Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Elementals, by Michael McDowell

A creepy Southern Gothic haunted house story from the golden age of horror.

The Elementals

Avon Books, 1981, 292 pages

After a bizarre and disturbing incident at the funeral of matriarch Marian Savage, the McCray and Savage families look forward to a restful and relaxing summer at Beldame, on Alabama's Gulf Coast, where three Victorian houses loom over the shimmering beach. Two of the houses are habitable, while the third is slowly and mysteriously being buried beneath an enormous dune of blindingly white sand. But though long uninhabited, the third house is not empty. Inside, something deadly lies in wait. Something that has terrified Dauphin Savage and Luker McCray since they were boys and which still haunts their nightmares. Something horrific that may be responsible for several terrible and unexplained deaths years earlier - and is now ready to kill again....

A haunted house story unlike any other, Michael McDowell's The Elementals (1981) was one of the finest novels to come out of the horror publishing explosion of the 1970s and '80s. Though best known for his screenplays for Tim Burton's Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, McDowell is now being rediscovered as one of the best modern horror writers and a master of Southern Gothic literature.

This is a horror classic from the golden age of schlocky horror novels, but it's one of those rare gems that rises above being merely entertaining in a gruesome and creepy way, and actually stands out as what should have been a classic of the genre, if it hadn't been surrounded by so many similar, lesser works.

The author, Michael McDowell, is better known for writing screenplays such as Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas.

The Elementals is basically a haunted house story, and so right away I'll say it's not particularly original. It's not one of those books that did something wildly different from every other book of its kind. But like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, it stands out because it's simply better. The author tells a well-crafted, polished tale even if he uses worn, familiar elements.

The Elementals mixes the classic haunted house story with Southern Gothic. Luker McCray comes down to Alabama to attend the funeral of his childhood best friend's mother, bringing with him his precocious, 13-year-old Manhattan-raised daughter. India McCray, being the Yankee, provides the outsider's view of the delicate and sometimes macabre Southern hospitalities, and of course, becomes a central figure in the slow-brewing confrontation between Luker and his family and friends and the supernatural inhabitants of one of three old Victorian houses sitting on a spit of sand on the Gulf Coast.

Where there is originality, it is in the slow unveiling of the nature of the "elementals," whom McDowell creates as truly frightening beings, not merely ghosts or poltergeists or anything as simple as demons.

The one weakness of the book is a common one to this type of story: the lengths the author goes to to keep his protagonists hanging around once the bad stuff starts to happen. Every haunted house story seems to have a point at which you'd think any reasonable people would leave. Once you realize "Hey, this house is actively trying to kill me," don't you think you'd want to get the hell out of there? The Savages and the McCrays justify their decisions somewhat in this book, because it is a threat they have lived with (and yet refused to acknowledge) all their lives, so it's possible to believe the rationalization is that strong.

Besides the elementals themselves, the characters are strong in this book, from smart-mouthed, too-grown-up India to her bemused father, to alcoholic Southern dame "Big Barbara," to the black housekeeper Odessa (yeah, this book is a little bit guilty of Magical Negroism), to the sinister Savages, everyone has their own interesting little story, all of it woven organically into the tale.

A definite one to read if you like Shirley Jackson, Richard Matheson, or Stephen King.

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, horror, michael mcdowell, reviews

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