Friday, April 17, 2020

"The Elementals," by Michael McDowell--Fiction Review

Happy Friday, my dear obscurists—tomorrow is my birthday, and thank you for giving me the gift of visiting my website, cajoled, or otherwise. Since it’s my birthday, I think we’ll dive right under the covers, made from the vellum of tanned screaming faces, of something warm and comforting to me—horror—specifically gothic horror.

Today’s book is “The Elementals” by Michael McDowell, one of my favorite authors who I don’t feel is remembered or recognized as much as he should be—so we’re all going to do that now.

Michael McDowell

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

McDowell was an absolute genius when it comes to gothic horror, and this book, which is essentially a haunted house story—the bread and butter of this subgenre—practically eerily glows with that talent. The elementals aren’t traditional ghosts in a sense everyone would think of, and it’s implied heavily that they are aware of this and use it to their advantage. It gives them an almost alien feel—but that theory is never explored in this story.

The setting is unique, taking place on a coastal island and in three houses—not just one. At the beginning of the story, Beldame—the island—seems like a really sweet vacation spot. In fact, it had been the McCrays and the Savages vacation home for decades. So it isn’t like most haunted house stories where the characters aren’t familiar with the place they are staying. The “island” is only actually an island during high tide; during low tide, it can be driven to easily enough. A feature that can sound neat until—you know—the running and the screaming starts.

McDowell, in another novel series, actually the masterpiece of his life, “Blackwater,” made me a fan of family dramas, and this novel is similar. The tension of the story isn’t just that the family vacation spot is haunted, it’s that the two wings of the family, the Savages and the McCrays, fresh from a funeral, are dysfunctional as all hell. Putting them on a little haunted island and watching them cope is wildly entertaining. 

What I don’t love about this book:

On the minor side of things that make me a little uncomfortable with—and immediately dates—this novel; it does engage in the magical negro trope. While she is a valued and major character throughout the novel, she is also the family servant—paid servant—but still uncomfortable. Since the novel is southern gothic horror, to drill down further into the subgenres, and was published in 1981, it’s about as progressive as a story set in Alabama at that time could be with that setting.

This next point is hard to make without spoiling too much, but here goes without much context. There is a part in the later story where characters have left the site of the haunting, and they know something supernatural is happening, and it’s scary. Yet, they calmly discuss how they’re going to go back, anyway. It’s loosely explained that they suspect something supernatural is happening to them that lessens the horror to convince them to go back. None of that works for me. It’s clunky, and it feels a bit like cheating because the plot demands they return. This is really the only major black spot on the banana for me regarding the plot of this book.

In any horror story, there are always a couple of questions that need to be addressed to maintain the status quo with the audience and get them to maintain their suspension of disbelief. Chief among these questions is, why don’t they just leave? So when your characters have left, and then go back, there needs to be a hell of a compelling reason for why they made that choice—and it kind of gets hand waved in this novel.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

At the beginning of the novel, the family is gathered together for a private funeral service. Marian Savage had died, and it’s the family custom that their funerals are private affairs—and for a good reason. The only reason some of the McCrays are there is that Leigh McCray had married a Savage, and both families are closely tied together because they’re the kind of wealthy people who are joint owners of their own private island. The funeral concludes with the most unsettling family tradition, Marian’s children drive a dagger into her corpse’s heart. To make sure she’s dead. It’s been a problem before.

Soon after, being that it was summer, most of the family head to Beldame for their summer vacation, which is the same place Marian had just succumbed to cancer and died. Not too many characters in the family liked Marian, again for a good reason. She was awful to her two living children, and the third had died in a boating accident near Beldame—noticing a pattern here? So they weren’t too broken up about the whole dagger in the heart business.

Starting slightly before the family heads out, and at Beldame, we as the audience spend most of our time with India and her father Luker, two of the McCrays that are the black sheep of the family because they live in New York. Initially dubious of spending her summer on a little coastal island off Alabama, India is quickly won over by the charm of Beldame. Almost immediately, she questions her father about the third house on the island, where nobody lives, and which seems to be in the process of being inexplicably consumed by a sand dune. Nobody wants to talk about it with India, and everyone else in the family seems to be okay with the idea of nature running its course—slowly destroying the neglected house.

Like her father, Luker, who is a professional photographer, India is an avid lover of photography and decides to take it upon herself to take pictures of the third house. Luker has no interest in this and doesn’t encourage her to follow through with the plan. Eventually, the family servant Odessa decides to answer some of India’s questions about the third house and even helps her to take her pictures.

India defied her father and climbed up the dune to look directly into the house, and it’s there she sees something she can’t explain, just like her father had when he was a kid.

After that run-in with the possibly supernatural, India avoids the third house for a while. The family settles into a comfortable daily routine, and the weeks pass in leisure. Then one day, India’s politician grandfather suddenly shows up at Beldame and shatters their peace. He’s come with a request that they all return home for a few days so that they can help him with his campaign. He’s also brought a man to talk to the Savages to convince them to sell their stake in Beldame, which doesn’t go over well with the rest of the family since India’s grandfather wants to sell their part of the island as well.

Back home, the family is annoyed and decides that they won’t go along with this scheme. So India’s Grandfather takes it upon himself to sneak back down to Beldame to burn down the houses, starting with the third house. The elementals kill him, of course, and then since he came down in secret, make it, so no one even knows he was there when the rest of the family returns.

Shortly after the family returns to the island, is when the truly intense supernatural things start to happen. The Savages’ house is inexplicably destroyed by sand, which appears to come from nowhere and consumes the mansion. Convinced that they should leave, the family is trapped because of high tide, and then when one of them tries to test the water to see if they could just swim away, they find that the water is boiling.

Finally, there is a showdown with the elementals in the third house, and a couple more family members are killed. However, with newfound insight gained from Odessa—in a genuinely grotesque manner of power transference, I’ll spare you the details here—India manages to help herself, her father, and the remaining family members to escape Beldame.


A family in a haunted house isn’t a new concept, even when this book was published. Even a family in a haunted house with some drama involved is pretty standard fare. Where this story shines is it’s a true family drama, spread across the interactions of characters spanning several generations—from parents to children, and grandchildren to grandparents, that’s what makes it unique.

McDowell also plays it opposite of a lot of standard conventions for this subgenre. Typically, the setting, the site of the haunting, is an unknown quantity to the characters. It’s the mystery that the characters are learning more about as the plot unfolds. In “The Elementals,” Beldame is the private family vacation retreat they’ve been accustomed to all their lives. So it’s all the more traumatic when this comfortable refuge suddenly turns on them.

I read something interesting regarding this story, specifically about India McCray, and now that it’s been pointed out to me, I can’t see her character any other way. It’s from Michael Rowe’s introduction, in the paperback version of the book, which I’m not proud to admit this, but I usually skip over introductions. He suggests that India is a prototype of Lydia Deetz from “Beetlejuice,” and on a second read-through of the novel, their similarities popped out to me in a way that I couldn’t fail to mention.     

Parting thoughts:

Michael McDowell also worked on two other things that nearly everyone is aware of—he wrote the screenplays for “Beetlejuice” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” and isn’t adequately remembered for either. We remember Tim Burton for both of those things, and Tim Burton—Mandela effect aside—while involved, didn’t actually direct the second one of those movies I mentioned.

So why do we remember Tim Burton more for these things than Michael McDowell? Well, other than as a society, we seem to value directors more than screenwriters—my personal theory is that Burton didn’t die from AIDS, and McDowell did. Moreover, McDowell died in 1999 from AIDS, and society wasn’t too good at being sympathetic to that yet, especially because it was often thought that AIDS only happened to gay people and promiscuous people—two groups who get shit on by the holier-than-thou mainstream throughout history.

McDowell was gay, but he was also a brilliant genre writer, and highly educated—he held a Ph.D. in English from Brandeis University—but because he was gay and died of AIDS, he was forgotten. I have always felt that just because one aspect of someone’s life was deemed distasteful—for real or imagined reasons—by the masses, that the idea that would cancel out all of the good works of that person’s life is an incredible waste. Michael McDowell is just one more example of how this moralizing trend throughout history, only to remember those who “fit” better with the story of our past, is tragic.

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