Michael McDowell is a horror writer who, in his heyday, was mentioned in the same breath as Stephen King and James Herbert, with Peter Straub calling him “one of the best writers of horror in this or any other country.”
Nowadays he has fallen under the radar somewhat and is probably better known for having written the screenplays for Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas.
His 1981 novel The Elementals is often included on the lists of all-time great horror novels and it is easy to see why. It is a brooding, atmospheric book which successfully marries the Southern Gothic with the haunted house genre to create a genuinely creepy tale.
The opening prologue sets the tone. Marian Savage, matriarch of the venerable and wealthy Savage family, has died of cancer. At the funeral, her son Dauphin and his sister, Mary-Scot interrupt the service, take out a ceremonial dagger and stab their dead mother in the heart. It is a Savage family ritual, brought about by the fact that an old family ancestor was buried alive with her still-born baby and introduces early on in the novel, the idea that the dead may not always stay that way.
Following the bizarre funeral, the Savages, and the McCrays, their family friends and in-laws, decide to spend the summer at their beloved getaway – Beldame – a remote area on the Alabama panhandle where three Victorian houses sit on a spit of sand on the Gulf Coast. One house belongs to the Savages, the second to the McCrays. The third however, has been abandoned for decades and is slowly being consumed by an ever-growing dune of fine sand. No one knows who owns the third house, but they all know not to go inside.
Throughout their stay, India, the thirteen-year old daughter of Luker McCray, becomes increasingly drawn to the mysterious third house, driven by she stories she hears from Odessa, the black housemaid employed by the Savages. As the languid summer passes, and strange happenings start to occur, India is convinced there is something, or someone, in that third house and that its intentions are far from good.
The Elementals is a much more subtle horror than other famous books of its time and reminded me more of Shirley Jackson than the big horror novels of the 70s and 80s. Technically, it’s incredibly well structured and smoothly plotted, teasing out the scares slowly as the atmosphere builds. Incidents happen, but they are inconclusive. Dauphin, the eldest Savage son, sees his dead mother standing at the edge of his bed. India takes a photo of the inside of the abandoned house and thinks she can see a person looking back out at her. Between India’s attempts to work out what is inside and family politician Lawton McCray’s attempt to sell off the land for profit, the spirits inside the house are sparked into being. Only Odessa, the loyal servant to the Savages, has some idea what it is they’re dealing with, but even she doesn’t know how to stop it. It all builds slowly and inexorably towards an inevitable but no less chilling showdown.
McDowell seems much more interested in character and setting, creating in Beldame (Bedlam?) a wonderfully oppressive backdrop for these supernatural happenings. His evocation of the blistering heat of the Alabama sun and the lethargy it induces is fantastic, lulling the reader into the same sense of submission as his characters.
And through all this – the straining heat and the worrisome uneasiness over the fate of Beldame – they forgot about the third house. When nothing distracted them – and god knew there were few enough distractions at Beldame in general – the third house was a lowering, sullen, potent presence; but the sun and the sun’s heat that persisted from nightfall to dawn burned away their thoughts and if there was any fear it was the fear of losing Beldame altogether.
Although The Elementals is essentially a haunted house story, McDowell leans in to the Southern Gothic with great effect. There’s the sprawling estate, which may be in danger of being lost to the family for good, Big Barbara, the drunken aunt who can’t face reality let alone the idea of ghosts and the looming presence of death and mortality that has defined the Savage family. If there is one miss-step in the book, it is in McDowell’s dated depiction of Odessa, who fulfils the clichéd ‘magical negro’ stereotype, and becomes less a character in her own right and more a walking portent warning of the evil that is coming their way.
Overall though, I found The Elementals to be a really successful horror, pulling in tropes from other genres to create a genuinely frightening story containing imagery that even a jaded old horror fan like myself has found hard to shake off! I also loved that McDowell manages to great a striking ending that also remains ambiguous. He doesn’t give his reader an explanation, and that is much more frightening than any resolution could ever be.
Forty years after its initial publication, this is a well-paced, expertly crafted novel which still stands as a classic of the genre.
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