peers as to which is his best or signature novel, the cultic interest is predominantly focused on the work he published between 1979 and 1983, in particular The Amulet and Cold Moon over Babylon, the novels King had listed. 

The Amulet is set in 1965 in Pine Cone, Alabama, an economically depressed, racially segregated rural town. Its primary industry is a munitions factory; its citizenry is “like an extended family, but it is a family that feuds with itself constantly.” Pine Cone does not breed “tolerance or friendliness, and the more genial of human attributes seem to exist in that place by chance and neglect rather than by cultivation.” The vanguard of local uncharitability is Jo Howell, a morbidly obese, lazy woman with a robust, almost lifelong sense of having been trespassed against in one way or another. Her son Dean is drafted to serve in Vietnam and immediately returns home in a markedly reduced state, after a rifle from the local factory explodes in his face during basic training. Henceforth, the novel depicts an emotional projection on a massive scale. How Jo came to possess the titular black and gold necklace is never made clear, but its power is so linked with her person that it seems more authentically her offspring than her son, especially as it goes out into the world, righting her perceived wrongs — an extension of her brutish, corrosive personality.

As the novel progresses, a body count amasses with impressive speed and quantity. Whoever possesses the amulet is infected with Jo’s accumulated rage in a matter of minutes. First, the wife of Dean’s best friend immobilizes her husband and five children with poison and sets the house on fire. A local policeman’s skull is pierced by an icepick; after the funeral, his brother-in-law is bludgeoned in the middle of a creek as his daughter looks on. Once the deeds are done, the wearers are themselves discarded, whether by accidently cutting their throats or getting hit by trucks on the highway. And so it goes.

The Amulet is an impressive debut. It shows McDowell’s prowess for sharp dialogue, which minds the natural and regional (if not always strictly individual) cadences and humor of his characters: 

Becca whistled again. “That woman sure knows how to be mean. She must take a correspondence course, filling out all them forms, and answering all them questions on how to be ugly to people, doing it all while you’re away at work, practicing on ever’body that comes to see her.”

The author’s most potent weapon, though, is his unflinching and extravagant flair for the grizzly detail, whether it is in accentuating the near-divine grotesqueness of an antagonist or simply describing one of many gruesome deaths and visions:

The fourth wall of Rachel’s room caught fire, and a ceiling beam collapsing into the middle of the room ignited the bedclothes and the contents of the cedar chest. The infant on Rachel’s knee fainted, overcome by the smoke. Rachel lifted it to her breast, cradling its head against her shoulder as if it were asleep, and walked it across the room, carefully avoiding the little patches of fire on the carpet, as if they had been toys left by the other children. She laid the child in the burning wicker basinette [sic], tucking it lovingly between smoldering sheets.

After seven novels, McDowell still had some budding-writer extravagances to exorcise. If the novel reads like a series of unfortunate events, it’s because that’s more or less what it is. By McDowell’s own admission, The Amulet’s genesis came entirely out of the death scenes, around which he built the narrative. The novel has trouble balancing what comes off as an extra story: McDowell’s relationship with the South. His scene-setting, especially in the opening chapters, has the care and meticulousness of a dedicated model train enthusiast, but also a jaundiced catharsis as he sets it all aflame. Michael McDowell’s Alabama, in other words, is not Stephen King’s Maine. The Amulet is best in showing McDowell’s talent but not so much his craft. Thankfully, this would be a temporary dilemma.

Within a year, The Amulet was followed by Cold Moon over Babylon, which carries over the setting and style from its predecessor, while boasting a tighter, less made-for-film structure. It also marks a shift away from pure atrocity exhibition into more unsettling territory. The narrative can be divided into two very simple parts: murder and the according revenge. The Larkin family, made up of Grandmother Evelyn and grandchildren Jerry and Margaret, adult and teenager, respectively, are blueberry farmers in the town of Babylon. They are plain and humble and deeply unfortunate, having gotten on the wrong side of bank president and trust fund baby Nathan Redfield by getting in debt with him, owning oil-rich land, and having a young family member to whom he is insatiably attracted. (“[H]e hadn’t any use at all for females who had passed the age of seventeen.”) And because Nathan is greedy and lacks impulse control, he dons a leather bondage mask and wipes them out, disposing of their bodies in the Styx, a silt-blackened river that runs through the town. 

As you may have gathered, the novel contains gruesome moments — in fact there is something perennially Southern about being beheaded by a Civil War–era sword — but the naturalistic, salacious thriller of the first half soon culminates in an unsettling atmosphere and gathering dread. The point of view shifts from the Larkins to their murderer, who goes about his days trying to reap the benefits of his deeds, increasingly not to his avail. Gradually, he is intruded upon by visions and disorientations that can only be written off as drunken mind tricks for so long:

He drove on. One by one the lights failed as he neared. The darkness behind the car was absolute. The road itself seemed longer, straighter than before …

Nathan pushed the car up to fifty … As he drove faster, the lamps went out more quickly, but their number rising out of the darkness ahead did not diminish. And worse, much worse, was that Nathan now saw the pale gray girl standing beneath each lamp, still and stately. Just before he was close enough to see her face, the light was extinguished, and she was at the next, on the opposite side of the street.

Nathan’s life erupts into a bleak phantasmagoria, colored in blinding white moonlight and bubbling black water: 

Nathan tried to adjust to the glare. It wasn’t entirely like light, or great intensity of light; rather the landscape appeared an overexposed photograph. Before him, the small monuments and the gravestones were of a dazzling and undifferentiated whiteness, while the dark trees, grass, shrubs and earth, which ought to have been black in the night, were a shining gray with speckled shadow. Behind him was the moon, frigid and enormous, imparting a dense primeval phosphorescence to everything before him. Only his own body remained in shadow.

It does not take long for Nathan’s visions to progress from menacingly playful to menacingly righteous and for him to devolve from merely disoriented to outwardly paranoid and erratic:

While the others fussed with the overturned water, Nathan grabbed the edges of his chair and told himself over and over that this was an apparition. Jerry Larkin’s corpse, with the head sewn badly on by the undertaker, was only the accustomed waiter, John McAndrew, impatient for his order. John McAndrew’s hands were not stained with blood and black water. The overwhelming stench that radiated from the upright corpse was only another trick of Nathan’s senses …

Jerry Larkin turned his grinning head slowly. Nathan stared at the straining sutures. Afraid they would break and the head plunge into his lap, he drove his chair back. “Excuse me …” he stammered.

Nathan receives his comeuppance soon enough. Cold Moon over Babylon is not as blackly comic as The Amulet, but McDowell allows his readers some measure of relish to ease their repulsion. Nathan is no antihero, but a bad man struggling like a wingless wasp as he’s throttled to his fate.

McDowell’s dalliances with Southern Gothic would continue through two more works: The Elementals (1981) and the six-novel series Blackwater (1983). Both books cover ground familiar to fans of “grotesque” Southern literature: deterioration of family and fortune, the (in these cases literal) haunting of the past, and its long-awaited revenge on the present. Both are out of print but still cherished by enthusiasts; Poppy Z. Brite, in her introduction to the 2013 edition of The Amulet, claimed The Elementals was “surely the most terrifying novel ever written.” Yet just as he seemed to be carving out a niche as a purely Southern horror writer alongside Anne Rice, McDowell defied it. Novels Gilded Needles and Katie took place in the 19th-century Northeast and tilted toward psychological thriller. Toplin, his only work to have debuted in hardback, is more experimental, even blatantly artistic, earning him comparisons to Ballard and Kafka.

By the late 1980s, McDowell’s career evolved again, essentially coming full circle, from writing novels back to scripts — a move that seemed inevitable and proved more fruitful than his early attempts. Indeed, his entrance into television could not have been timed more fortuitously, coinciding as it did with a resurgent interest in anthology horror shows. McDowell contributed scripts to Tales from the Darkside, Tales from the Crypt, and the rebooted Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Certainly, his best-known screen work is Beetlejuice, for which he provided the initial story and script. The film that eventually made it into theaters is markedly more humorous and less gruesome than what he wrote, but he would work again with Tim Burton on The Nightmare Before Christmas and later adapt Stephen King’s Thinner. His script work virtually replaced his prose work: he spent the last years of his life teaching classes on screenwriting at Boston and Tufts University.

McDowell’s quick shifts in tone, content, and medium, to say nothing of his unabashed commercialism and tenacity for hackwork, might paint him as an erratic, opportunistic author. McDowell indulged this notion when he confessed to critic Douglas E. Winter that he “would be perfectly willing if a publisher came up to me and said, ‘I need a novel about underwater Nazi cheerleaders and it has to be 309 pages long and I need fourteen chapters and a prologue.’” But his modern-day admirers, from Stephen King to Will Errickson of the blog Too Much Horror Fiction, are right to defend him, for McDowell believed that “the best art comes out of being strictured [sic]. I don’t think that great art comes from experimental novels.” It was a statement that would be echoed nearly 10 years later by David Foster Wallace, who taught books by Thomas Harris, Jackie Collins, and Stephen King in an early English class, warning students in his syllabus that “‘popular’ texts will end up being harder than conventionally ‘literary’ works to unpack and read critically.”

McDowell stands alongside M. R. James and Ambrose Bierce as much as he does with the urban legend, the campfire story, and even with the found daguerreotype. An effective horror story, at the end of the day, doesn’t require more than two or three elements: a reader’s obsession, a storyteller’s mischief, and a sharp, careful eye to fit them into the same frame. That is why American Horror Story’s pseudo-Freudian excesses will likely consign it to the zeitgeist in which it was written, while a single episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? will endure.

“I do feel that the universe is a joke,” McDowell said. “And that we are the butt of that joke. And horror is one of the best ways of saying that, of saying that there are things out there and forces and vibrations that are simply malevolent.” In his obsessions, McDowell found the most common sources of human fear. He paired an unrestrained imagination with careful craftsmanship, and so succeeded in terrifying successive generations of readers. It is only appropriate that he continues to do so from the grave.


Chris R. Morgan has previously written for VICE, Bookforum, The Awl, Open Letters Monthly and This Recording. He lives in New Jersey and publishes a zine called Biopsy.