The Elementals

by Michael McDowell

If you read just one horror story this Halloween season, make it this one.

The Elementals is original, funny, literate AND scary. Horror story master Stephen King called Michael McDowell “the finest writer of paperback originals in America.”

The story opens with an unsettling ritual at the private funeral of Marian Savage, a wealthy, mean woman who presided over the Savage family.

In attendance are her only living son, Dauphin; her daughter, the nun Sister Mary-Scot; her best friend, Big Barbara McCray; her daughter-in-law, Leigh McCray Savage; Leigh’s brother, Luker; Luker’s daughter, India; and long-time family retainer Odessa Red.

Despite the fact that Marian Savage died there, the two families decide to go to Beldame, a traditional family summer retreat. The place is located on the eastern side of Mobile Bay, on a spit of land with a lagoon on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. It’s only accessible by driving across the sand and when the tide is high it becomes an island as the gulf spills into the lagoon.

Built in 1875 by Dauphin’s great-great-grandfather, Beldame consisted of three identical Victorian houses: one for himself and his second wife; one for his sister and her husband; and one for his daughter and her husband. Standing at right angles to one another, one faces the lagoon; another faces the Gulf of Mexico; the third looks out from a spit of land. The Savage family has always owned one house; the McCrays took possession of the second house in 1950; and the third was sold during the Depression and hasn’t been occupied since.

When India goes exploring on her first visit, she realizes that the blindingly white sands are swallowing the third house. A sand dune covers the entire front of the house up above the veranda roof. Peeking in the windows, she sees sand sliding inexorably into little piles inside the house.  She learns members of the two families and Odessa Red are afraid of the third house. But the womblike heat, the silence broken only by the soft slapping of the waves of the gulf against the beach are soporific and indolent. She lets her concerns about the house drift away.

The third house is definitely inhabited, but not by your usual ghosts and skeletons, its inhabitants are more terrifying and evil.

As Odessa tells India, “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 want 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 here, it wasn’t there yesterday, it’s not gone be there tomorrow. You stand by one of them doors thinking something’s behind it — nothing’s behind it.  It’s waiting for you upstairs, it’s waiting for you downstairs. It’s standing behind you.  You think it’s buried in the sand, why then it’s gone be standing behind that door after all! And you don’t ever know what it is you looking for.”

But to learn more, you’ll have to read the book.

Michael McDowell has created a vivid horror story in the blaze of the daytime sun and the beauty of the beach. This is an original through-and-through; there’s not a cliche to be found anywhere. He has created distinctive characters that you’ll remember for a long time.

The Author: Michael McDowell (1950 – 1999)

Born in Alabama, McDowell earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Harvard College and doctorate in English from Brandeis University.  His dissertation was entitled, “American Attitudes Toward Death, 1825-1865.”

He was a prolific writer and used multiple pseudonyms. Additionally, he wrote the script for “Beetlejuice” (1987) and collaborated on “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (1993) and “Thinner” (1996).

While he was best known for his Southern Gothic horror novels, he was also known from his ability to write novels with marked differences in tone, character and subject matter.

He wrote the six-book Blackwater series, and the three-book Jack and Susan series, which take place in different time periods. The latter has been described as being reminiscent of the Thin Man movies. A third series —Vermillion (1980), Cobalt (1982), Slate (1984) and Canary (1986) — were published under the name of Nathan Aldyne and featured Daniel Valentine and Clarisse Lovelace.  Writing as Axel Young, he wrote two psychological thrillers, Blood Rubies (1982) and Wicked Stepmother (1983) that parodied Sidney Sheldon-type suspense novels.

McDowell lived in Medford, MA, and had a house in Hollywood with his sister Ann and filmmaker Peter Lake.  His partner of 30 years was theater historian and director Lawrence Senelick. He had an extensive, diverse collection of death memorabilia that was acquired by Northwestern University in Chicago and went on display in 2013.


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