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Michael McEachern McDowell; Horror Novelist Also Wrote Movie Chillers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Michael McEachern McDowell, author of a score of horror novels who went on to script such offbeat motion pictures as director Tim Burton’s “Beetlejuice” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” has died at the age of 49.

McDowell, who also wrote for the television series and movie “Tales From the Darkside,” died Monday in a Boston hospital of the complications of AIDS.

After his diagnosis with the disease in 1994, McDowell taught screenwriting at Boston and Tufts universities and continued to write commissioned screenplay treatments. He had been working on treatments of a “Beetlejuice” sequel and a new version of “The Nutcracker.”

There was little in his background to indicate that he would become a prolific writer on the occult, the supernatural, madness and the psyches of serial killers. He was born in Enterprise, Ala., to an accountant and a social worker and earned highest honors in English at Harvard and a doctorate at Brandeis University.

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McDowell began writing in college, but worked as a teacher, a theater critic and a secretary at Massachusetts Institution of Technology until royalties started supporting him.

Starting in 1979 with his first novel, “The Amulet,” involving a supernatural bracelet, McDowell specialized in paperback books with mind- and stomach-churning plots and characters.

His second novel, “Cold Moon Over Babylon” in 1980, focused on a murdered woman whose spirit roams the land seeking revenge on her killer, who is plotting her relatives’ demise.

McDowell won particular praise for his ability to balance the mundane with supernatural activity. In the “St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers,” Don D’Ammassa called the Babylon book “one of the best ghost stories ever written at novel length.”

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In 1983, McDowell wrote six serial paperback novels, one published each month by Avon, known collectively as the Blackwater novels. Titled “The Flood,” “The Levee,” “The House,” “The War,” “The Fortune” and “Rain,” they chronicled the history of a Southern family over more than 60 years and became extremely popular with readers and critics.

“McDowell’s strengths are many,” author and critic Alan Ryan wrote of the Blackwater serial for the Washington Post. “His prose is rich, allusive and often intricate, yet so smoothly polished that it never distracts from the tale.

“He has a terrific ability to get at the dark side of human nature and to delineate the psychological depths of eccentric and bizarre characters,” Ryan continued. “His usual mode is to adopt an omniscient view and gradually reveal all to us as his characters disport themselves. He is in many ways a 19th century novelist with a 20th century sensibility. He is a wonderful writer.”

Adept at several genres, McDowell teamed with Dennis Schuetz under the joint pseudonym Nathan Aldyne to write four gay detective novels--"Vermillion,” “Cobalt,” “Slate” and “Canary.” McDowell and Schuetz also co-wrote the novels “Blood Rubies” and “Wicked Stepmother” under the single pseudonym Axel Young.

After a decade and a half of churning out books, McDowell switched media but didn’t abandoned scary topics. He moved into television writing, penning scripts for such series as “Tales From the Darkside,” Steven Spielberg’s “Amazing Stories” and a syndicated stepchild of “Tales” called “Monsters.” He also wrote for the television series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and television specials “Lover Come Hack to Me” and “JFK Conspiracy.”

Joining Burton, who also relished the macabre, McDowell co-wrote the screenplay for 1988’s “Beetlejuice” with Warren Skaaren, based on an original story by McDowell and Larry Wilson about a dead couple returning to their home. The film became a cult favorite and spun off a long-running stage show at Universal Studios Hollywood theme park.

McDowell went on to write screenplays for the ghostly 1988 farce “High Spirits,” starring Peter O’Toole and Liam Neeson; “Tales from the Darkside: The Movie,” starring Christian Slater in 1990; the whimsical animated “Nightmare Before Christmas” in 1993, and “Thinner,” which was based on horror writer Stephen King’s story and released in 1996.

McDowell is survived by his sister, Ann, of West Hollywood; his brother, James, of Virginia Beach, Va.; and his companion of 30 years, Laurence Senelick of Medford, Mass.

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