BOOK REVIEW: The Elementals by Michael McDowell

Michael McDowell may be known primarily for his screenplay for Tim Burton’s 1988 film Beetlejuice, but prior to this, he was already a well-respected horror novelist. He has been praised by Stephen King as “the finest writer of paperback originals in America.” His work, written in the Southern Gothic tradition, gets far darker than other authors in his subgenre. His 1979 novel The Amulet secured his reputation as a writer willing to describe scenes that are not only brutal in their violence but devastating in their implications.

But we are here to talk about McDowell’s 1981 novel The Elementals. This novel centers around two families (The McCrays and the Savages) and a trio of houses on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Two of these houses are inhabitable, while the third is overrun by shifting wind-blown sands. The novel opens at a funeral. It is all innocuous enough at first, but soon the doors are locked and a bizarre ritual follows (a ritual which involves a body and a knife). From this scene, McDowell is clear in his intentions: this story is meant to deal with the shadows that surround people and places. The McCray and Savage families, the house full of sand, and the setting that seems to teeter on the edge of the known world are all elements that combine to create a tale that is not only darkly atmospheric, but also full of the bloody wonder we’ve come to appreciate from 1980s horror paperbacks.

When one sees the words “Southern Gothic” and “two families”, one’s assumption might automatically jump to rivalry, a sort of Hatfields-and-McCoys situation. But that is not the case in this novel. There is no “Savage versus McCray”; there is only Savage and McCray. We are given glimpses into the familial relationships, some of which are downright disturbing. We are allowed to gather around the table and revel in the mythology of the families as well, a theme which McDowell explores in most of his work. The character of Odessa, the Savage’s maid, might seem like a cliche now, but even in retrospect, her character comes off as strong and three-dimensional. And much like W.F. Harvey’s iconic 1910 short story “August Heat”, the sweltering temperature plays an important role, acting almost like a living character on its own. 

At little over 200 pages, this slim volume can be consumed in very few sittings, and the audiobook narrated by R.C. Bray is a fine choice if audio is more your speed. The pacing of the novel allows for an almost cinematic experience; you will be on the edge of your seat throughout its entire run.

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