I was talking with Lizard a little while back when the conversation turned to my favorite subject – horror. We were discussing some of our favorite horror novels when I mentioned my love for the Southern Gothic as well as “rabbit hole” stories consisting of characters experiencing a situation that gets progressively worse. She asked if I’d ever read or heard of a book by Michael McDowell titled THE ELEMENTALS. I know everything, so the fact that I didn’t know what she was talking about could only mean that I had once known but some other knowledge had pushed it too far back into my memory for me to recall. She gasped incredulously, and it wasn’t long before a box was waiting on my front steps with the novel inside. I immediately started reading, and I was immediately hooked. She told me I was gonna love the book, and how right she was. In my lifetime, I have read some great horror books where one of the characters wasn’t a person at all, but rather a place. The hotel in Stephen King’s THE SHINING, the house in THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, and the Belasco House in Richard Matheson’s HELL HOUSE. All of these locations possessed memorable personalities, acting as formidable a villain as any human ever created. But now I have one to add to the list.
I am talking about Beldame, the name given to a summer vacation spot for two wealthy Alabama families that consists of three identical Victorian houses residing on a secluded jetty of beach in the Gulf of Mexico. One house is used by the McCray family, the other by the Savages. The third? Well, aside from a sand dune that’s slowly begun to move into it, no one stays there and hasn’t done so for years. It simply sits there, baking in the hot sun, its horrors safely boarded up inside waiting for anyone foolish enough to enter. These two families, united by marriage, have been coming to Beldame every summer for years, but the trip detailed in the novel follows the death of the Savage matriarch. She was a nasty piece of work, particularly in her later years, but the surviving family members decide a month or so at Beldame is exactly what they need to put the funeral behind them and relax while the matters of wills and distribution are handled back home.
The somber nature of the family gathering is also the reason why Luker McCray is in town after many years living in New York. He’s accompanied by his 13-year-old daughter, even though–like most of the adults in both families–the third house scares the crap out of him. As usual when vacationing at Beldame, the seclusion and lack of responsibilities leave the vactioners dreading ever having to leave their Heaven on Earth to return to the business of the real world. But the third house they’ve been ignoring has not been ignoring them. Something inside that house has some plans for these two families…plans that don’t include them ever leaving Beldame alive.
McDowell considered himself a commercial writer, stating that he wrote novels to be sold in bookstores. I admire the guy for not being ashamed of what kind of writer he deemed himself to be, but if he truly believed that or not, the self-deprecating comment really does not sum up his work as far as I’m concerned. As evident in THE ELEMENTALS, McDowell knows his Southern characters and the flaws and strengths in Southern people in general, especially family dynamics. Like McDowell, I’m a Southerner, so while some of the interactions and phrasing between family members may seem oddball to some, it wasn’t to me. My conversations with my teen son are pretty much identical to Luker’s conversations with his daughter (but unlike Luker, I don’t walk around naked in front of my kid).
McDowell also has a way with words and descriptions that are gruesome and bone-chilling at the same time. His deliberate style of writing has him able to masterfully conjure up nightmare visions in your head with as little verbiage as possible. I will happily admit that there were a few pages in this book that quite literally gave me the friggin’ chills. I have no doubt the nightmares that happened at Beldame will reside in my memories alongside the old hag in room 217 at the Overlook Hotel and the hidden red room at 112 Ocean Avenue, and for just as long. But what do you expect from the man who was also the screenwriter for BEETLEJUICE and A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS?
So if you are in the mood for a story that follows a similar formula used in other classic horror books featuring haunted buildings – a formula consisting of characters experiencing strange occurrences that start simple enough but before long increase in both their frequency as well as their horror – well then you absolutely will not be disappointed with this one. It’s sort of like THE SHINING at the beach. It’s too bad McDowell died in 1999 because even though his novels are highly praised by readers and authors alike, this has led to his books becoming out of print. So thanks again, Lizard.
Thanks to our readers for informing me, Alibris has used copies of THE ELEMENTALS for sale, as well as some of McDowell’s other works.Tags: book, Horror