Friday, July 4, 2014

AAAAIIIIEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Michael McDowell's The Elementals

Valancourt Books, 2014
218 pp

Over the last few nights as I've been reading The Elementals, nature has provided the perfect backdrop -- hard rain, thunder, and lightning so bright it flashed through the closed blinds.   And while this is the ultimate perfect atmosphere for reading a horror novel (or short stories for that matter),  as it turns out, in this case it was totally unnecessary: the eerie atmosphere that McDowell infuses into The Elementals holds its own without any help.

The novel focuses on two Alabama families, the Savages and the McCrays. They're linked together through marriage and the fact that both families have for years spent their summers at Beldame, "a long spit of land, no more than fifty yards wide," where there are three tall gray Victorian homes,  "large, eccentric old houses such as appeared in coffee table books on outré American architecture."  Back now at Beldame after the strange funeral of Marian Savage is her son Dauphin, who is married to Leigh McCray and  has inherited the family fortune; Leigh's brother Luker and his too-wise-for-her-years thirteen-year-old daughter India McCray from New York City; Big Barbara McCray, Leigh and Luker's mother, married to Lawton McCray, a candidate for US congressional representative, and the faithful Odessa, who's worked with the Savages for as long as anyone can remember.  

One one side of this narrow piece of land is St. Elmo's Lagoon; on the other is the Gulf of Mexico.  At high tide, Beldame is cut off, becoming a virtual island when the Gulf flows into the lagoon.  The McCrays have a house on the gulf side; just opposite their house on the lagoon side is the house belonging to the Savages.  The third house nobody lives in. No one can: the sand dune at the end of the spit has been encroaching on that house so much so that,  as India  notices on first seeing it, it "did not merely encroach upon the house, it had actually begin to swallow it." The third house holds its secrets, as do the McCrays and the Savages regarding their own childhood experiences with the third house.  All anyone will tell India is that she should stay away from it, but India has a mind of her own, and off she goes exploring. And then ..., well, to say more would be to wreck the experience for someone else.

There are so many excellent things about The Elementals -- the characters, the quiet beginning moving slowly toward an ever-growing anticipation of dread and then headlong into the horrors --  but one of the best features of this novel is  the author's ability to capture and evoke the sense of place in his writing. There are various schools of thought either yea or nay on  place as a character in a novel,  but here that's just how it is. The isolation of Beldame, the third house with the sand covering it both inside and out, the beautiful waters of the Gulf, St. Elmo's Lagoon, the channel, the sand, and above all, the paralyzing heat and humidity of a southern summer that sucks the energy right out of a person --  the way he brings all of this place to life allows it to act not only on the characters directly, but also on the reader.   He's captured the Southern summer heat with its god-awful humidity so perfectly that I could totally feel it while reading about it.  

Even better, by the last sections of the book, McDowell has perfectly combined those rising temperatures with the increasingly-growing horror, producing a kind of claustrophobic atmosphere that remains nearly up until the last moment of the story.

I loved this novel. If you're considering reading it, do not look at any reviews where they give away the whole shebang -- if I had known what was going to happen I wouldn't have enjoyed this book nearly as much. And speaking of that,  read this book very carefully if you are at all interested in trying to figure out the main mystery surrounding Beldame and the third house -- it's never overtly stated (which I thought was a good thing), but I think you'll find that there are answers there to dig out.  The one thing I didn't like about this book was that the pacing seemed kind of off at the very end -- much more rushed than I think it should have been given the tone of the rest of the novel. But what the heck.  It's one of the best supernatural horror stories I've read in a very long time.  Maybe modern readers of hack/slash gorefests will find it somewhat tame, but I certainly didn't.  Kudos to Valancourt Books for making this out-of-print book widely available and very affordable.


  1. A perfect review, i just read it and its one of THOSE books that you won't forget.

    1. Thanks, and sorry for the late reply due to illness. It is a lovely book, isn't it??

  2. Wonderful book! I helped out Valancourt in reprinting this edition--their old paperback of the book was missing pages and I sent them replacement scans from my copy. Glad to see you enjoyed it so much!


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