Cold Moon

"I 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."

— Michael McDowell

"Cold Moon Over Babylon" was Michael McDowell's second published novel. His first, "The Amulet", was released by Avon books in 1979; prior to that, McDowell had written a number of practice novels, all of them unpublished and subsequently disowned. "The Amulet" had grown out of a screenplay McDowell had begun writing after seeing The Omen: he'd decided to write something about the devil's work being done in a decidedly prosaic setting, with the spawn of Satan being named "Fred" instead of "Damien". At a certain point, Fred disappeared from the screenplay... and then the screenplay turned into a novel... and the novel was accepted for publication almost immediately. "Cold Moon..." followed in 1980. The historical thriller "Gilded Needles" also came out in 1980 — a remarkable achievement, considering its breadth and its meticulously-researched period setting — and in 1981 he produced what many consider his masterpiece, the haunted house novel "The Elementals". 1982 saw the publication of "Katie", another novel with a historical setting, featuring a family of murderous psychopaths with curious connections to the paranormal. The epic six-book series "Blackwater" — a chronicle of life and death over 50 years in a small Alabama town where reality seems to have worn thin — came out between January and June of 1983. His last horror novel, the almost indescribable "Toplin", was published in 1985.

In the meantime — as though all this weren't enough — McDowell also found the time to co-author a series of detective stories set in Boston's gay community in the pre-AIDS era; to write a series of Nick-Nora-and-Asta style detective novel pastiches, which put the same characters in different eras without aging; to contribute pseudonymously to some of the ubiquitous "men's adventure" series of the era; and even to write the novelization of the movie Clue. He also wrote the first draft of the screenplay for Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, and contributed to The Nightmare Before Christmas.

McDowell was the consummate commercial writer — fast, capable, versatile, dedicated, and utterly unconcerned with his place in the world of literature. Stephen King famously referred to him as "the finest writer of paperback originals in America today", which sounded like high praise at the time (and was certainly meant that way); then you re-read the blurb, and chances are you stumble over that term, "paperback originals", and come to the conclusion that King was merely being dismissive.

That was an easy mistake to make. Even McDowell himself considered his work disposable. Unfortunately, many of us who enjoyed his books when they first came out took him at his word, and disposed of them. We took him for granted. He had established himself so much in that world of Paperback Originals that we thought he was always going to be there when we wanted him.

That turned out not to be true. First, McDowell started turning away from novels and concentrating on writing screenplays for the movies and television. He also accepted a teaching position in screenwriting at Tufts University. Gradually, his books began to go out of print. And then, in 1999, he died suddenly of complications from AIDS. One of the major voices in American horror in the late 20th century was gone, and effectively silenced. Once it had seemed as though McDowell was everywhere; then, suddenly, battered copies of "The Elementals" were going for over $200 on eBay.

Recently, though, there's been a sort of McDowell renaissance. In 2006, Tabitha King based a novel of her own, "Candles Burning", on the sketches McDowell left at the time of his death; she gave McDowell co-author credit; and, in a touching gesture, even included a young McDowell as a character at the end of the story. Since 2013, most of McDowell's novels have been re-issued, thanks in large part to the efforts of Valancourt Press. Valancourt specializes in the forgotten and forbidden, from the Gothics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, to the sensational pulps of the early 20th century, to the long history of suppressed and overlooked gay literature. Eighties horror is another of their specialites, and McDowell's work has turned out to be one of their most successful revivals. Valancourt's co-publisher, Ryan Cagle, is himself a fan of McDowell's, and runs his own McDowell-related web site.

And thank the Elder Gods for dedicated people like Cagle. McDowell's seven horror novels — or twelve, if you count the individual books of the "Blackwater" series — are well worth rediscovery. McDowell had a vividly macabre imagination, and the clear, direct, unpretentious way he was able to put his vision into words gives his work a power that's often lacking in more self-consciously "literate" horror writers.

"Cold Moon Over Babylon" was the first of McDowell's novels to catch my attention — but it was not the first one I read. What first brought the book to my notice was its cover:

Michael McDowell's 'Cold Moon Over Babylon' paperback, 1980

Image stolen outright from Too Much Horror Fiction; My own copy looks almost exactly the same.

I picked the book out of a bin in a used book store in 1980 to take a closer look at it, and immediately dropped it back into the bin. At 13, I found that cover terrifying. Pictures don't really do it justice: the cover has a silvery sheen that suits the title perfectly, and the ghastly image of the drowned girl's face, superimposed over the full moon, seems to shimmer. I didn't want that book in the same room with me; its cover alone gave me nightmares.

In the fall of 1981, our local department store put up a display to feature a newly-released horror novel from Avon, and once again it was the book's cover that drew my attention. The book was "The Elementals", and its cover design was impressive. Remember the first paperback version of Stephen King's "Salem's Lot"? That had featured a plain black cover — no title, no author credit — with a woman's face embossed on it. From the lips of this embossed face dribbled a smear of red blood. The effect was dramatic, if a little overdone. Avon was clearly influenced by Signet's design for King's book, but the effect of Avon's cover was somehow more dignified: once again, the design was embossed on a plain black cover; once again, the only strong color used was deep red. But this time, instead of a human face, the image was a stylized Victorian mansion. A stream of blood ran from under the door, and a blood-red light illuminated one of the windows. Over this image, in grey block sans-serif letters, ran the title and McDowell's name.

Michael McDowell's 'The Elementals', 1981

Image also stolen from Too Much Horror Fiction.
My own copy is beat to hell.
This cover looked more impressive when it was pristine and unbent.

If "Cold Moon..."'s cover had frightened and repelled me, that of "The Elementals" drew me straight in. I wanted to know what was behind that door that dripped blood. I wanted to find out what lurked in the room with the blood-red window. The only thing that prevented me from finding out immediately was the book's $2.95 price tag. That was a little steep for 1981, when I was used to buying slender Signet potboilers for 95 cents, and used books were 4-for-a-dollar in the summer. Eventually I broke down and bought it, and almost immediately realized I'd found a new favorite book.

After that, I made it a point to track down every novel by McDowell I could find — even "Cold Moon...", which quickly became my second favorite, in spite of a cover that still gave me an unpleasant shock from time to time. For the first half of 1983, each time a new installment of the "Blackwater" series came out, I made sure I was first in line at the store to buy a copy.

But about the time I turned 18 or 19, I developed a revulsion toward anything I'd enjoyed in my childhood. One of the things I did to express this revulsion was get rid of all my horror paperbacks — all my Stephen King, all my Ramsey Campbell (including the books he'd ghostwritten for the "Universal horror" series), all my Robert R. McCammon, Richard Laymon and James Herbert, all my dozens of paperbacks by lesser luminaries from Nick Sharman to J.N. Williamson to Paul W. Fairman to Guy N. freaking Smith. In spite of this, though, I held onto "The Elementals", "Cold Moon..." and the "Blackwater" series. Unfortunately, when I moved house in 1996, a box of books got left outside in a torrential rainstorm, and all my remaining McDowells turned to slurry. Judicious thrift shopping has allowed me to replace all three, but I'm a little grieved that these copies are not the ones I tried to bring with me from my youth.

I spent my teenage years wishing that somebody would make movies out of McDowell's novels. Certainly there was something cinematic in the way he described his horrors, which was fitting for an author with a lifelong interest in screenwriting. On re-reading McDowell as an adult, though, I changed my mind. It struck me that no film-maker, however talented, could do a better job bringing McDowell's nightmares to life than McDowell himself had already done — the version playing in Cinemascope on the screen of my imagination.

So when I found out that "Cold Moon Over Babylon" had finally been turned into a movie in 2016, my emotions were mixed.

When I heard the movie was going to be directed by the man who gave us The Asylum's I Am Omega — not to mention SyFy Channel movies like Lake Placid 3, Swamp Shark and (heaven help us) Ghost Shark — I reserved judgment. I thought of McDowell's underwtaer Nazi cheerleaders, and took heart... after all, I Am Omega is far from being The Asylum's worst mockbuster. Then, when I found out Tommy (The Room) Wiseau was going to be in the movie, again I reserved judgment. But I admit I felt a certain trepidation as I got ready to watch the movie on VOD, after it was released to Amazon in October 2017. It's been nearly two decades since McDowell died, and an entire generation since "Cold Moon..." first saw print. The world has changed a great deal since McDowell wrote. How would a contemporary movie address its source material?

Well. Now I have seen the movie. And I have to admit: my emotions are still mixed. The main thing I feel is gratitude to writer/director Griff Furst, for taking his job exceptionally seriously, and for treating McDowell's novel with tremendous respect. Make no mistake: this movie is "Cold Moon Over Babylon". Rarely have I ever seen a film that stays so close to the book on which it's based. But that same closeness is part of the reason I can't make up my mind about the movie.

Cold Moon takes place in the western Florida panhandle, right by the Alabama border. Babylon is a small rural community, and off in the swamp at the outskirts of town — just across the bridge over the Styx River1
The Styx is actually a river in McDowell's native Alabama, which joins and (ironically) becomes lost in the Perdido River when it reaches the Florida border. McDowell has extended the river a few miles east from its actual location.

— is the Larkin Blueberry Farm. There the aging Evelyn Larkin (Candy Clark) is raising her orphaned grandchildren, Jerry and Margaret, while struggling to make a living from a farm that's yielding less and less fruit every year.

Young Margaret is on her way home on what her grandmother calls "her wheel" (her bicycle), when she's caught in a torrential downpour. Blinded by the rain, she's taken by surprise when a figure in a leather mask attacks her on the Styx River bridge. When Margaret's friend Belinda Hale appears on the river road in her old VW Beetle, the attacker throws Margaret and her bicycle into the river and jumps in after her before he can be seen. Once in the water, the man holds Margaret under the water until she drowns.

Margaret's disappearance, on top of the farm's financial woes, drives Evelyn to the edge of despair. Suspicion falls on Margaret's favorite teacher, the mild-mannered Warren Perry, who was one of the last people to see her before her disappearance. But Evelyn has a sort of premonition, warning her that the real culprit is Nathan Redfield (Josh Stewart), president of the local bank and son of the wheelchair-bound James Redfield (Christopher Lloyd), Babylon's richest and most powerful man. When Margaret's body is discovered, Evelyn becomes convinced of Nathan's guilt, and starts trying to build a case against him.

Evelyn's obsession with Nathan Redfield proves very embarrassing to a number of people. Ted Hale, the town's ineffectual sheriff, is beholden to the Redfields, not least because his own daughter Belinda is James Redfield's caretaker. The town lawyer Charles Darrish refuses to take Evelyn's case — not only because of the lack of evidence, but because he knows the Larkin land is more valuable than Evelyn or Jerry know, and he and Nathan are scheming to foreclose and get their hands on it. And Nathan himself has a strained relationship with his father, which is unlikely to be improved by accusations of murder.

When the autopsy reveals that Margaret Larkin was four months pregnant, the mystery takes on even darker implications. Evelyn becomes even more shrill in her denunciations of Nathan. And Nathan is having troubles of his own: something that looks like Margaret has risen from the waters of the Styx, and is paying very close attention to him... clearly, for his own peace of mind (let alone his future financial security), Nathan is going to have to make sure that Evelyn and Jerry Larkin are put out of the way for good.

Unfortunately for Nathan Redfield, two more grisly murders only result in two more horrifying problems following him everywhere he goes... creeping into his mind and leaving trails of filthy river water where only he can see them. The question is: what's going to destroy Nathan Redfield first? The demons in his mind, or the demons ouside his window?

There are a few differences between the novel and the movie. To begin with, the time period's been changed from the 1970's to the late 1980's, probably to give the movie an excuse to clothe its young female leads a little more provocatively... though the comparatively drab setting of rural Florida in the 1970s would probably have been more effective. Thinking of its young female leads, here again there's been a significant change: in the movie, Margaret Larkin is sixteen years old. In the book, she's only fourteen, which makes the idea of her rape and subsequent pregnancy all the more horrifying. It's obvious why the film-makers chose to change this detail — the movies tend to tread cautiously when dealing with child endangerment.

We run into something of an opposite problem with Candy Clark (The Man Who Fell To Earth, Amityville 3D), playing Evelyn Larkin. Clark was nearly 70 when she appeared in this movie — and she looks great. She looks so good, in fact, that she seems wrong for the part. Even though she's the right age, she looks too young to be the care-worn farm woman we'd expect from the novel. Thinking of appearances, there's Josh Stewart as Nathan Redfield: in the book, Nathan is a charming sociopath, whose public face provides a perfect mask for the amoral killer underneath. Stewart's Nathan, though effectively portrayed, seems like a haunted man from the outset, and we wonder why anyone — even the incompetent Sheriff Hale — doubts for a moment that he's the killer (I think it's only fair to point out, though, that Christopher Lloyd makes a perfect James Redfield).

And then, there are the ghosts. Let me be clear: Furst does a fine job with his ghosts. Cold Moon keeps the revenant Larkins just out of clear view until it's absolutely necessary, which is wise decision. But when we do see them, there are some small differences between the way they're presented in the book and what we see in the movie. I understand that it really could not have been otherwise... but I want to point out some of the differences, to illustrate the conflict between what I saw in the film and the 35-plus years of images playing in my head.

In the book, the thing that rises from the river even before Margaret's body is found is an apparition made of the muddy water of the Styx. It flows, with a peculiar sloshing sound, and re-assembles itself into Margaret's shape; its skin, hair and clothing all seem to be made of the same filthy water. There's also something peculiarly helpless about it: it seems to be able to warn, to watch and to accuse, but it doesn't seem suited to the actual act of revenge (perhaps because it's the revenant of a very young and innocent girl). Significantly, her body does not rise from her grave the way Evelyn's and Jerry's do.

Cold Moon

These days it's Spanish film-makers who seem to be best at creating water ghosts — take a look at the specters that walk through The Devil's Backbone or The Nun, for example. But Furst generally employs less spectacular means to realize his version of Dead Margaret. The most obvious change is that she usually looks solid enough that when she does dissolve, the effect is more bizarre than scary. Had I not read the book, I think I might have been confused by it. Also, since Margaret is a few years older in the movie, Furst makes her a more threatening physical presence, and a more active participant in her family's revenge. In the book it's Evelyn's walking corpse that has a water snake come out of its mouth, much to Nathan's distress; but Furst has also given this little attribute to Margaret — not as a gruesome one-off, but as a regular feature of her appearance. And the last physical act of revenge, the one that leaves the police scratching their heads as the story ends, is left to Margaret rather than to Evelyn.

Cold Moon

Evelyn and Jerry make for very effective zombies, and are very close to their appearance in the book... except for their movements. In the book, they tend not to move at all like human beings: instead, they slide, and they slither, and display their supernatural origins by doing things the human body is not designed to do. Obviously this detail is something that works better on the page than it does as part of a movie: shown literally, it would not only be very difficult (and expensive) to pull off, it runs the risk of looking comical rather than frightening.

Cold Moon

All these differences of detail are quibbles. A surprising number of equally-important small details have been faithfully reproduced from the book, and still others — like making red-herring suspect Warren Perry black — have been added very thoughtfully. Furst even makes credible attempts at realizing some of the supernatural sequences I would never have expected him to try on such a low budget.

Cold Moon

Which brings me back to the lingering source of my discontent. All through the movie, I found myself thinking of the book. The major plot points, the minor plot points, the dialogue... it was all so clearly faithful to its source that it brought back the original with startling clarity. Since I'd read the novel so many times that I'd worn out the pages with my eyeballs, I was unable to look at the film objectively. If anything, I may have begun to judge the film unnecessarily harshly: I began to worry that the images from the movie were going to influence or replace the images in my imagination. It started to become clear to me that the real strength of the novel "Cold Moon Over Babylon" wasn't so much its grisly story, but McDowell's inestimable skill in telling it. A good adaptation of a great horror novel does not necessarily make for a great horror movie.

But for all my griping, I can say without hesitation that even if Cold Moon isn't quite as powerful as its source material, it's still pretty damned good. The movie was clearly a labor of love, and any fans of Michael McDowell owe it to themselves to see it — they'll recognize in Griff Furst a kindred spirit. If anybody is ever so crazy as to try to make a movie version of "The Elementals", I hope they're wise enough to involve Mr. Furst2
2. Of course, if they do film "The Elementals", I also think they should hold out for a budget of at least $100,000,000, get Guillermo del Toro to produce it, and spend most of their pre-production effort finding exactly the right actress to play Odessa Red... but nobody's listening to me anyway, so I can say whatever I want.


Oh — and if you're worried about the presence of Tommy Wiseau, he's in the background for probably no more than ten seconds. So there's no need to worry about that.

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