Review: The Elementals by Michael McDowell (1981)


My Rating: 5 stars                                          Read: 4/2/2017

Release Date: 1981

Audiobook narrated by R.C. Bray released June 2016


After a bizarre and disturbing incident at the funeral of matriarch Marian Savage, the McCray and Savage families look forward to a restful and relaxing summer at Beldame, on Alabama’s Gulf Coast, where three Victorian houses loom over the shimmering beach. Two of the houses are habitable, while the third is slowly and mysteriously being buried beneath an enormous dune of blindingly white sand. But though long uninhabited, the third house is not empty. Inside, something deadly lies in wait. Something that has terrified Dauphin Savage and Luker McCray since they were boys and which still haunts their nightmares. Something horrific that may be responsible for several terrible and unexplained deaths years earlier – and is now ready to kill again . . .

A haunted house story unlike any other, Michael McDowell’s The Elementals (1981) was one of the finest novels to come out of the horror publishing explosion of the 1970s and ’80s. Though best known for his screenplays for Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, McDowell is now being rediscovered as one of the best modern horror writers and a master of Southern Gothic literature. This edition of McDowell’s masterpiece of terror features a new introduction by award-winning horror author Michael Rowe. McDowell’s first novel, the grisly and darkly comic The Amulet (1979), is also available from Valancourt Books.

My Review:

I read this book for my lifetime challenge (1981).

1981. Ah, the options. I started listening to Gorky Park. I didn’t have an audiobook for it, so I was using my narration app. All the Russian names were incomprehensible and I couldn’t keep people straight. I listened for hours thinking I was maybe 70% in but when I checked it was a mere 35%. The mystery plot was interesting but waaaay too dragged out, and, while automated narration works fine on most books, in this case it sucked. I gaveup on it and picked up “The Elementals” instead, which has an audiobook.

GOOD DECISION. All of that is just to say what a PLEASURE the audiobook version of this was from the very first sentence! By five minutes in I knew this book would be amazing and delightful, and it was.

First the writing. This is a very, very fine vintage horror book. I’d put it up there with the best of Stephen King and Ira Levin. This book is on many “best of horror” lists, and praised by major authors, and deservedly so. From the first chapter, it’s clear you’re in the hands of a master Southern Gothic writer.

It was unspeakably hot all over Alabama that day, but nowhere was the heat more intense than in Baldwin County; and in Baldwin County no worse than at Gulf Shores; and at Gulf Shores no more extreme than at the little green concrete building that housed the post office and the Laundromat.

The story begins in Mobile, Alabama at the funeral for Marian Savage where, right away, we get to witness a strange and disturbing ritual involved the Savage dead. One of the best things about this book is the ensemble cast and southern family dynamics, from the funeral on. Every character is so interesting, real, and unique. The dialog is absolute perfection, and the voices given them by narrator R.C. Bray are just freaking brilliant. I swear, it’s hard to believe it’s one person reading this book. I bow down, Mr. Bray.

We have two Mobile families, the Savages and the McCrays, who are best friends through multiple generations. We have Luka McCray, an irreverent guy who is foul-mouthed, decent, funny, and has no issue being nude around people or having his mother rub his feet. He moved to New York but is back in Mobile for the funeral. His teen-aged daughter, India, loves to draw, is equally irreverent, and is wide-eyed over the weird traditions of the south since she grew up in New York. Dauphin Savage is Luka’s best friend, sweet-natured, rich, and a bit fragile. Big Barbara McCray, Luka’s mother, is the epitome of a gracious southern matriarch except she’s an alcoholic. And then there’s Odessa, the family’s long-time black retainer who, in the traditions of horror stories, has the second sight and is the only one secretly in the know about all the mystical underpinnings of the Savage family and Beldame, the heart of the evil in the book.

“I saw more than just the dark,” said India. “I saw something else. I climbed to the top of the dune and I looked in the window. I did it twice, and both times I saw something.”
“Don’t you tell me!” cried Odessa. “I don’t want to know what you saw, child!”

One of the primary pleasures of the book is the terrific southern family dynamics and conversations. We hear weird, creepy stories about the history of the Savages, rife with dead babies, tragedies, and bizarre traditions. Despite their individual idiosyncracies, though, the core family in the book is not dysfunctional. In fact, they’re lovely together. The comfortable way they laze around and accept each other is like a bright canvas which makes the horror that much darker. When one of them is endangered or lost, you really feel how it lessens the entire family.

After the funeral, the group decides to get away for a vacation on a spit of land on the Gulf Shores where the two families each own a house. The spit of land becomes an island at high tide. And there is a third house on the spit that is unoccupied and has been partially buried in the sand. This sheltered “island”, called Beldame, has been the joy of the Savages and McCrays since before Luka and Dauphin were born. Without electricity or phone, the long hot summer days on the sea are indolent and without a single obligation. Though they all love Beldame almost obsessively, the children grow up knowing instinctively that there’s something wrong with “the third house” and avoiding it. And then, once in a while, there’s a tragedy and someone dies, and maybe it’s the fault of whatever lives in “the third house”, or maybe it’s just their imagination, haha.

The horror in the book is slow and creeping, like the sand. But I was never bored. The writing it just so very brilliant, and there’s always enough weirdness to keep the creep factor high–the slowly-leaked story of the various Savages tragedies and strange deaths, various small encounters with “the third house”, which are quite scary, and the interesting family dynamic. I particularly liked Odessa’s “knowings”, her second sight, and her Voodoo-esque rituals.

Dauphin picked up the alarm clock. It was set to four o’clock, the time of his mother’s death; the calendar page was for the month of May, and the day of her death red-circled. The teacups was of the set of dishes off which she had always had her breakfast. The labels on the discarded prescription bottles at the bottom of the plastic shoe box all read, For the use of Marian Savage.
Dauphin: “Why’d you bring all this stuff here?”
Odessa: “Clock and calendar’s gone remind her she’s dead.”

When the serious horror hits in the climax, it’s good and truly scary, and in every way a fulfilling follow through. But for me, it’s not the highlight of the book. What makes it a classix is the constant drip drip drip of atmosphere, description, gothic tone, and the brilliant characters/dialog.

“It’s bad when the dead talk in dreams,” said Odessa. “What’d Darnley say?”
“Darnley said, ‘I came to get you, Dauphin.'”
“Is that when you woke up?”
“No,” said Dauphin. “I didn’t wake up at all…”

On that note, if at all possible you really should experience this on audiobook. The audiobook was just released in June 2016 and features narrator R.C. Bray. Man, I started to scroll through his credits on Audible and fell asleep, he’s recorded so many books. His southern twang for the various characters adds immensely to the southern gothic vibe, as does his acting on every line. He adds so much to the family dynamic. He’s just absolutely fantastic. I read he is up for an Audie award for this book, as he should be.

Highly, highly recommended. Just remember:

Savage mothers eat their children up!

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