The Elementals by Michael McDowell.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.
I’d never read any Michael McDowell before cracking The Elementals. I’d seen some of his other work, unknowingly – he was the scriptwriter for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice – and I’d seen that he was very well regarded by Stephen King, so I figured I might as well give it a shot.
I’ve gotta say, if this is indicative of the general level of McDowell’s skills, it’s far from the last of his works I’ll inhale.
Yep, inhale is right. This story has a scent: hot summers in the American South. It’s got the smell of old families and new money; of death and divorce. Of the Gulf of Mexico. And of magic. It’s a story about a Grand Old Family, in the best Southern style: and from the first chapter on, the Savages command attention. Opening with an ill-attended funeral in which a knife plays a lead role is one way to grab the attention, and once he has it, McDowell doesn’t let go.
The funeral is a focal point for a dispersed family. Members – including a sister who became a nun, which never bodes well in a horror story – gather to witness the funeral rites of a frankly terrible woman, the matriarch of a family in which mothers eat their young, perhaps not figuratively. There’s various intrigues – alcoholism, divorce, teenage drug-taking and photography – before the group (and trusted servant Who Knows How Shit Is) depart to Beldame, a remote triumvirate of semi-fucked houses on the Gulf of Mexico, where the Savages (and others) have holidayed for decades.
It’s a kind of remote place. The sort of place where the heat drags the day to a standstill. Where you’re cut off from nearby hamlets by tides. Where there’s nothing to do except hang in a hammock until it becomes cool enough to eat.
It is also the sort of place where family members have gone missing. And where a tsunami of sand pushes against one of the houses. You know, the house that just doesn’t seem quite right.
I don’t particularly want to spoil the narrative, because the story’s worth experiencing for yourself. McDowell creates some pretty horrific scenes out of sand and supposition, and though this is unapologetic airport horror pulp, it’s classier than a lot of that genre. It’s more in the Southern Gothic kind of line, as well as offering a survey of how location influences how people interact, and what they’ll do.
It also examines the idea of traces passing through lives and generations. How mistakes and misdeeds of a previous generation can influence those to come. And how things half-known when a child can lie buried, waiting to attack the adult unawares. There’s a strand throughout of leakage: of sand, of bad vibes, of bad decisions. And how something that begins small can assemble itself into a problem of terrifying proportions.
Of course, there has to be a way to be free of this stuff, right? A way to survive? A way to know what’s real and what’s not and, most importantly, how to contain things in a wall of sanity?
I wouldn’t be too sure.
The writing is dignified, almost. Show, don’t tell? Done. It was a rare pleasure to read this: one of those horror tales that relies on your imagination – not the author’s loquaciousness – to create the images of terror.
I’m gonna need more.