The Horror Show: Michael McDowell combines Southern Gothic and a haunted house tale in The Elementals

“The dead don’t come back,” says Dauphin Savage, the third richest man in Mobile, Alabama, about halfway through Michael McDowell’s quietly creepy 1981 novel The Elementals. It’s a weirdly decisive declaration in a novel that is haunted with the spirits of the dead right from its first pages. The novel opens with a prologue detailing one of the more bizarre funerals ever to appear in a work of literature. Marian Savage, the family matriarch, has died of cancer. At the funeral, her son Dauphin and his sister, Mary-Scot (who is both a biological sister to Dauphin and a religious sister, having taken vows and entered the convent), approach the open casket containing their mother, where Mary-Scot draws a ceremonial dagger and the siblings proceed to stab the corpse in the chest.

It transpires that the strange ritual is part of Savage family history. One of the family’s ancestors was buried with her stillborn child, only the mother was not dead. When the body was exhumed it was discovered that the woman who had been buried alive had eaten her child for sustenance. Ever since, the family has performed a symbolic act at funerals to ensure that the corpse they are about to inter is actually dead.

This is obviously a macabre opening for a novel, but it sets the tone early, laying the groundwork for a reading experience steeped in dread and haunted by death and the departed.

The Elementals is not precisely a ghost story, though it does have a haunted house at its centre. Three, to be exact: the three identical Victorian homes that comprise Beldame, a property shared by the scions of the Savage and McCray families. The Savages occupy one house, the McCrays – Luker McCray and his thirteen-year-old daughter, India; Leigh Savage (née McCray, Luker’s sister and Dauphin’s wife); and Leigh and Luker’s alcoholic mother, Big Barbara McCray – the second. The third house has been rendered uninhabitable by the incursion of sand that has formed a dune reaching to the building’s upper floors.

Upon the families’ arrival at Beldame for a short respite following Marian’s funeral, India becomes increasingly fascinated with the third house, demanding to hear stories of its provenance from Odessa, the Savage’s longtime live-in housekeeper. A series of strange events and encounters unfolds, leading India to believe that there is someone – or something – living in the third house.

McDowell, who is best known as the screenwriter behind Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas, became known as a writer of quality paperback horror during the boom of the 1970s and ’80s, largely as a result of his 1979 debut, The Amulet. That book followed the cursed piece of jewellery in the title, which kills whomever possesses it. The origin of the novel is intriguing: McDowell was riffing on baroque ways to die, then built a story around those scenarios. The result is an unfortunately episodic, programmatic novel that anticipates the formula in the Final Destination film franchise of the 1990s, though it is infused with a propulsive excitement and pulp sensibility that keeps the pages turning.

Unquestionably a stronger novel on a technical level, The Elementals is a slow burn, eschewing the noisy gore scenes of the earlier book in favour of a low-key, moodier presentation. The result is more refined but somehow less energizing; the novel takes its time getting to where its going and the interest lies in the details McDowell provides on the level of character and, most especially, setting.

McDowell’s evocation of Alabama in the summer is brilliant: the sweltering heat, the pristine white of the Gulf Coast sands, the live oak and sea roses are all beautifully rendered. A description of the setting from early in the novel is worth quoting at length:

Their way lay south through the interior of Baldwin County, down a narrow unshaded secondary road that was bordered by shallow ditches filled with grass and some ugly yellow flower. Beyond the low ramshackle fences of post or wire lay vast fields of leguminous crops that hugged the ground and seemed very cheap and dusty and to have been planted for some reason other than an ultimate ingestion by either man or cattle. The sky was washed out almost to whiteness, and wispy clouds hovered timorously at the horizon on every side, but hadn’t the courage to hang directly above. Now and then they passed some sort of house, and whether that house was five or a hundred years old, its front porch sagged, its sides had been blistered by the sun, its chimney leaned precariously. Dilapidation was consistent, as was the apparent absence of all life. Even India, who had little enough expectation of the excitement of the rural existence, found it remarkable that she had seen not a living thing for fifteen miles: not man, woman, child, dog, or carrion crow.

The exactitude and lyricism in the writing here is almost hypnotic, lulling the reader into a state of almost unconscious submission, the more susceptible to the undercurrent of dread that McDowell inserts into his narrative. Small details that seem like throwaways – the road leading to Beldame is called Dixie Graves Parkway – contain elements of frisson that register just below the surface, creating a cumulative sense of unease as the story makes its languorous way forward.

Eerie events and incidents begin to accumulate: Dauphin sees his dead mother on waking one morning (he later convinces himself it was a dream); India photographs the third house and when the pictures are developed, spectral figures have appeared in them; Odessa mixes her blood and India’s into sand from the dune which she then bakes into biscuits and serves to the family. All of this is leading – slowly, inexorably – to the revelation of what is living in the third house and a final showdown with the Elementals of the title.

Southern Gothic tropes abound: the obscenely wealthy family dealing with the slings and arrows of mortality and grief, the alcoholic mother, the sprawling family estate with a shadowy history. Elsewhere, McDowell gives in to cliché, as in the stereotyped presentation of Odessa, who fills the role of the wise Black seer (the same role that Hallorann plays in Stephen King’s novel, The Shining). Still, Odessa is one of the book’s most active characters, and her understanding of the Elementals’ nature places her in a position of power over her white employers. When she tells India, “If anything happens … eat my eyes,” the moment is truly chilling. (Horror fiction aficionados will recognize this as the genre equivalent of Chekhov’s gun.)

McDowell’s novel is a frequent fixture on lists of the best horror novels of the 20th century and while it lacks the sheer anarchic energy of The Amulet (or, for that matter, Beetlejuice), it is nevertheless a solidly constructed, well written example of a Southern Gothic–haunted house hybrid. It’s the kind of book that people can hold up proudly as an example of a horror novel that displays evident literary quality. Close to forty years after its initial publication, it remains a creepily effective, though deliberately paced, supernatural chiller.

The Horror Show: Michael McDowell combines Southern Gothic and a haunted house tale in The Elementals
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