Friday, January 29, 2021

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

One month down, Obscurists, and for today’s review, I thought we’d revisit Michael McDowell and take a look at his debut novel, “The Amulet,” a cross somewhere between occult horror and southern gothic, leaning more toward the occult.

Michael McDowell

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

What I love about this book:

I love a good commercial horror story, which this is, and was all McDowell had said he aspired to be as a writer when he was alive. I’ve said this before, but I’m a big believer in fiction for fiction’s sake. And while I think the art side of writing is important too, it feels like sometimes we can get into spirals of who can out sophisticate each other. I’d feel remiss not to point out that sophisticate or sophisticated are words related to the word sophist, which when you boil it down basically means clever-sounding idiot. The more you know, as brought to you by this clever-sounding idiot.

In the first two-thirds of the book, the core story is tightly told about a cursed object that Sarah Howell is trying to retrieve to prevent it from causing any more death and destruction. I admire the simplicity, directness, and how easily understood the plot is from the beginning through the middle. The amulet is cursed. It drives anyone who wears it to murder, and then an untimely accident kills the bearer. Then after someone else inevitably picks it up, it moves on.

The scenes with Sarah’s husband—a victim of a horrible accident that has left him in a vegetative state—and his mother—possibly a witch—are some of my favorite scenes in this book. This isn’t so much a spoiler but the inciting action of the story because it’s Sarah’s mother-in-law who introduces the amulet in this narrative in the first place. So it was interesting for me when Sarah would confront her to see how much she knew about this cursed piece of jewelry.

What I don’t love about this book:

The plot is fast-paced, but toward the end, it felt like McDowell was just looking to write more and more outlandish death scenes with little contribution to the plot. I know I’m boring, but I like it when a story adheres to the rules and modes of action it establishes early on. If the plot in “The Amulet” is a car McDowell is driving, then towards the end, it feels like he turns to us in the audience to say, “rules are for losers,” only to then drive us off a cliff. So—I didn’t like the end, which is a bummer for me because endings are my favorite parts of stories.

Additionally, if you think the end will answer any questions or tie up some loose plot threads, I hate to break it to you, but no. This is fine if the story’s point is for you to question the reality constructed in the story, or there will be a sequel building off those loose ends, but again, no such luck here.

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

The quick and dirty synopsis:

In the prologue, we meet Dean Howell, recently drafted into the army to fight in Vietnam, but before he’s deployed, his job is to test rifles at Fort Rucca. It’s especially galling to him because he feels he was supposed to get a job at the factory that manufactures the rifles. After all, they come from his hometown of Pine Cone. A job at the factory would have exempted him from the draft. He never has to worry about getting shot in Vietnam because one of the rifles he was testing explodes in his face, horribly injuring him and leaving him in a vegetative state.

The real story begins with Sarah Howell—Dean’s young new wife—who does work for that factory and is now the sole breadwinner of the family consisting of her, her inert husband, and his terribly spiteful mother. Dean is brought home, such as he is capable of being “home.” Sarah is expected to do all the housework, the cooking, and maintain her job at the factory. All of this, while her mother-in-law explains to her how she isn’t doing enough.

Then one day, shortly after Dean is brought home by the army, he is visited by his friend, a manager at the factory that Sarah works at, and who Dean thought would get him a job there as well. Dean’s mother clearly blames this man for her son’s condition but acts friendly during the visit and even gives him an expensive-looking piece of jewelry to give to his wife. He takes the amulet home and gives it to his wife. She puts it on, and later that night, she poisons the whole family at dinner and then burns down the house killing the entire family and herself.

The next day, the amulet is picked up by a police officer’s daughter, who gives it to her mother, who again puts it on, kills her husband, and dies from an accident. The daughter is spared, though, and her uncle and aunt come to Pine Cone to oversee the funeral and take custody of their niece. The aunt puts on the amulet, and on the drive out of Pine Cone, you can probably guess where this is going. At this point, Sarah and her friend Becca start trying to track down the amulet to stop it from spreading from person to person to destroy it before it can cause any more heartache.

But the amulet, being a cursed object with a seeming will of its own, gets around. It somehow always seems to be a step ahead of the girls. Tragedy strikes, though, when Becca’s daughter finds it in her mother’s purse and gives it to her and—in a very improbable accident—it somehow ends up on Becca’s neck. She then kills her daughter before driving Sarah and herself off to work at the factory—where they make GUNS!

You’d be excused if you’d think shooting spree was what was going to happen next because that’s logically the next story beat. But no, for whatever reason, McDowell doesn’t do that. Sarah notices her friend has the amulet on when they take their station, then they have a bit of a chase where Sarah tries to get it off her friend, but Becca eludes her only to get crushed to death in the machinery of the factory. Then the factory machinery and the buildings themselves on campus start killing all of the workers inside—because of the amulet? Anywho, Sarah survives long enough to go home and murder her husband. It isn’t clear what, if anything, she does to her mother-in-law, who kicked off all of this nonsense in the first place.


Early on, someone gets the amulet and usually doesn’t put it on right away, or they do, and the madness it bestows on the wearer doesn’t immediately manifest into homicide. That isn’t true in the last third of the book. This is disconcerting and disorienting because McDowell makes it at least plausible how the amulet gets from person to person at the beginning of the story. But by the end of the story, the amulet is racking up a body count with such rapidity and volume that Jason Vorhees would be impressed.

My greater point here is that while the end is a lot of fun in the schlock horror kind of way—it takes a turn into the ridiculous. That softening of the plot undercuts the dramatics with the protagonists. It’s especially evident when we get to the scene at the end on the factory floor. When the whole factory has become some kind of gothic horror style haunted building bent on killing its occupants, there is undoubtedly horror in that, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. After Becca is crushed by machinery, the amulet is shown making its way along with the conveyer belts and elsewhere through the building’s guts, but does this really constitute as a building wearing a necklace? If so, why does the office building next door start killing the management team?

Then there is the ultimate ending, where Sarah goes home after this disaster and kills her husband. It’s hinted that maybe the amulet somehow got on her. Her mother-in-law thinks so, at least, but it’s never answered. The story just ends. It doesn’t feel like a cliffhanger ending; it just feels like McDowell came to a stop and ceased writing.

Parting thoughts:

Compared to the “Blackwater” series and “The Elementals,” “The Amulet” is a far weaker story. It’s got its enjoyable supernatural horror elements, but it’s ultimately far inferior in the character work than any of those stories, which is a pity. The dialogue is certainly there, but the people themselves are thin in dimension.

I get that I’m going down a bit harsh here, and to flip the script, it’s worth noting that “The Amulet” is Michael McDowell’s first novel. From here, to “The Elementals” to “Blackwater,” he bloomed in talent. There is an argument to be made here that my expectations were set too high for his debut novel. A fair one, too, because of my experience with his later works.

When I try to see past those books and judge this book as a debut novel, I can see its charms a little better. I did, after all, enjoy most of it, despite the dumb ending. Plus, it provides excellent context on where an author I much admire started off, and it allows me to better understand how he grew over his career, which is something I enjoy about reading books. I don’t know if you’ve guessed this about me, but I have read a few of them, books that is, in my time.

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