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Review: The Elementals

The Elementals   Michael McDowell, 1981.

The Elementals is an exquisitely written horror novel.

Following the death of his unpleasant matriarch, gentle Dauphin Savage, his wife Leigh McCray, and their housekeeper Odessa pack up and take a take a trip out to the remote family summer place, Beldame, to reminisce and recover.

Beldame stands isolate and alone on the Alabama Gulf Coast: bordered by the Gulf on one side, a lagoon on the other, and empty white dunes facing west. At high tide, the Gulf flows into the lagoon and turns Beldame into an island. There is nothing to do there. No neighbors to meet. No television. No air conditioning. All is heat and white light and waves and lassitude.

Joining them at Beldame are Leigh’s mother, Big Barbara, and Leigh’s brother Luker along with his thirteen-year old daughter India.  It is India’s first time visiting Beldame.

At Beldame, each branch of the family has an identical old Victorian home. One for the Savages. One for the McCrays. And one nobody goes into. Or talks about.

Slowly but inexorably, the white sand is swallowing this third house.

While the family memories of Beldame seem to be nothing but happy, there is a disconnect: each visitor except India carries a deeply-buried psychological scar from…things…they may have seen in the empty building.

Young India is fascinated by the third house and intrigued by the mysterious and seemingly superstitious knowledge about it that Odessa possesses. India’s curiosity helps set the coming fearful events in motion.

McDowell’s sense of place is vivid and immediate. The lack of sound, the shades of light, and the dominant, ceaselessly shifting sand, almost physically put the reader at Beldame. And it all gets into your head.

Like an island itself, The Elementals is an insular piece with a small cast brought strikingly to life. Their dialogue wraps around you and includes you in the family. You almost start to believe that you have your own summer memories of Beldame; you feel that close to the land and the household.

The Elementals is a slow burn. It paradoxically creates an overwhelming sense of languor with an undercurrent of extraordinary tension. Small terrors jolt and startle like heat lightning, leading up to a shocking storm of a finale. This is beautifully written horror: it leaves you feeling washed out, as after a receding tide, and wanting to read the book again immediately. Don’t miss this one.