Avon Books, 1979, 352 pages
When a rifle range accident leaves Dean Howell disfigured and in a vegetative state, his wife Sarah finds her dreary life in Pine Cone, Alabama made even worse. After long and tedious days on the assembly line, she returns home to care for her corpse-like husband while enduring her loathsome and hateful mother-in-law, Jo. Jo blames the entire town for her son's mishap, and when she gives a strange piece of jewelry to the man she believes most responsible, a series of gruesome deaths is set in motion. Sarah believes the amulet has something to do with the rising body count, but no one will believe her. As the inexplicable murders continue, Sarah and her friend Becca Blair have no choice but to track down the amulet themselves, before it's too late...
I've enjoyed every one of Michael McDowell's bloody little supernatural Southern Gothic thrillers, published in the 80s during the paperback horror boom. I think he was really quite a gifted and underrated writer.
The Amulet was his debut novel. It's got some rough edges and plot holes, but mostly because McDowell doesn't waste time with exposition or creating a complicated plot. He just gets right to it: big, mean, momma is pissed that her boy got maimed, and proceeds to wreak vengeance on the town with a cursed amulet. It's a page-turner with no pretensions, just lots of homicide and gore.
Sarah Howell is the young bride of Dean Howell, a recently drafted rifle instructor at the nearby Army base, waiting to be shipped off to Vietnam. A freak accident causes a rifle to blow up in his face, and he's sent home as an empty shell of a man. Ironically, Sarah works at the very factory that made the rifle that maimed her husband. Sarah's mother-in-law, Jo Howell, is fat, lazy, and vicious, and blames the factory, the town, and the rest of the world for her son's misfortune. She gives the wife of the factory manager, a friend of Dean's, a mysterious black amulet. And so begins a tragic series of gruesome, inexplicable murders and fatal accidents that cuts a swath through the little Alabama town of Pine Cone.
Where did the cursed amulet come from? How did Jo get it? How exactly does it work? Sarah asks these questions but never gets an answer. It doesn't matter. It's an evil thing that causes murder and dismemberment and won't let itself just get lost in a river or something. Whoever puts it on (and it always manages to get put on) turns into a homicidal maniac, kills someone, usually in a gruesome fashion, and then dies of some improbable, fatal, and usually gruesome accident. Meanwhile, Sarah, who saw Jo give the amulet to its first victim, has figured out what's happening, even if she doesn't quite understand how, and with her best friend, Becca, tries to track down the amulet before it can cause more deaths.
McDowell had the knack that made slasher flicks such popcorn thrillers: each death is a memorable oh-shit-cover-your-eyes moment. There's a family burned alive, a farmer's wife eaten by hogs, a teenager who puts a baby in a washing machine, a beautician decapitated by a ceiling fan after melting her friend's scalp off... this is an R-rated bloodbath, but unlike many of the novels of the cheap horror paperback era, no sex at all, no virgins being chased naked through the woods, no gratuitous descriptions of T&A. Pine Cone, Alabama is a conservative Southern small town, after all.
And The Amulet reeks of Southernness. It's set in small-town Alabama in the 70s, so blacks are still "colored" (but only Jo uses the n-word). Sarah's mother-in-law is a terrible, nasty woman raised on bitterness and impoverished horizons. Sarah herself realizes the despair of her own situation, enslaved to Jo and a vegetative husband she's realizing she didn't really like very much even before his accident. Her best friend has just accepted that life as a factory worker is her fate. None of these people are rich or have grand lives ahead of them, yet as the death count grows, each one feels terrible and you're really rooting for Jo to get her just desserts. Because in a horror novel about a vile woman unleashing a curse on innocent people, you expect to see just desserts, right?
This isn't McDowell's best book (The Caskey Family Saga is an epic masterpiece), but if you like horror without embellishment that just gets straight to the plot, you can't go wrong with a little Southern Gothic for the month of Halloween.
Also by Michael McDowell: My reviews of The Elementals, The Caskey Family Saga, and Cold Moon Over Babylon.
My complete list of book reviews.