Saturday, September 21, 2013

Review: Michael McDowell's "The Elementals"

Scary face!
Book review time! People don't read enough books. Why? Probably for the same reason that underlies most human behavior: appalling ignorance. Luckily for you squishy-brained apelings, I'm here to chip away at the horrible granite block of Ignorance and point you toward some classic works of literary horror. Today, thanks to a vote from the reading public, I'll be taking a look at Michael McDowell's The Elementals.
Fans of Tim Burton and obscure trivia might recognize Michael McDowell as the writer of the first and much darker draft of Beetlejuice, but clever rats like me and honorary rat Stephen King1 know him as the creator of some of the finest Southern horror ever to see print. His work is often labeled Southern Gothic, but since I've never been able to find two people who can agree on exactly what Gothic horror is, I'm just going to avoid talking about that. His main works3 are all well grounded in the South, though, whether the beasts of a particular nightmare are supernatural forces (as in The Elementals or The Amulet) or just your fellow primates behaving in that uniquely horrible, uniquely human way that you all comfort yourselves by calling "inhuman" (Gilded Needles or Toplin).
The Elementals begins with two very different families, united by friendship and eventually by marriage, coming together for a funeral. The Savages are proper old-school Southern quasi-aristocrats, steeped in tradition and secrets; the McCrays are bold and brash, none more so than matriarch Big Barbara, happily drinking her way through life. Dauphin Savage and Leigh McCray, who united the bloodlines in marriage, are there; even Barbara's son Luker and his precocious daughter India, refugees who fled Alabama for the Manhattan nightlife years ago, have come back to the Gulf Coast to bid their farewells to the late and unlamented Marian Savage.
After the creepy funeral and some horrific talk of Savage family history, the two families retire for a lengthy getaway at Beldame, three ornate Victorian houses built on a little spit of land that sticks out into the Gulf of Mexico. Far from any sign of civilization, its isolation is increased twice a day when high tide swamps the only road and turns Beldame into an island. The Savages and McCrays each traditionally occupy one of the houses on their yearly outings, while the third house... well, no one goes into the third house anymore. It's slowly disappearing under the dunes, the gleaming white sand of the Gulf drifting relentlessly over it. And if there's something in that house, something living in the sand that's poured in through the broken windows? Probably nothing to really worry about. The Savages and McCrays have been coming to Beldame for years, and nothing horrible has ever happened, give or take. Sure, there's been the occasional death or disappearance, but nobody could ever prove the third house had anything to do with it. You don't stay out of the ocean just because there might be a shark or two swimming around somewhere out there, do you? Just use your common sense and everything will be fine.
This is why The Elementals is one of the scariest books I've ever read. You see, all monsters have rules. They may seem invincible at first, but no matter how much of a bad-ass the beastie of the week might be, sooner or later the survivors-so-far are going to huddle around a professor or grimoire or crotchety old-timer and ask, How do we kill it? Learning the monster's rules changes the narrative from human smorgasbord to heroic battle. It turns an unstoppable supernatural killing machine into a problem to be solved, one more trophy over humanity's fireplace. Find the monster's rules, and you're halfway to victory and a sweet freeze-frame high-five.
What happens, though, when you meet a monster who knows you're looking for its rules, a monster that's perfectly happy to let you outrun it, knowing you'll be back some day with a smug spring in your step and no clue just how fast it really is? A ravenous fiend that wants to eat your face is one thing, but a patient fiend that wants to fuck with you? That is no fun, and that's what's waiting in the third house.
One thing McDowell does very well indeed is evoke a strong sense of place. The placid Gulf, the blank white expanses of sand, and above all the third house always looming in the background are vivid and real, a well-lit stage for the horrors to come that nevertheless feels haunted by shadows and the things that hide in them. Draped over it all is the crushing heat of the Gulf Coast summer, a constant presence that practically steams right off the page, affecting anything that anyone does during the day, and even much of the night. The dread that steadily escalates under this suffocating blanket of humid air gives everything a nightmarish quality, like a sneak preview of the knee-deep molasses you're going to have to wade through when the monsters finally run out of patience.
Now that I've convinced you that you need to read this book, how can you get one? Find a copy here! Then read it, and get ready for the next review, because you've got a lot of catching up to do.

1. Stephen King called Michael McDowell "the finest writer of paperback originals in America today2."
2. That particular today was in 1985.
3. He wrote under several different pseudonyms, but all his horror novels were released under his own name.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Coming Attractions!

Hey, look! It's a whole new Web-exclusive too-hot-for-TV promo for next week's episode! That episode, by the way, will be "The Manster", in case you're too lazy to watch the video. Slacker.

Saturday, September 7, 2013


Ian watched from his slouch in the backyard hot tub as lights snapped on one by one in the windows of the house he was being paid to watch over for the week, the house that had been empty a few minutes ago. Behind the curtains of each room, gaunt silhouettes leaned and shifted uncertainly, moving with the sluggishness of the prematurely awakened. When he heard the latch of the patio door click open, he tried to make himself as small as he could, hunkering down in the churning water, but not too far, because there was no way he wasn't going to finish off this bowl before whatever was about to happen happened.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Got the 'Bies

OK, so I've got a parody of DEVO's "Girl U Want" trying to get out of my head, one that would tell the story of Old Yeller. So far, I've got what I believe to be the emotional core of the work:
Look at him with his mouth foamin' up!
Look at him with his eyes spinnin'!
Why don't you just admit it's all over?
Old Yeller's got the 'bies!
This obviously raises the question, What the sweet pale hell is wrong with me? I do not know. I know that I fear to continue, for were I to succeed, then there would be, extant in our world, a parody of DEVO's "Girl U Want" that tells the story of Old Yeller, and if that's possible, then you have to ask yourself what the fuck else might be possible and the next thing you know your neurons are reconfiguring into eldritch alignments and whoops! here come the Great Old Ones tearing their way back into our world through your neural net, and as the director of the porn parody of Star Wars said to the confused actor in the cantina orgy scene, FUCK THAT.

Monday, September 2, 2013


Penelope was feeling pretty good about her first few steps toward a new "under her own control" life, and it wasn't until the crescendoing shriek of the town's emergency siren, carried through the afternoon on a bed of choking black smoke laced with screams of agony, was cut off by a shuddering roar that cracked half of her carefully polished windows that the first traces of doubt creeped into her thoughts. Had she been cowardly to invoke the wrath of Zalgrath the Devourer upon the entire town just to avoid the awkwardness of quitting her job at the county records office with no notice?

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Rave in the Cave

The steady thrum of club music was sometimes loud, sometimes faint, but always somewhere just ahead as Mark stumbled through the damp tunnels, chasing the dimming white circle cast by his flashlight. The tattered printout of directions to the so-called "Cattacombe Rayve" he clutched in one hand had stopped being useful the fourth or fifth time he'd face-planted into the thin layer of water that covered the irregular floor, but he refused to let go. As long as he was holding it, he could cling to the hope of finding his way out again.
   He was sure he must be getting close, if only because there couldn't be too many more tunnels he hadn't already explored. The music was definitely growing steadily louder, and he picked up his pace as he stepped around one last unremarkable corner to find himself face-to-face with a pair of hunched, goatish figures, lounging against brick walls on either side of the path, long-faced, hairy and reeking of blood. They looked him up and down, red eyes gleaming. "All right, this gotta be the last one. So full can barely fuckin' move," croaked the slightly fatter one.
   The slightly larger one belched and added, "Gotta love Craigslist," before slapping a hand on a battered boombox, silencing the dubsteb that filled the air, the diminishing bass echoes fleeing through the maze of passages. The cheap radio tipped forward from its precarious perch atop an untidy pile of the chewed and torn remains of party-seekers, slipping down the slope to rest in a tangle of organs. Mark was still staring blankly at it, desperately trying to find just one thing in this scene he could make sense of, when a gnarled fist slammed into his skull. He dropped, the world spinning. As he lay immobile on the chill concrete, his brain decided against his will to start counting the individual heads, cracked open and wetly gaping, scattered in front of him, but a second blow that came swooping lazily down from out of the dark put a merciful stop to that.