On a split of land cut off by the Gulf, three Victorian summer houses stand against the encroaching sand. Two of the houses at Beldame are still used. The third house, filling with sand, is empty...except for the vicious horror which is shaping nightmares from the nothingness that hangs in the dank, fetid air.
The McCrays and Savages, two fine Mobile families allied by marriage, have been coming to Beldame for years. This summer, with a terrible funeral behind them and a messy divorce coming up, even Luker McCray and little India down from New York are looking forward to being alone at Beldame.
But they won't be alone. For something there, something they don't like to think about, is thinking about them...and about all the ways to make them die.
Michael McDowell is a prolific horror writer who has distinguished himself with a varied body of work within the genre. He was born in Enterprise, Alabama, in 1950 and died of AIDS-related illness in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1999.
His first horror novel, The Amulet, relates the tragedies that befall various individuals who come in possession of a supernatural pendant in a small town.
In McDowell's second novel, Cold Moon Over Babylon, a murdered woman's corpse is dispatched into a river, but her spirit roams the land, and in the evening hours it seeks revenge on her killer even as he plots the demise of her surviving relatives.
Don D'Ammassa, writing in the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers, noted that McDowell's ability to maintain a sense of mundane normalcy against supernatural activity provides the novel with "a fine balance between reality and unreality," and he called Cold Moon Over Babylon "one of the best ghost stories ever written at novel length."
A similarly disturbing tension between dull reality and the supernatural is produced in The Elementals, wherein a host of visitors come to stay at a secluded house occupied by embodiments of elemental forces.
McDowell's Katie, meanwhile, concerns a clairvoyant serial killer whose powers of perception enable her to evade her trackers. The attractive but deranged heroine of this novel manages to conduct her murderous activities despite the awareness of her parents, who are content to derive financial gain from their daughter's crimes.
Madness is central to McDowell's Toplin, which details the vile imaginings of a man who suffers from mental illness but nonetheless determines to conduct himself within society. D'Ammassa praised Toplin as "perhaps the best novel ever written from the point of view of a schizophrenic."
Among McDowell's other writings is the six-part serial novel Blackwater, a chronicle of a southern family drawn to the supernatural. In addition, McDowell has also supplied the screenplays for various films, including director Tim Burton's horror comedy Beetlejuice and his animated production The Nightmare Before Christmas.
Stephen King called McDowell one of the "finest writers of paperback originals in America today." Tabitha King was asked to complete McDowell's unfinished novel Candles Burning, which was published in 2006 to good reviews. Concerning his career, McDowell never tried to be something he wasn't. "I am a commercial writer and I'm proud of that", he said in the book Faces of Fear in 1985. "I am writing things to be put in the bookstore next month. I think it is a mistake to try to write for the ages."
This book was a total pleasure, from start to finish. To enhance that pleasure, I read it with a group of horror lovers over at Goodreads and we had a ball!
Written back in the 80's a lot of my fellow book loving friends have recommended THE ELEMENTALS to me over the last few years. Problem was it was out of print and I couldn't even find 1 copy of anything he's written in the various used book stores in which I shop. Then, Valancourt Books came to the rescue! Valancourt is dedicated to bringing back some of these out of print books and it's impossible for me to say how on board with that I am.
Anyway, this book ROCKED. A southern family vacations at their family's spit of land in southern Alabama, which they call Beldame. There are three houses, but only two families. Something is wrong with that third house and they all feel it.
The characters are crazy and memorable. Big Barbara-southern matriarch and drunk. India-a young girl from NYC trying to reconcile herself to a beach home in the south. Her father, Luker, with whom she has a very strange relationship. These are just a few of the fascinating characters that Mr. McDowell brings alive. He also brings Beldame alive with his descriptions of life on the gulf, the sweltering heat, the shifting dunes. I felt like I was there.
Another thing that I, (and a few others reading the book with me), enjoyed was the way the author would write a smooth paragraph where everything is cool and then WHAM: one chilling sentence that rocked the world of the reader. Over and over this technique was employed and I loved it. I truly loved it.
That's all I'm going to say about the plot. This book comes with an intro from Michael Rowe, author of the most the great book, Enter, Night. I avoided reading the intro until I had finished the book, because sometimes the intro gives a lot away. There is also a small section about the author in which I discovered that Michael McDowell helped to write the screenplay for Beetlejuice. That didn't surprise me because the characters in this book came alive to me just like the characters in Beetlejuice did.
This is a most excellent example of atmospheric, literary 80's horror and I cannot recommend it enough. I originally gave this 4 stars, but after thinking about it overnight, I cannot think of one thing that the author could have done better. So five stars it is for THE ELEMENTALS. Read it!
the constant marginalization of horror really pisses me off. this is, after all, a genre that includes works by Edgar Allan Poe, Henry James, Ambrose Bierce, Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, Joyce Carol Oates, Justin Cronin... so many classic and modern luminaries. it includes modern unknowns like Thomas Ligotti, who can out-write 9 authors out of 10, and dazzling semi-unknowns like Robert Aickman, whose prose can be compared favorably to best of Beattie or Byatt or Boyle. and yet it remains the most ghettoized and often despised of classic genres: many bookstores don't even include horror sections, and when they do, it is wall-to-wall King and Koontz; even Goodreads didn't bother including horror as a genre within in its annual reader's poll on best books of 2010. why is this marginalization constantly the case? is it due to the reactionary themes within an art form (literature) that is often seen as liberal and humanist in outlook? is it due to the frequently lurid and corny paperback covers and the often explicitly graphic content within, or the at-times gibbering, gore-obsessed nature of horror fan dialogue?
perhaps the underlying reason is that the mining and unearthing of anxieties and fears is by its very nature an activity that the world holds at a distinct remove. horror is the Sin-Eater of literature; if every Great Novel is a golden road that leads the reader on journeys of learning and experience, then horror novels are those places outside that path, within the earth beneath it, the dark foundation and all those pathless places, the dirt & the debris & the many-legged crawling things, the areas that live without markers and guideposts yet surround us still. simply put, horror is endemic to the human experience. it deserves respect.
so what does this have to do with The Elementals? a lot, and i suppose not a lot. the novel is slight and sensitive; without its horrors, it would be considered a bent and bizarrely charming thing, an honest and often grotesque depiction of Southern manners and society, a worthy offshoot of Flannery O'Connor. the story of a brave little girl and her perhaps-unusual family, and their misadventures. the author illustrates a certain place with a deft and subtle hand, free of fuss and bustle, full of surprising incident and quirky characterization and odd ambiguity. however the addition of horror moves the novel beyond a gentle but pointed comedy of manners and into something stranger and more threatening, a place where questions go unanswered, attacks go unexplained, characters both just and unjust find themselves at odds with nature and the unnatural, a place where the horrors literally rise from the earth and sand, to tempt and threaten and destroy, and then to return back to the earth, their motives unexplained. this is in some ways the essence of horror: the tableau of humanity, threatened and tormented by things that spurn our paths, that exist beyond our understanding. the horror may come from within or without, but it lives beside us always, an inconstant and alien reminder of how easily our cozy realities may be threatened and transformed, taken off of the paths that we so carefully construct and cherish. yeah, Horror!
Horror virtuoso Michael McDowell discards the gloomy norms of haunted house literature and sets this masterpiece along sandy shores of the sunny Gulf Coast. With sparkling waves at their doorstep and tanning oil on their pale skin, an exceedingly wealthy southern family relax in isolation at their Victorian beach houses over the summer. The respite is much-needed after the death–and bizarre funeral—of a detestable family matriarch.
One of the vacant beach houses is infested with a nasty spirit. Something that’s not quite ghost, not quite monster, but capable of physical manifestation and elemental manipulation. The family had suspicions about the house for years. Rather than do anything about it, however, they’ve elected to let it become overtaken by sand dunes and fall into ruin. Until this year, that is, when thirteen-year-old India is unable to resist her curiosity.
It’s a testament to McDowell’s talent that the supernatural creature is not even the most bizarre thing about this plot. As an Alabama native himself, it’s clear his authorial eye has always been intrigued by the incestuous culture of wealthy southern families. This theme is explored at great depth in his 1,000+ page epic Blackwater (1983), but this short novel has plenty to say as well.
Many of the best moments include no horror at all, but are mere depictions of this family living their unusual lives. The funeral scene should be considered for the greatest opening chapter of all time, and everything that follows maintains that bizarre energy.
The father-daughter relationship of Luker and India is relentlessly fascinating. She’s a mature thirteen years and flirty toward her father, who’s flirty back. It’s certainly weird, but McDowell doesn’t seem to be suggesting that there’s outright abuse going on. Yes, the father likes taking semi-inappropriate photographs of her and has no problem giving her alcohol, but she’s fully in control and their relationship is meant to be seen, I think, as a minor escalation from what is “normal” southern behavior. Luker’s own mother, for example, gives her grown son long, semi-erotic foot rubs in front of the entire family and no one bats an eye.
Whatever message McDowell might be trying to convey, there’s no question that it works from a literary perspective. The pacing needs intriguing characterization to ground us in reality before we can experience supernatural horror. My favorite McDowell quote is when he said that horror writing requires “taking the improbable, the unimaginable, and the impossible, and making it seem not only possible—but inevitable.”
Indeed, when the horror elements do kick in, the world is so established, so immersive, that there’s nothing the monster can do that’s too scary to imagine. And McDowell makes it damn scary. The Elementals is easily one of the scariest novels I’ve ever read. Scary enough to ruin beach houses for the rest of your life and to make you shiver every time you see a grain of sand.
But the scariest thing is that, were it not for small press Valancourt Books, almost all of Michael McDowell’s novels would be out-of-print and possibly forgotten. That includes The Elementals, but also Blackwater, Gilded Needles and The Amulet. All of which deserve classic, required-reading status for horror fans. Thanks to these recent re-prints, his books are finding new audiences and getting the respect they deserve. I found The Elementals on the required reading list for a master’s course on “Modern Gothic” literature.
It’s a shame that McDowell is no longer with us to celebrate his revival. I’d like to ask him what he thinks about it. He’s quoted to say that the best thing a writer can do is write for now, not for the ages. For a while his novels seemed to be just that—fad stories for a booming ’80s horror market. Now that these novels are being dusted off, however, I think we’ll be reading him for a long, long time to come.
MORE ON THE AUTHOR:
Even among the horror community, Michael McDowell is not well-known. I’ve talked to many who’ve never heard of him, let alone read one of his novels. My hunch is that his books came out amid a sea of horror publications in the 1980’s and, without any movie adaptations, his name never could rise to the surface. This isn’t to say he wasn’t successful or didn’t have a fandom, of course, but it allowed for his bibliography to disappear over time. What everyone does know, however, is Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. McDowell was involved with the screenplays for both of these iconic films. In fact, the project he was working on before he died of AIDS complications, was a sequel to Beetlejuice. If you like memorable characters, gothic environs, a sense of humor and big scares, read everything you can by Michael McDowell.
Note: This review was originally published by SpookyBooky.
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In the state of Alabama sits three houses. They have a lovely view, one can walk along the sand and dip their toes in the cool water. Two families come to this little slice of paradise called Beldame, the Savages and the McCrays, who've been escaping to this lovely place whenever life gets rough. For some reason no one they've taken outside of their families seems to like the place, but they love it. After the funeral for one the Savages, the two families reunite and visit this lovely place; a place where they seem to repress the unpleasant events that happened there, like that time the hired help's daughter drowned there, or the time one of them visited the third house… the house that seems to be filling with sand.
Why did no one tell me about Michael McDowell? I mean, yes, I've heard of him in some horror circles as an underrated author, but why did no one tell me that his work was THIS good? I'll be blunt; I think this is one of the best horror novels to come out of the 80s… no, I'll go ahead and say it, I think this is my favorite horror novel to come out of the 80s. This is so good I don't even really know how to review it.
Let's get this out of the way; this book is genuinely unnerving. I love the genre, but I can't personally say that about too many horror novels. This book is unsettling. The idea of the title creatures… spirits… things… whatever they are, is unnerving because we never quite understand them. They seem to break rules that we think they are supposed to follow, and part of the brilliant aspect of this book is that it doesn't feel like the author is cheating with this. This is something completely unknowable and any rules it plays by are its own.
This book is filled with so much mystery, so many things that are not quite explained, but never feel as if they need to be. Much of it I wouldn't want to be explained. The mystery adds to it. It makes sense in its own weird way and I can't imagine that it would be improved with the blanks filled in.
I've rarely read a book I enjoyed this much from start to finish. It managed to be funny at times, terrifying at other and for much of it, such a well told southern gothic that I forgot about the horror aspects, just engrossed in the dynamics of these two families. When the horror crept back in, it was a welcome and terrifying surprise. A rare 5/5 stars.
My Kindle book of The Elementals starts off with a prologue from Michael Rowe. I was a bit paranoid of spoilers so I decided to read it AFTER I finished the book and I agree with all he said on descriptions.
One thing that he said in the prologue was the character of India McCray was Lydia Deetz from Beetlejuice and Odessa Red was Van Helsing. He could not be more on point in this similarity! 🤣😂
The Elementals is a Southern gothic horror book that starts off slow and builds to an epic ending of death, destruction and secrets being revealed.
The location of the three occupied houses at Beldame is a unique setting for a gothic book. The Victorian mansions are wonderfully described and the Alabama sun/setting is so much of a character in this book.
And speaking of characters...
The characters in the book are so bizarre and just not quite right (which is perfect in my opinion for a horror book!). The McCrays and the Savages are two weird ass families. Did the urban myths and customs of the Savage family make them all like this or do we blame the hot, brutal sun for their eccentric ways?!
The parent/child relationships in the book are also uneasy and strange. It’s a nice touch because you’re not quite sure what is going on while reading all of the interactions between both families.
And the sand!! Who knew sand could be so frightening and creepy?! The descriptions of the horror elements in this book are also fantastic! I could visually see all of the odd and scary things that McDowell writes about.
Definitely recommend this one if you love gothic books and also locations set in the Deep South.
Lo que hay en esa casa, niña, sabe más que tú. Lo que hay en esa casa no surge de tu mente. No obedece a las reglas y se comporta como debe comportarse un espíritu. Hace lo que hace para engañarte, quiere inducirte a creer cosas que no son. No posee ni una pizca de verdad. Lo que hizo la semana pasada, no volverá a hacerlo hoy. Ves algo allá adentro, y es algo que no estaba ayer y que no estará mañana.
Cuando muchos lectores hablan tan bien de una novela, cuando todos dicen lo atrapante que es, decididamente voy a una librería y la compro. Esto es lo que hice con esta magnífica novela de Michael McDowell y no me equivoqué. Verdaderamente está escrita en forma soberbia y el poder de adicción y compenetración que genera es total. Michael McDowell, quien escribiera el guión de la ya mítica animación “El extraño mundo de Jack” y de la película Beetlejuice, ambas de Tim Burton, hizo también una gran carrera literaria que le valió menciones y reconocimientos, y previa a esta, escribió otra novela muy buena llamada “El amuleto”, que pienso buscar para leer algún día. La historia de “Los elementales” se centra en una apartada localidad del sur de los Estados Unidos, llamada Beldame, en donde los miembros de dos familias, los McCray y los Savage deciden ir a descansar luego de la muerte y del extraño funeral de la matriarca de los Savage, Marian, madre de Dauphin, suegra de Leigh, consuegra de Big Barbara Ann, quien es la madre de Luker y a su vez este es el padre de India, una chica de trece años un tanto especial para su edad. En ese velatorio sucede algo perturbador que tiene que ver con lo que se desarrollará más adelante. Los acompaña su sirviente negra, llamada Odessa. Típica empleada de color de los estados sureñas del país, de esas que conviven con la familia durante décadas. Hay tres casas en Beldame, construidas exactamente con la misma arquitectura de estilo victoriana, aunque “la tercera casa” está abandonada. Las dunas avanzaron para apropiarse de ella y nadie vive allí. Al menos eso es lo que todos creen. Pero algo maligno acecha en esa casa. Algo ominoso, terrorífico, con entidad propia, que comenzará a atormentar a las seis personas que viven en las otras dos y además de estas entidades que con el correr de la lectura se transformarán opresivas y torturantes para los personajes, encontraremos otros dos personajes claves en esta historia. En primer lugar, el calor. Insoportable, agobiante, abrasador. Capaz de generar las más variadas alucinaciones en los moradores de esas casas y todo ello derivará en obsesiones y visiones aterrorizantes cada vez que se acerquen a esa tercera casa. El otro personaje es la arena. El autor, utiliza el recurso de la arena como la sangre en las novelas de vampiros y ésta se convierte en el eje de todo el mal que envenena el ambiente. Prontamente, comenzarán a suceder cosas verdaderamente extrañas y toda la acción se centrará en dos personajes claves: por un lado en la hija de Luker, India, quien entablará una peculiar relación con la otra pieza fundamental de todo esto, que es Odessa, la sirviente. Entre las dos, descubrirán que todo el terror que yace en la tercera casa y lo que se desencadenará en la tercera parte del libro será enloquecedor. Criaturas horripilantes, apariciones fantasmales, escenas inverosímiles y repugnantes comenzarán a suceder una tras otra y es aquí en donde recrudece todo el terror que asalta tanto a los personajes como al lector. Leyendo acerca del autor, me informo de que escribe “terror gótico sureño”. Realmente a mí no me importan ese tipo de clasificaciones. Esto es terror y del bueno. McDowell juega con la sugestión del lector y logra que este vea lo mismo que los personajes. Las extrañas criaturas que pululan en esa casa, son descriptas con tanta nitidez que uno se asusta y esto hace que la adrenalina suba y nos exija leer más y más… Esta novela fue escrita por McDowell en 1981 pero por suerte, existe en Argentina una editorial excelente y maravillosa, que se llama La Bestia Equilátera. Yo ya poseo otras dos novelas tan desconocidas como únicas y que solo esta editorial podía publicar. Una es “El caballero de cayó al mar” del desconocido H. C. Lewis y “El otro lado”, escrita por un extraño ilustrador del siglo XIX, que era amigo personal de Franz Kafka y que se llamaba Alfred Kubin. La Bestia Equilátera tiene esta sana costumbre. Todo lo que edita es original, desconocido y de una gran calidad. Volviendo a “Los elementales”, (tuve que esperar a leer más de doscientas páginas para entender por qué se llamaba así), no tengo más que palabras de admiración porque he pasado ratos de altas dosis de atención, susto y entretenimiento. McDowell escribe tremendamente bien y como comenté previamente, sabe cómo jugar con el inconsciente del lector. Hacía mucho que no leía una novela de terror. La última fue “Christine” de Stephen King, que era un gran amigo del autor, y recuerdo que era adolescente cuando la leí y se me había generado cierta aversión a pasar por delante de la trompa de los autos cuando caminaba por la calle. Espero no tener que ira a ninguna mansión antigua para no recordar lo que sucede en la ominosa tercera casa de Beldame, en donde los Elementales acechan para enloquecer, aterrar y matar. Y alentado por la lectura de esta novela, voy a ir un paso más allá, comenzando a leer otra escalofriante y aterradora novela, ya mítica: la que escribió William Peter Blatty y que se llamó “El exorcista”.
So truly wonderful and scary on many levels, The Elementals, is one of my favorite reads this year. What does it touch on? To name a few things it gets perfect are: a blunt, honest and loving relationship between a teenage daughter and her dad, southern mores and speech patterns done right, family dynamics, hot weather, and one mind-numbingly disturbing, malevolent house.
Beldame is the isolated retreat of the Savages and the McCrays. It consists of three, that's right three Victorian mansions set next to the Alabama gulf, far away from everything. Marian Savage, the cruel, cold matriarch of the family has just passed and the families go to Beldame for the summer. The Savages still own one house and the McCrays, connected by friendship and family ties to the Savages, owns another. House Three is abandoned and has been inundated by sand which has broken into the house and almost covered it on one side.
Written in 1981, The Elementals has as its main characters a thirteen year old girl raised in New York by her Alabama raised dad, and a middle-aged black woman who is the maid of the Savages and also their friend. India, the girl, and Odessa are not friends at first, but become linked by a sensitivity to the evil in the third house and fight to keep their loved ones safe.
The portrayal of the girl is particularly good. She speaks her mind, without being a brat. She and her father cuss like sailors which her southern grandmother decries. India and Odessa are magnificent creations. The conversations that India has with her father are brilliant. On meeting her runaway mother on a New York street, Luker, the dad, yells, F... Off, B...ch! I love it. Anyway, this is scary and well written and I can't wait to read more from this author, who, left us early because of AIDS, that scourge of my youth, which still has no vaccine.
When Marian Savage dies, her son and his family head south to Beldame to recover in beach houses that have been in the family for generations. The family splits and takes two of the beach houses. The third house stays vacant, for an ancient evil lurks within...
I have to think The Elementals is a trial run for some concepts Michael McDowell would later explore at great length in Blackwater, namely a Southern family saga with supernatural elements lurking on the fringes.
The Savages and McCrays have been coming to Beldame for years but have always avoided the mysterious third house. After the death of the Savage matriarch, they head down to Beldame for some r&r. It's India McCray's first visit to Beldame so naturally she's very curious about the third house. It's sounds like it's going to be creepy from the beginning but it's not. Michael McDowell takes his time, develops the Savages and McCrays into characters you can't help but be interested it. Then he torments the poor bastards.
For the most part the story revolves around India McCray and Odessa, the Savage's maid. Odessa knows a lot mroe than she's letting on and India is a teenage busybody with nothing but time on her hands at the sleepy penisula. I have to say that Luker and India are my favorite father-daughter combo in all of fiction with their interesting dynamic. Apart, they're both fascinating but together, they're something else. Lawton's machinations made me hate him more than I feared the evils of the third house. Big Barabara's alcohol problem and relationship to Lawton was sad but I wound up liking her quite a bit.
In addiition to family drama, McDowell paints a very accurate picture of the torturous, oppressive heat and humidy of the south. I broke a sweat while I was reading some of the later chapters. The creepy happenings start at Marian Savage's funeral and gradually grow from there. By the end, it's hard to tell who is going to survive.
Much with Blackwater, I would have read twice as many pages featuring the Savages and McCrays. I enjoyed the characters so much that the horror element could be removed and it would still be an enjoyable book. Four out of five stars.
Always present in my mind is the notion that the 80s comedy Beetlejuice must get a sequel. (Alas, a Broadway musical will suffice.) That film molded my nerdy self into the literophile we have today: Oh what a marvelous imagination behind one of the funniest and most creative screenplays of all time!
& then to realize that the writer of said masterpiece also wrote horror novels! Horror novels of the best quality! And there is plenty to admire in "The Elementals," a story that has accumulated dust in more ways than one! (Inside joke.) We visit the terrain of those gigantic sandworms that terrified our imaginations--even in Beetlejuice: the animated series. & Lydia Deetz, quintessential goth girl, is revamped as imp India, also a precocious teen that sees what's beyond.
But this is nothing nearly as terrifying as Clive Barker's (also-80s) brand of horror. Or Stephen Kings. It is absolutely inventive, and, even better, hella funny at times.
Honestly, I think I'd have a difficult time finding a better example of a "quiet horror" book that delivers genuine chills! The southern atmosphere and isolation of the vacation houses of the two main families couldn't have been in a better location. With nothing except the shifting sands and surf for company, the scene here was set perfectly for a horror so unsettling, that even I couldn't predict what would happen next!
If you're looking for a gore/torture fest, you won't find it in these pages. What you will find is a creeping horror that inexplicably grabs ahold of your imagination from the very beginning. There are no "definite" answers here, either....which is something that actually ADDS to the fear factor tremendously. This is one story that I can see re-reading every few years, just to bring back that sense of utter foreboding that I got from it.
Highly recommended to fans of "quiet horror"!
*Re-read April 2016--If possible, I enjoyed the second read of this even more than the first! Not only will this book remain on my "Favorites" shelf, but it ranks in the top ten books I've read so far, period. The atmosphere--unspoiled by "knowing too much" reminded me much of the feeling I get when reading Algernon Blackwood's "The Willows". This is a perfect example of horror at its best, in my opinion.*
**Re-read April 2018--Obviously one of my favorite books, EVER! I still feel this is atmospheric horror, at its absolute best. **
If it takes 62% to finally get something happening in a book, you are getting 3 stars or less. I love the characters and the scenic backdrop but my lord how long can you discuss people on vacation at the beach with a creepy house next door. I started getting bored around 40%.
Pros - Creepy house of sand. Relatable characters. I finished it.
Cons - Nothing really happens until the end of the book. Bunch of filler content that is tedious.
I first heard of Michael McDowell almost three years ago, when I started reading Stephen King, and began looking for similar authors. McDowell's 1981 novel The Elementals featured prominently on a number of lists amongst the greatest horrors of all time. It really has been on my TBR that long.
What I already knew about this author going in to this book was that he was a successful screenwriter, being the man behind both Beetlejuice and that awesome Christmas/Halloween animation The Nightmare Before Christmas. He was good friends with Stephen King, with his wife Tabitha King actually finishing McDowell's final novel. Sadly, that came about as he tragically passed away at the age of 49 in 1999.
McDowell was also highly regarded by another of my favourite authors Peter Straub who described the man as: "one of the best writers of horror in this or any other country.” Pete's words are good enough for me and although I had planned on waiting till I had time to blast through this author's entire body of work I felt this one was well overdue and really no time like the present.
"“Spirits living in hell don’t feel the heat. It’s spirits living in hell that causes heat like this, that’s what it is. Cain’t you feel ’em, child?”
The story opens in fantastic fashion with the most bizarre funeral in the history of funerals, which really sets the tone for what's to come. I won't say exactly why it's so strange, I'll let you find that out for yourself. But it's a very private affair, for good reason, and features the Savage and McCray families that this tale centres around.
After laying to rest the beloved former matriarch of the family, Marian Savage, the family heads to the Gulf coast of Alabama and the beloved family retreat of Beldame as a way of dealing and coming to terms with the grief. Nice when you're a family of millionaires and have that luxury!
The refuge itself is extremely remote being completely cut off from civilisation when the tide rolls in and consists of three large Victorian style houses. One belongs to the Savages, one to the McCrays and the "Third House" has been abandoned as it is slowly being buried beneath a large sand dune. It has an air of mystery surrounding it and it isn't long before the youngest member of the group, India, takes a keen interest in it and ventures over to take a few photos.
And this is when the story really begins.
Straight to the point...i loved McDowell's writing. When compared to the modern state of the horror genre he's much more subtle, taking his time to build suspense, tension and atmosphere. His prose really have a seductive quality. Damn straight, he is sexy with the words and really draws you in and wraps you up in his masterfully woven narrative. There's nothing remotely sleazy about it, unlike myself.
Is this a slow-burn kind of novel? You bet your ass it is! But the story flows and I never got bored. And when this one gets going McDowell cranks it up to the max with some fantastic horror scenes. Still if you hate books that take there time with the set up it might not be for you. For me personally, it was perfect.
Michael Rowe, who wrote Enter Night, gave an introduction in my copy and he talks about how above anything McDowell is a master of place. He is absolutely on the money there. The way he paints southern Alabama is quite literally a work of art. You can feel the heat and taste the atmosphere as the sun blazes down on you. Honestly, I feel like I've been there myself after finishing.
Once I'd arrived in Beldame I couldn't help but feel the sense of isolation in this tropical paradise. This really added to the mounting sense of dread that builds throughout under the watchful eye of the "Third House" and the blazing sun. I think I felt it more than the characters. Superbly done!
"It’s funny you should call it the third house, because that’s what we always called it. It used to scare me, and Leigh too. That’s why my bedroom is where it is—because from there, you can’t see the third house. I was scared to get up at night and look at it, I was scared there was something that lived inside it.”
Along with the location the characters in The Elementals really stood out. All of them are really interesting and full of depth. The Savages and McCrays being the perfect example of a dysfunctional family and they feel very alive, each with their own unique quirks and habits. Despite being a weird bunch, I found each individual pretty likeable which must say something about me. Each has their own wonderful little life that's woven into this tale.
A big part of bringing his characters to life is the dialogue and McDowell has a wonderful ear for it. I guess you need that being a screenwriter. The way he changes certain words to emphasise the character's accent was excellent and really brought a southern flavour to proceedings. Y'all should check it out.
The standout characters for me were Luker McCray and his daughter, India. There relationship was pretty bizarre at times in the way he allowed her to drink alcohol and swear in front of him, as well as openly discuss his sex life. As a father of a daughter I did find it a bit cringe worthy. But there was an honesty and openness that they shared with a real sense of equality that I found refreshing. India was treated as an adult and was never afraid to share her thoughts and feelings with her father. It was a fascinating relationship.
While reading the book my Goodreads buddy Corey Woodcock pointed out that two of the characters in the story were prototypes for ones used in Beetlejuice. Well I don't know who the other one is, but India is definitely Lydia from that movie who was memorably played by Winona Ryder. Once I had that in my head I couldn't get it out.
You'll have already guessed that I absolutely loved The Elementals. It's a haunted house story unlike no other. A really refreshing and interesting take. I haven't even mentioned the supernatural elements in this one and that's due to all the drama packed in. But when the scary stuff comes it definitely has some original elements that you'll lap up.
McDowell has a reputation as the King of Southern Gothic fiction and I can see why. This is a remarkable example that I won't hesitate to recommend. I'd even go so far as to say it's essential horror reading. As long as you're not one of those splatterpunk fanatics who demands someone getting wasted every other page. In that case stick to reading Richard Laymon.
But the beauty of this story is that it does get very crazy very fast towards the end with a terrifying finish. There's some brilliant imagery that'll stay long in my memory. In fact I couldn't help but think what a great movie this would make with someone like Guillermo del Toro at the helm. So make it happen!
And on that thought I'll draw a close to this review. Thanks for reading...cheers!
If Tennessee Williams wrote a supernatural horror novel, it would read like THE ELEMENTALS.
This statement isn't completely true, of course; Michael McDowell was a fiercely unique author who wrote unlike any other. But some of the most fascinating aspects of Tennessee Williams's plays are exhibited in this novel: atypical/dysfunctional familial relationships; unpleasant truths suppressed or left unspoken; horror-through-acquiescence; moments of shocking violence; manipulative, vicious matriarchs and patriarchs; and a seething, suffocating atmosphere (both thermally and emotionally).
The dialogue, especially, reminds me of Williams. Hearing McDowell's Luker talk to his mother Big Barbara reminded me powerfully of Brick's frustrating conversations with Big Daddy in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. In one of Williams's darkest plays--SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER--there are moments that remind me a great deal of McDowell's simmering novel.
I guess I should mention that I love the plays of Tennessee Williams.
And man, did I love THE ELEMENTALS.
I read Michael McDowell back in my early twenties, and though I enjoyed COLD MOON OVER BABYLON and loved THE AMULET, I suspect I wasn't seasoned enough yet as a reader to fully grasp what McDowell was doing. In THE ELEMENTALS, he immerses us completely in a world familiar-yet-alien, and in doing so he creates one of the best settings in horror fiction.
The trio of houses, the sifting white sands, the brackish lagoon, and the interminable Gulf comprise a living, breathing, *sentient* character, one so seductive and malefic that I found myself tightening whenever India (13) and her elder family members arrived there. I feared for them, found myself yearning for them to Just. Get. Out. And trembled with dread each time they ventured nearer the Third House.
Ah, the Third House.
It takes a lot to scare me. I read widely, but I read more horror than anything else. So while a story can still thrill me, move me, or entertain me, it's a rare tale that can frighten me.
THE ELEMENTALS did.
There are scenes involving the Third House that had me checking under the bed for misshapen creatures, that had me triple-checking the locks of our house to make sure something...unnatural didn't invade. Though you could often criticize these characters for their decisions and shake your head in frustration at their insistence on returning to the Third House, McDowell's writing is expert enough--and vivid enough--to convince you to dismiss your inner critic and just suffer with the characters as they encounter one horror after another.
Read THE ELEMENTALS. Valancourt Books, one of my favorite publishers, has given McDowell's work the attention it deserves, and in purchasing this novel, you'll be supporting both an awesome writer and an outstanding company.
THE ELEMENTALS is without a doubt one of the best horror novels I've read this year, a tale that every horror reader should experience, and a story from which every horror writer can learn.
The Elementals is as smooth and luxurious as an aged scotch.
I struggled while reading because I didn't want to put it down. Lounging in Beldame with the Savages and McCrays was blissful, but I also didn't want to read too quickly. I stopped multiple times in attempts to drag the book out as long as possible.
The atmosphere was both subtle and complex, the family dynamics were wonderfully memorable, and the plot was a throw back to childhood tales of ghosts and ghouls around campfires on lazy summer nights.
Fans of any genre will enjoy this southern gothic. It's only February but I have a strong feeling this will end up being my favorite book of the year.
Please do not read on if you are easily disturbed by the graphic image below.
This is an image of a little girl right before her death. I'm sure many of you have seen this image. If you're a horror fanatic and feel the pain of this little girl, this is the book for you.
This is my second Michael McDowell Once again, the master of ghost houses and familial interactions as well as making one feel welcome in the Southern State of Alabama.
I cannot express how much Mr McDowell as burrowed into my heart and has terrorised my mind. Dare I say, better than Richard Matheson, who also has a place in my heart with his books and but when I read and this book, I had fallen in love with the world of McDowell's Alabama ghost houses.
Not only is McDowell a fantastic writer of horrific events, but he seamlessly manages to integrate family interactions, wonderful characters (especially India, who I will talk about in my full review) and a very satisfactory set-up and pay-off.. The characters are diverse and black characters are written like real people - which is rare for an author who mainly wrote in the 60s to 80s.
This book is one of the best I've read this year, if not in the last five years.
Thank you Malcolm McDowell
Also R.C. Bray is a legend of audio book readings. He did every character perfectly.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>
La lectura es grata y fluida. Al trasladarse un par de familias a sus casas de descanso, las cuales son vecinas pero bien aisladas de la ciudad más próxima, la niña empieza a ver y sentir cosas en una de las casas contigua... Decir más ya sería spoiler, parte del disfrute de la novela es encontrar la explicación de lo que sucede.
No he colocado las 5 estrellas porque hay varios detalles que parecieran ser de mucha importancia pero no tener relevancia para la historia y más hacen confundir el tema central de la novela, no lo mencionaré para generar un spoiler. Adicionalmente me hubiese gustado conocer un poco más de historia y origen.
The Elementals by Michael McDowell was first released in 1981 and then re-released in 2014 by Valancourt Books with an introduction by author Michael Rowe.
The story begins with the funeral of Marian Savage, the matriarch of an old and opulent family from Alabama with an intriguingly peculiar and disturbing burial rite.
The Savage family are linked by marriage, friendship and history to the McCrays and both families spend the summer at Beldame. An island compound on which sits three identical Victorian mansions, one owned by the Savages, one by the McCrays and one that sits empty, for reasons unknown. At night the island is cut off from the mainland by the tide, there is literally no escape from what haunts the night.
What the author excels at, what you can actually feel, is the atmosphere, crippling, oppressive heat, the pitch black shroud of night and that third house, slowly being consumed by the fine white sand. McDowell then introduces the characters, with depth and insight, masterful storytelling indeed as the empty house and its story slowly comes to light.
'Worry, clever thought, conversation all were crushed by the weight of the atmosphere.'
India McCray is the young inquisitive daughter with an intense desire to know everything about that third house and the first time she looks in the window, when she sees something. Something that should have turned her head rapidly in the other direction, swiftly followed by a running motion, she'll wish it did in the end, more than anything.
'India’s own black shadow of curiosity stretched across the floor, like a startled residue of the room’s last inhabitant.'
A fearful chill gradually creeps up on you almost unnoticed, but not quite, as the history of the place is slowly revealed. All until the last night on Beldame when the chill manifests into nerve shredding panic and sheer disbelief as the characters you've spent the whole story invested in suddenly face the unthinkable.
A phrase that will remain imprinted and serve as a reminder for my sieve like memory is “Savage mothers eat their children up!” read into that what you will. But if you like your horror akin to a gentle stroll, where you can get to know all your surroundings intimately, followed by a fucking death defying plunge of a cliff into a body of water that you've no clue to the depth of. Then you'll enjoy The Elementals I'm sure.
This book has everything: Southern gothic, odd families, genius loci, magic, mystery and one of the strangest settings ever. The atmosphere of Beldame has stayed with me since I’ve read about it years ago. I spent my childhood summers on the Gulf Coast and the memory of those thick lazy days is powerful stuff.
This story would’ve worked without the “supernatural” parts most likely. The characters were well-developed. It’s the sign of a classy horror story when I don’t want any of the characters to get killed.
The climax was the weakest part in my opinion. Like the days at Beldame blended into each other, this story could’ve continued on endlessly, lazy and satisfying. McDowell had to tie up the loose ends and bring it together somehow, I’m just not sure that this was the best way to do it. Regardless, it’s a wonderful story, one that I’m sure I’ll revisit every few years.
“What’s in that house, child, knows more than you know. What’s in that house, don’t come out of your mind. It don’t have to worry ‘bout rules and behaving like a spirit ought to behave. It does what it does to fool you, it wants to trick you into believing what’s not right. It’s got no truth to it. What it did last week it’s not gone be doing today. You see something in there, it wasn’t there yesterday, it’s not gone be there tomorrow. You stand at one of them doors thinking somethings behind it - nothing’s behind it. It’s waiting for you upstairs, it’s waiting for you downstairs. It’s standing behind you.”
The Elementals By: Michael McDowell Narrated by: R.C. Bray This is an excellent book for the horror fan that likes the paranormal variety. This is about a couple of families that have grown up together in the south. One moved away to New York but everyone is back for a funeral. The characters are all so fleshed out so well! I could picture someone like each one of them. There are three large homes, one is called The Third House and no one goes into it, ever. The book then reveals why. Very exciting from page one! It has. R.C. Bray narrating which he is the boss!😁 Excellent!!!
This was legitimately scary towards the end. Can't believe The elementals has never been made into a movie. If it has it's not under the same name and i could not find it.
Only 20 percent of this is scary the rest is a story about two inter married families in coastal Alabama. That's ok because the characters are really interesting and great. One is old school genteel southern with a black servant and everything the savages. The other is a new rich family sitting on a fertilizer empire the McCrays. Really great dialogue, relationships, and interactions between all the characters. Luker McCray and his daughter India come down from New York for Marion Savages funeral the hardhearted matriarch. that's where we meet Big Barbara McCray Luker's loving mother, Odessa the the black servant, the softhearted Dophan Savage and his wife Leigh Luker's sister. McDowell puts so much underlayment in every conversation like Hemmingway does. he could problay make a much larger book involving these main 5 characters their stories and family histories but he only scratches the surface and leaves the reader to fill in the blanks. There is a horror story to tell and McDowell can't waste to much time on how the very different families got intertwined. He expertly uses dialogue to tell the background in one scene after the funeral. Almost immediately the families decide to go to the vacation homes at bedlam. The horror scene is set with three houses one belonging to the savages one the McCrays and the third abandoned. Everyone feels uneasy about the third house and stories are exchanged. Odessa daughter disappeared as did Dolphan's brother Darnay. Even Dolphan's sister almost died in the third house and entered a convent to deal with the trauma. Despite all that has happend at bedlam everyone just has a creepy feeling and just think their family members have drowned. The reader always seems much more aware of what's happening because bedlam affects them and their memory somehow. India the star of the show in my mind teams up with Odessa who has a special connection with the third house to investigate. leading to the exciting finale.
McDowell leaves a lot for the reader to piece together which is risky and expects his audience to pick up on things through his masterful dialogue. Great character and legitimately spooky. Great halloween read!
Three houses. Isolated on a spit of land along the Gulf Coast of Alabama known as Beldame. Two are occupied in season. One is abandoned, slowly being swallowed up by the ever-shifting dunes. But far from empty. For within the shifting sands, something stirs. This book is a masterpiece of Southern Gothic. An atmospheric sun-drenched sojourn into horror that matches pace to place, a laconic stroll through the hazy, lazy days of summer, populated by the kind of eccentrics you only find below the Mason/Dixon Line. The dialogue has that authentic Southern twang, with healthy servings of pecan pie level nuttiness that will set you giggling. And through it all, the sibilance of shifting sand will chill you to the bone.
Kudos to Valancourt Books for returning this lost masterwork of Quiet Horror back into print.
You know...I'd forgotten these books. My wife found this (and I'll say "these" as she went from this book to McDowell's Blackwater series. This isn't part of that series, but I always think of them together as I read it after my wife in her "McDowell Period").
My wife was always more the "horror" fan than I was/am and she ended up introducing me to several authors/books I probably would never have tried had she not found them first. During our marriage we would occasionally come across books we both liked. That wasn't "usual" but it usually meant a very good book. She read most of my collection of paperback fantasies while she was expecting our first child and from there we often compared books from our own chosen genres.
The thing about this book (and to a certain extent with the Blackwater books) is that it's (they are) very atmospheric. It sort of exudes and exemplifies atmosphere. I still have such a clear picture of that house half buried in sand and the "feeling" the book gave. That has lasted since '83 or '84 when I read this after my wife. As soon as I saw the title, the picture jumped into my mind.
In general this is not a "type" of book I like as it's very oppressive and carries a sense of impending doom throughout. That said however it's so well written that even though it's basically simply a brain candy paperback it surprises, draws the reader in and stays with you.
Knowing that there's a certain "depression factor" if you like atmospheric horror, I'd give this one a try. I'm surprised that this apparently a "throw-away" (you know "cheap paperback") horror novel has stayed in my mind so well.