Book Review: The Elementals by Michael McDowell


The Elementals

by Michael McDowell

Edition: 2014 by Valancourt Books, 322 pages

Links: Goodreads, Amazon, Wordery, Book Depository

On a split of land cut off by the Gulf, three Victorian summer houses stand. Two of the houses at Beldame are still used. The third house, filling with sand, is empty…except for the vicious horror which is shaping nightmares from the nothingness that hangs in the dank, fetid air.

The McCrays and Savages have been coming to Beldame for years. This summer, with a terrible funeral behind them and a messy divorce coming up, they are looking forward to being alone at Beldame.

But they won’t be alone. For something there, something they don’t like to think about, is thinking about them…and about all the ways to make them die

“Marian Savage had not been overtaken happily.”

I’m pretty sure The Elementals is my first foray into the southern Gothic genre, and it did not disappoint.

Michael McDowell’s ability to capture how stifling and oppressive the heat is, is incredible. It only lends to the horror- the threat feels real for India especially, who is surrounded by family keeping the truth from her, and who’s suffering in the heat is greater than her family, who are used to the area. Even though Beldame belongs to their families, she still seems like an outsider in comparison, and I think being positioned with India rather than any other character makes the claustrophobia of the story all the more real.

I also think McDowell’s strength lies with not taking the obvious routes in plot. Characters gossip and talk about each other constantly, and even though they are all aware of it, none of them ever fall apart. McDowell places an emphasis on family and trust, on tradition, and he doesn’t employ cheap plot twists other authors would have just for the sake of drama. It always feels so consistent and even with the danger, the characters still have this safety blanket with one another, and you really do trust them as a unit throughout.

She’s got manners, but what has she got in the way of morals?” 

“Oh,” said Luker blithely, “she and I don’t have any morals.”

The characters and family are so three dimensional and developed, each with their own distinctive personalities. India and her dad, Luker, really stole the show every page they were on together. They have an unconventional father-daughter relationship, completely open and honest in a way that reminded me how I am with my mum, and it was heartwarming seeing such a different but no-less loving bond between these two. Every interaction you can see how similar they are, especially when Big Barbara talks to them both and loses her temper at their language use.

“Luker,” exclaimed Big Barbara, grabbing a handful of his toes and twisting them, “I do not understand why you talk so mean about the woman who was my best friend in the world.” 

“Because she was the meanest bitch that ever trod the streets of Mobile.” 

It’s also fascinating seeing how close two families can be. The death of Marian Savage looms over both throughout the novel, a figure who comes back to haunt the characters. The space others have left is felt intensely by all the characters: Mary-Scot, Dauphin’s sister, is a nun who turned to religion following trauma she suffered as a child; and Darnley, the eldest Savage, was lost in the gulf when they were children. The Savage’s, while beloved to the McCray’s, have tragedy rooted in their history, and it’s this that I feel materialises as the rot destroying Beldame.

We have the literal villains- Lawton, Big Barbara’s husband, is a politician disliked by most of the family, who tries to interfere with the life they have in both Beldame and in their usual home. However, the evil that resides within Beldame is the true villain of this story.

“Savage mothers eat their children up!”

While I did enjoy the intensity of the last few chapters, it all seemed to go at an accelerated pace that doesn’t mesh as well with the build up and it definitely loses the hold it had over me towards the end. I also didn’t really enjoy seeing the evil up close: having it remain mysterious, up until the end, would have been a more appealing ending for me. However the last few lines were incredible, and the more I think on it, the more I love the ending.

This is a claustrophobic southern Gothic novel, with incredibly written characters who give a life to the horror haunting them. It’s chilling, while still being stifling under the heat, and McDowell is a highly underrated horror author who deserves more love than I see readers give him, especially those who enjoy horror.

RATING: 🍎🍎🍎🍎.25





3 thoughts on “Book Review: The Elementals by Michael McDowell

  1. Pingback: Mid-Year Book Freak Out Tag! – seasonsofwords

  2. Pingback: Book Review: I Call Upon Thee by Ania Ahlborn – seasonsofwords

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell – seasonsofwords

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