Books: The Elementals by Michael McDowell

I first got interested in reading this book after seeing NUMEROUS recommendations for it on various horror book review channels on YouTube, and the fact that it was described as a Southern gothic further piqued my interest. The funny thing is, when I ordered my paperback copy off Amazon, I didn’t realize that the novel was quite old; it was first published in 1981, and then it was reissued in 2014. I also didn’t realize that its author, Michael McDowell, had an impressive pedigree, being one of the most lauded authors of horror paperback originals during the horror boom of the 1970s and 1980s. McDowell also wrote the original screenplay for the beloved Tim Burton film Beetlejuice, and had several other screenwriting credits during the 80s and 90s as well, including episodes of Alfred Hitchchock Presents, Amazing Stories, Tales from the Darkside, and Tales from the Crypt. Additionally, he co-wrote the screenplay (with Tom Holland) for the Stephen King adaptation Thinner in 1996. So I guess what I’m saying is, this totally should have been a guy who was on my radar WAY before this, but somehow, I had missed out. I’m happy I was finally able to rectify my grievous oversight, but I’m also saddened to report that McDowell passed away in 1999. At least his books have been rediscovered in recent times, and seem to be finding a wider audience.

Valancourt Books have spent the past few years reissuing the works of Michael McDowell, as well as many other authors of paperback originals, with new covers and introductions written by some horror heavy hitters, so they’re really doing the Lord’s work here, rescuing some of these excellent novels from obscurity.

The Elementals is the first book of McDowell’s that I ever read, and as I mentioned, it’s a Southern gothic, so it definitely has a Tennessee Williams or Flannery O’Connor vibe, only more overtly horror. The really scary stuff doesn’t really come into play until the third act, but that’s completely okay, as I really enjoyed the overall buildup and the interactions between the characters. In this discussion, I’m going to try not to spoil anything too much, but this is a difficult book to talk about without mentioning some aspects that may seem a bit spoilery, so use your own judgment; personally, I think this book is best going into it completely blind.

McDowell was from Alabama, and many of his stories are set there, including this one. In fact, that was a big part of this book’s appeal, that the place where it was set became a character in itself. At the center of the tale, we have two families, the McCrays and the Savages, who are related by marriage and maintain close friendships between their members. The families are very old-money wealthy and paragons of upper-class circles in Mobile, Alabama, being the owners of several profitable business. The families occupy two mansions in Mobile, but the bulk of the story takes place at the families’ vacation homes, which are located on a tiny island called Beldame on Alabama’s Gulf Coast.

Beldame is a strange place. It’s a small slip of sandy beach, and its only features are three identical Victorian mansions, situated in a row. One of these houses is owned by the Savages, one by the McCrays, and the third…well, no one’s entirely sure who owns it, if indeed anyone does. But everyone is afraid of it, for reasons that aren’t really expanded upon until later.

The story actually opens with a prologue, set at the funeral of matriarch Marian Savage, at which we’re introduced to our cast of characters. Because this is a Southern gothic, you get a lot of these kind of eccentric folks, who are somewhat exaggerated, but—coming from someone who grew up in the southern United States—not really THAT exaggerated. The exaggeration is there to provide a comedic tone, and this does very much have a black comedy vibe, at least in the first two-thirds of the story.

We obviously never meet Marian, because she’s dead at the beginning of the book, but based upon the ways other people in the story talk about her, it’s pretty clear that she was a terrible human being: mean, overbearing, and just awful in general. At the funeral, we’re also introduced to this strange ritual that the families perform every time one of their number dies, although I’m not going to say what it is, because it’s much more fun to read it for yourself.

After the funeral, both families decide they need a vacation, so they all pack up to head out to Beldame for the summer, which they’ve been doing for as long as they can remember. Speaking of memory, though, Beldame does have this very odd, sort of hypnotic thing about it whereby when you aren’t there, you tend to forget all about it, but when you are there, you don’t want to leave, even though the whole mood of the place is creepy and oppressive.

The story is largely told from the (third person) perspective of one of the McCray sons, Luker, and his thirteen-year-old daughter India. Luker grew up in Alabama with his family, obviously, but he moved to New York City at some point, so India grew up in the big city and has never been to Alabama in her short life, though the very idea of Beldame intrigues her, so she’s excited to finally see this place where her father spent every summer of his youth.

The relationship between India and her father Luker was actually one of the highlights of this story for me, although it might sound weird when I describe it. In their interactions, the two of them come across much more like same-age friends than father-daughter, but not in a sketchy way, if that makes any sense. Like India knows that her dad takes speed and pops pills and is kinda blasé about it; every now and then Luker will give her a bit of scotch when they’re stressed out; they constantly swear at each other and give each other shit, stuff like that. As I said, it sounds problematic when I type it out, but it doesn’t come across like that in the book in a way that’s difficult to articulate. In fact, once I found out that Michael McDowell had written the Beetlejuice screenplay, it made complete sense, because India comes across very much like a proto-Lydia, a very precocious, sardonic, and sophisticated young teenager whose father treats her like an equal.

And much like Lydia Dietz in Beetlejuice, India is into photography and has a taste for the macabre, so even though she finds Alabama a bit backwards, she is fascinated by these bizarre mansions at Beldame. The story benefits from much of the plot being seen from her perspective, because you’re getting something of an outsider viewpoint.

As I mentioned, the two family-owned mansions are relatively normal, but the weird third one where nobody lives is basically being slowly consumed by sand dunes, to the point where you can’t even look into the lower floor at all anymore, and have to climb up the dune to peer into the second-floor windows. Upon arrival, a curious India does precisely that, and sees something…pretty damn unsettling, including a door closing by itself and the tendrils of sand that have seeped into the house appearing to come together to form unnerving shapes.

I will note that despite this novel first being published as a paperback original, it isn’t as pulpy as that might imply, and in fact, this leans more toward literary horror in the sense that it’s a sort of deliberate, slow-build type of story with a lot of character development and elements of dark comedy. The descriptions of Beldame and the entire atmosphere of the place are so well written that you can actually feel the oppressive heat, and see the blinding sunlight reflecting off the yellow sand and the blue ripples of the Gulf of Mexico. The descriptions of the houses are also morbidly compelling, and provide an effective juxtaposition of sunny vacation vibes with gloomy gothic sensibilities.

So the first two-thirds of the novel takes its time establishing the setting and the characters, and then the last act just goes balls to the wall bananapants. This is, technically I guess, a haunted house story, but what exactly is haunting the third house is left largely ambiguous; it isn’t really a ghost or demon or poltergeist in the strictest sense, but something else, and something much more amorphous and creepy. To me, that made the haunting scarier, because you couldn’t really get a handle on what the threat was, which made it a lot more difficult to combat. There seemed to be rules to these beings, but the human protagonists had no idea what they were.

I actually really loved this book, and I find myself thinking about it a lot. The characters are fantastically entertaining, the setting is vividly realized, and the horror elements were actually horrific and quite eerie; one scene near the end, as a matter of fact, literally made my blood run cold. I think this would make an outstanding film if someone wanted to tackle it; unfortunately, only one of Michael McDowell’s novels (Cold Moon Over Babylon) has been adapted to film, as far as I’m aware. So if you, like me, had been sleeping on this amazing author and want to remedy the situation immediately, then The Elementals is a great place to start to get a feel for his unique voice and his original take on the Southern gothic genre.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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