Summer of Sleaze: Michael McDowell’s The Amulet

Summer of Sleaze is 2014’s turbo-charged trash safari where Will Errickson of Too Much Horror Fiction and Grady Hendrix of The Great Stephen King Reread plunge into the bowels of vintage paperback horror fiction, unearthing treasures and trauma in equal measure.

Sometimes you’re just wrong. Michael McDowell probably figured that his books would be his legacy. After all, Stephen King called him “the finest writer of paperback originals in America” and said he was “a writer for the ages.” Surely literary immortality was assured by his two screenplays for Tim Burton, Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Collecting funerary ephemera was just a hobby. By now McDowell been dead for 15 years and his books are long forgotten while his massive “Death Collection,” containing everything from a tombstone salesman’s kit from the Thirties to wreaths made of dead people’s hair, was installed with great ceremony at Northwestern University.

But Stephen King wasn’t wrong. McDowell is one for the ages. In fact, he’d be called one of the great lights of Southern fiction if it wasn’t for the fact that most of his books deal with woman-eating hogs, men marrying amphibians, and vengeance-seeking lesbian wrestlers wearing opium-laced golden fingernails.

McDowell liked to write. In a ten year period between 1979 and 1989 he turned out The Amulet (’79), Cold Moon Over Babylon (’80), Gilded Needles (’80), The Elementals (’81), Katie (’82), Toplin (’85), the novelization of the movie Clue (’85), three of his Jack and Susan novels (’85 -87), a Tales from the Crypt episode (“Lover Come Back to Me,” ’89), an Amazing Stories episode (“Miscalculation,” ’86), an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“The Jar,” ’86), three episodes of Tales from the Darkside (“The Word Processor of the Gods,” ’84; “Answer Me,” ’85; “Bigelow’s Last Smoke,” ’85), an episode of Monsters (“La Strega,” ’89), the screenplay for Beetlejuice (’88), and the six-book Blackwater series (’83) that Will Errickson will cover here next week. That’s not counting 18 other books he wrote under pseudonyms.

You’ve got to have good instincts to turn out two-and-a-half books a year, and McDowell’s are rock solid, right from his very first novel, The Amulet. In a possible case of first-timer nerves, The Amulet is another “doomed town” book patterned after Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, but McDowell’s deep feel for Alabama makes all the difference. Originally intended to be a screenplay, The Amulet starts out as boring as possible:

“Pine Cone, Alabama, is located on the western edge of the Wiregrass region, tantalizingly near the border of the pine barrens, which are more lonely perhaps, but infinitely more profitable. Another town had been settled in the same spot about 1820, and called by another name that no one remembers, but it was burned down by three Union soldiers, not because it was a rebel stronghold, but because they were drunk. It was not built up again until late in the nineteenth century, and no one knows why.”

What follows are 26 dialogue-free pages establishing the town, the main characters, and a whole lot of background. It’s a tedious set-up, barely hinting at the circus of carnage McDowell is about to spring in our faces like a gruesome jack-in-the-box for the next 300 pages, and you wonder if it’s a joke.

1965. Dean Howell is a dim bulb recruit about to go soak up bullets in Vietnam when his rifle, manufactured in his home town of Pine Cone, AL (maybe even by his pretty new wife, Sarah, who works on the assembly line) explodes in his face, sheering off chunks of his brain and popping out his eyes. He returns home a living corpse, mute, swaddled in bandages, immobile. Home is his mama’s house, where Sarah lives in quiet misery under Jo Howell’s thumb. Jo is the ultimate nightmare mother-in-law, an overweight, shapeless woman with a long list of imaginary grievances against the world, including her son’s injury. So Sarah’s surprised when Dean’s friend, Larry, shows up to visit the inert Dean, and Jo gives him a gift: a necklace.

Larry takes it home, his wife Rachel tries it on, and half an hour later she’s poisoned her husband and lit her children on fire. The necklace takes on a life of its own and slithers from one set of hands to another. Soon this small town of 2,000 is full of children being drowned in washing machines, men leaping into bailing machines, shotgun murders in broad daylight, and hair stylists pouring acid over their customer’s scalps. It’s never lurid, though, because McDowell writes in a style I’d call clear-eyed understatement:

“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 bassinet, tucking it lovingly between smoldering sheets.”

After its deceptively methodical opening, The Amulet moves with breathtaking speed. Bad things aren’t ominously foretold, they happen. Sarah figures out what’s going on with a refreshing lack of second-guessing, and the cops come around to her point of view fast because there are no other logical explanations. The tension comes not because people refuse to believe Sarah’s story, but because the amulet manages to stay one step ahead of everyone. The book ends with a supernatural melt-down that’s an orgy of gore but if that was all there was to The Amulet this would be little more than a forgettable Final Destination fiesta. But McDowell has written a book that feels, deeply, like Alabama in the Sixties. This is a Southern book that captures midcentury smalltown living in a way few books do. Part of it is McDowell’s alarmingly accurate ear for dialogue, as in this passage when the mortician and his assistant at the town’s black funeral home are preparing the corpse of one of the amulet’s victims:

“Why’d you think she’d do it, do something like that?” Roosevelt Garver stared a moment into the face of the corpse, as if he thought he might read an answer to the question there.

“Just a accident, I reckon, Roosevelt, just a accident, but I still think it was real bad.”

“Well, Pa,” said Roosevelt, “it can’t have been no accident, not putting a white baby in the washing machine, and then killing herself with a butcher knife and a electrical plug.”

“Had to be a accident,” Washington reiterated. “Black people don’t kill white chil’ren. Black folks don’t kill theirselves either. Black folks only kill their family and their friends. It’s the white people that kill just about anybody. Only the white people do that.”

But it’s more than the dialogue. Everyone in Pine Cone lives a small life bounded by small jealousies, petty rivalries, unwritten rules, and microscopic grudges they nurse all their lives like malignant infants. Everyone knows how to behave (this is the black part of town, this is the white; this is the kind of thing we say in church, this is the kind of thing we keep to ourselves) but the amulet weakens those barriers and coaxes those feelings to the surface like pus. Pine Cone is poisoned before the amulet arrives, not because it’s built on an Indian burial mound but because it’s another one of America’s dying small towns.

When Sarah works in the rifle plant, her job is to put three screws into the stock. It’s boring, tedious work and she wishes she could put the screws in the side of the stock that has the manufacturer’s logo — a pinecone — stamped on it. That would at least give her something to look at. But Becca, her friend, quickly spells out what’s what:

“Becca explained, ‘The reason you got this job at all is because Marie Larkin died — she had a brain tumor, and I suffered with her through ever’ damn day of it — and she had this place on the line, where I am right now. I had your place, then they brought you in, but they moved me up to Marie’s place, because I had the seniority. I have been here for eight years, so they handed me the side with the pinecone on it. It wouldn’t have been fair to give it to you, coming in fresh like you did, you know…you probably wouldn’t have appreciated it the way I do…it would have caused unrest…”

These aren’t people who are in danger of losing their souls, these are people whose souls are already long gone. And Michael McDowell, long forgotten, speaks their language.

(The Amulet, long out of print, has been reissued in a new edition by Valancourt Books.)

Grady Hendrix is the author of Satan Loves You, Occupy Space, and he’s the co-author of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, the first graphic novel cookbook. He’s written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today and his story, “Mofongo Knows” appears in the anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.


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